It’s said that those born under the star sign of Pisces have a perception that borders on genius. We’re not sure how accurate that is, but actress Nathalie Emmanuel (born March 2, 1989) makes a pretty good case study.
It was her foresight, world grasp, and a few well-calculated risks that launched her from being a kid in the London production of The Lion King to becoming the hacker for an elite group of car racers in Furious 7. We got the chance to pull the Game of Thrones actress away from filming Fast 8 to chat about her come-up, as well as who she would choose to rule Westeros.
TUD: How did you decide to get into acting?
Nathalie Emmanuel: It was something I did for fun, really. My mom always encouraged us into doing performing arts like a hobby for fun. I happened to be quite shy outside of my family. I was one of those girls who I didn’t really like leaving my mom, and so she put me into singing and dancing and acting, so it helped me gain confidence. When I was 10 years old, I auditioned for The Lion King in the London production when it came from Broadway at the West End Theatre. It was the first big production that I had done and I absolutely had the best time. I was working with these amazing people, and they had the original creators of the show come to London and teach it to us, and it was incredible at 10 years old to see that. I think that was when I was like, “This is what I want to do for a job.”
And from there you did some TV work and then Game of Thrones. How’d you make the jump from theatre to TV to Game of Thrones to movies?
After I did The Lion King, I went to high school. My mom was quite strict about school and she made it very clear that if our grades weren’t good [then] we didn’t get to do the fun stuff like shows or singing. If it took me out of school for too long, I wasn’t allowed to do it, but I often did commercials because it was a couple of days shooting. When I turned 16, my mom was much more relaxed. In England, at the time, being in school was compulsory until the age of 16, and that changed two years ago, so after I turned 16 she was like, “Obviously, I want you to stay in school but I can’t make you stay in school” [laughs]. I chose to stay on anyway, but then I started auditioning so much more, and eventually I landed this role in a TV show. [It was] this teen, young adult show called Hollyoaks in the UK when I was 17, and I sort of left school early and tried that.
I managed to get on an episode of Misfits, which is this UK show that was really popular. It was actually the show where I worked with Iwan [Rheon] who plays Ramsey Snow on Game of Thrones. I worked with him briefly on my episode. Even though I was broke and working at a food shop and scrapping by, I had to be specific about what I wanted to do, and Game of Thrones — I was completely fixated by it, and I was always on my agent about [getting on the show]. And I thought, “You know what? I have to nail this.” I did my homework and I worked really hard on it. They had the audition the following week. I didn’t hear anything for like four or five weeks and I had already thought I hadn’t got it, then my agent called and said I had got it and I think I might have cried. I’m not sure. I know I screamed a lot, but that was it — going from Theatre to TV to Game of Thrones. I guess it was like planning, you know? [Picking] the right things put me on the fast track.
Was it a hard choice to leave school?
You know, it’s funny because I was always such a good student and I loved school. It was a really, really hard decision for me to do that. Sometimes you just have passions, you know, but when opportunities are presented to you, you find it hard to turn it down. Even now, I do regret a little that I didn’t finish school. It doesn’t mean I won’t at some point in my life extend my education further. At the same time, it was the best decision I ever made because it was the kind of experience that I had to grow up so fast. I left home all very wrapped up in my mom’s house to moving on my own in Liverpool, which is like a good four-or-five-hour drive from where I grew up, and suddenly I’m paying bills and paying rent and doing my laundry and cooking for myself and doing all these things for myself that I had never done before. I had chores and my mom taught me to cook, but having to take care of yourself was so daunting and so intimidating. It was like the greatest experience ever.
Let me backtrack a second. You said your mom taught you how to cook. What’s your favorite thing to cook?
Well, now I eat a vegan diet, so my diet has changed since I lived at home, but I really love Caribbean food. That’s what we used to cook at home a lot since my family is Caribbean. I have, like, a recipe for ackee and saltfish, but now I make it without the saltfish and that’s really yummy. And like rice and peas and steamed vegetables, and things like dumplings and plantains — it’s just so good.
How does it feel to play Missandei? Is it difficult?
At the end of the day, this character has survived slavery — like horrors most people couldn’t even imagine. But she’s strong and smart and quick-witted and kind, and she has not been left with a cold heart. I felt so empowered to play her and to get to make decisions for her, like, how does she feels about things. Because she has not been allowed to feel. Some of these things she is feeling for the very first time, freely. What does that mean for her as a human being? Not as this object or this piece of property she has been raised to believe she is. And that’s the question. All of these things that’s so interesting to me and how all the decisions I make for her, like to make her very careful, and all her reactions are so internal cause she has such this ingrained fear of messing up and ending up dead. She really is such a complex woman. And obviously she has a whole lot of sides to deal with as she would have been abused in such a way because she is a woman. The fact that she has survived all of this trauma and yet she’s now in a more prominent position and so I don’t know if she endured with that the likes of Grey Worm and the unsullied have, which is horrendous. But she has had her own hurdles to jump and she’s come through it and she just became this powerful person just because she survived with her own sense of survival and I think we don’t how incredible that is.
I know that a lot of people who know Game of Thrones and heard I was in it were like, “Oh, no, you’re playing a slave. What’s that about?” and I’m like, “No, no, you don’t get it.” She’s so much more. She’s like this incredibly intelligent, powerful woman, and she’s fiercely brave in her quiet little way. And when she becomes liberated, she’s acknowledged for her brilliance and that’s why Daenerys was like, “You know what, I’m going to take this girl.” She saw how smart she was and knew she knew the area she was in and she could advise her.
Let me ask you a serious question. While the cast is generally very diverse, people don’t last long in Westeros. You may be the only woman of color that has a prominent role on the show and has managed to stick around. How does that feel? Does it occur to you?
