Nathalie Emmanuel: “Before ‘Thrones’, I nearly quit acting to finish my A-levels”

From Hollyoaks to Hollywood – how the British star overcame humble beginnings to boss the box office

Nathalie Emmanuel has come a long way from Hollyoaks. Since leaving the long-running soap in 2010, she’s hopped over to Westeros for Game of Thrones, toured the globe with the Fast and Furious crew, and will soon head to a futuristic New York for director Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Megalopolis. She’s been very busy, she agrees via Zoom call from a swanky hotel room, but it wasn’t always this way.

“I was really unemployed for a while. I was working in retail and on zero-contract hours minimum wage just trying to get every shift I could,” she says. It was an uneasy time, post-quitting Channel 4’s fictional northwest town but pre-being cast in the biggest TV show ever. As Missandei, loyal aide to the Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen, she rightfully won acclaim for her sensitive portrayal of a slave turned queen’s advisor who speaks 19 languages. She’s matter of fact about the reality of not coming from the same kind of privilege as many of her peers, saying: “I come from humble beginnings, I didn’t have wealthy parents to fund my creative dreams. It’s what a lot of actors experience unless they’re lucky enough to be born into the right family.”

“I didn’t have wealthy parents to fund my creative dreams”

She brought this kind of life experience to new film The Invitation, a modern feminist twist on Bram Stoker’s Dracula set within a ghoulish estate in the English countryside where murder and secrets lurk behind every rickety door. Emmanuel plays the lead, Evie, a working class American woman with no living relatives who discovers she’s related to an aristocratic family. She is seduced by Walter who, with his jawline cut from marble, is a lot sexier than he sounds. But given this is adapted from the most famous vampire story of all, it doesn’t take a genius to work out things might not end well.

Interestingly, Emmanuel’s character has quite a lot in common with Meghan Markle – they’re outsiders and women of colour entering a very white dynastic institution where certain behaviours are expected of them. “I have felt like that my entire life so I understand that,” says Emmanuel. “It was an idea that was very obviously interrogated within this film because Evie is the antithesis of every other character.”

Nathalie Emmanuel
CREDIT: Getty

The Invitation also looks at class and gender roles through a genre lens – and this is what interested the politically thoughtful Emmanuel in the first place. She talks passionately about representation on screen and also about making sure there is diversity of thought in all areas of the creative process. It’s a conversation she became central to during the final season of Game of Thrones when Missandei – the only leading woman of colour in the show and a former slave – was graphically decapitated while in shackles. There was huge online backlash to the scene which she now calls “fair”.

Reflecting on the furore, Emmanuel says she is glad that the conversation bubbled up. “I think her killing really speaks to how there can be more than one person of colour on these big budget shows,” she says. “I think when we do these shows in the future, we need to have this idea of inclusion at the forefront and a diversity of thought and ideas all the way up the chain.” She points to Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, with Steve Toussaint and Sonoya Mizuno among the main cast, as an example of change happening before our eyes.

Game Of Thrones was never the show that pleased everybody”

Missandei’s death wasn’t the only thing about Thrones’ climax to stir up trouble, of course. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who was totally satisfied with its controversial ending, which saw Jon Snow murder his beloved Daenerys and 18-year-old Bran Stark claim the Iron Throne – and Emmanuel agrees that it was divisive. She’s spoken to fans on both sides of the fence, but she does take umbrage with the idea Game of Thrones could have ever wrapped up smoothly: “It was never the show that pleased everybody or had happy endings. When was it ever doing what everyone wanted it to?

“Watching it as Nathalie the fan, I have my favourite characters and my own ideas about what happened to them or who I would love more time with.” It’s this level-headed approach that has served her so well in recent years, as her career has blossomed from small time soap actor to one of Hollywood’s most in-demand names. If she keeps going the way she is, Nathalie Emmanuel may never be out of work again…

Hey Nathalie, what did you make of The Invitation when you first read it?

Nathalie Emmanuel: “I thought it was a really cool idea to have a female-centric vampire movie. But also that it was using a story that’s very old – Dracula’s been told for hundreds of years – but then reimagining it and smashing it into a modern day setting with a modern day woman. We really get to interrogate some issues and situations that are very current.”

Nathalie Emmanuel
Emmanuel plays the lead in new horror ‘The Invitation’. CREDIT: Alamy

Your character, Evie, is an outsider entering a traditional institution – could you relate?

“Yes, it’s that idea of very old traditions and institutions and being someone who is completely outside of that. Evie is the only woman of colour, she’s American, she’s very independent and forthright, she doesn’t come from money.”

So it was easy to get into Evie’s headspace?

“I think I felt quite connected to her. She’s this creative who’s come from humble means, she knows the ‘artist struggle’ and I’ve had my own experiences with that. When it came to experiencing or portraying the violence and brutality in the film I had to expose myself to some things to help me find that terror, because it’s hard to comprehend. It was challenging to