The books are loosely based and drawn from periods of history, like medieval times, and that I guess wouldn’t have been as diverse as the world we live in now, so that kind of reflects in the casting and the way it was written for the book. I came on to the show season three and there had been maybe two or three other actors of color that had some sort of African or Caribbean heritage. So I was really enthusiastic to come in and be one of the few women to come into the show who was a woman of color. I felt like that was another voice in a way and it was. Jacob Anderson [who plays Grey Worm] and I were talking at a festival last weekend, and we were talking about it and how it’s so incredible for us. When we first joined the show, it was just so vague how much we’ll be in it. It was like maybe three or five episodes for season three, but there was no talk of future seasons. There was no thought of this as an ongoing role for this show.
People have fallen in love with Missandei on Game of Thrones. How much of Missandei is you?
I think she’s a very gentle soul and she’s kind. She speaks when it’s necessary, when she has something important to say. I think it depends on what company I’m in. I definitely think what we do have in common is the fact that we are brilliant observers. I like how she sits and watches and listens and then when it’s necessary she asserts herself. I definitely tend to be much more in a way reserved, especially with people I don’t know. We haven’t seen Missandei in her off time, so we don’t know what she’s like when she’s in her private aspects with her friends. I know when I’m with my friends I’m very, very different.
You’re almost as mysterious as Missandei. Who is Nathalie outside of Game of Thrones? How are you in your off time?
I tend to be quiet. I can be a little bit of an introvert at times. I can be very happy in my own company, and I can spend quite a long time by myself and be quite content and that’s fine. I guess another thing I have in common with Missandei is I like reading. I definitely can’t speak 90 languages though. I definitely like reading. I’m really into yoga and eating healthy and things. I love to exercise. But when it really comes to my friends, I have a really small group of friends that are really close, like I can count on one hand. My sisters, we’re super close. My world, like my personal life, is really quite small and so sometimes I truly get too comfortable in that and it can be an effort for me to come and step outside, and I’m like, OK world, and interact with people. Like, now my favorite thing in the world to do is get up, make a cup of tea, and get on the sofa and watch something with my dog. It’s like I’ve completely turned into a 90-year-old woman, grown before my time, and it’s like I have my moments when I come out again and I’m like, “Yeah, it’s time to have a little dance,” then it’s over and I’m back in. It’s funny because it’s a far cry from the Nathalie in her early 20s and late teens.
It’s been said that the show will end in two more seasons. How do you picture the game ending?
I know how I’d like it to end. But how I think it will end, I couldn’t possibly tell you because it doesn’t matter how much I think I know what’s going to happen, it always manages to blow my mind until a new season comes out and then I’m like, OK, so I know nothing. I would love, because I’m so Queen Daenerys, that’s my homie, that’s my girl, I would love to see her sitting on the throne. I just think she has it all. Our little camp is cool; we have Peter being amazing and smart and hilarious and all these wonderful things, and I’d like to see her change the world. That would be cool.
I think she’s kind and been through such trauma and she knows, when it comes to slavery, because she was essentially sold herself for the advancement of men. So she empathizes and she feels like she has to fallback to this powerful position and she got there. And now she’s like, “I have this power, let me do something good with it.” And I think that’s what sets her apart, but at the same time, we’ve also got the Starks just being a powerhouse as well. The day they all get back together I think I’m just going to be so happy. I feel like the women are just kind of, especially this last episode [episode nine, season6], the women are running things a little bit and I feel it could potentially be for the better. [laughs]
I was about to say, the women of Westeros are running things now. It started off very male centric and now the guys have been moved to the side. Why do you think that’s happened?
Well, I think what it is is that we have a lot of strong women characters who have been seen a certain way and now they’re proving their worth and their nobility. And they’re rulers, not just wives and mothers, and are making huge power plays and not just trying to sort them out. That’s why, I absolutely love the scene with Daenerys and Theon and Yara and Peter [Tyrion]. Where they’re like, “Our fathers were evil men and they left this world worse than when they found it,” and they want to do something different. I think if you look at the Lannisters and other families it’s all about maintaining their power, not worrying about how it affects other people. And you’ve got these other families that are like, “We can make a difference.” And that’s why I would love to see Daenerys on the throne.
If you could have played any other character, who would it be?
That’s such a hard question … Arya. Because she got to do a lot of cool stunt stuff just in terms of what it involves, and like Arya would have to learn to fight with the sword. She had to do a lot of combat. I was recently doing an interview with Maisie for Good Morning America, and she was saying how this was the first time this season where she was, like, broken. But then she comes out of it. She’s just so phenomenal in that role. She just brings so much to it that I think if I could play a character like Arya, I would absolutely [love to play that character] for all the cool skills she’s probably learned and the varied dramatic story lines she had to play.
What do you do for fun?
When I’m at home, [what] I love more than anything else is to cook local food and enjoy all my favorite people, and sit and talk and eat and laugh and have fun together. That’s what I do for fun. But like other things, I love the theater. I love watching live music. There’s nothing like watching your favorite band play. I’m definitely a music festival fan.
Who’s your favorite band?
That’s a really hard question. Oh, I don’t really know. I love so many different musicians. I’m a fan of singer-songwriters. I like reggae. I like pop. I like UK grind or garage music. I like it all, house music, I’m into it all of it … but if I had to say like of all time, I would have to say I’m a big Lauryn Hill fan. Miseducation album by Lauryn Hill, I play that regularly even though it’s quite old now. I think she’s one of the best vocalist and, you know, word smiths, and I think she’s just unbelievably talented and so she would be up there. I love Bob Marley, and I also love India Arie. I love so many people I think I would be here all day. So going to see live music is really fun. And just hanging out with my people and my dog, who is just one of my favorite loves and beings.
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty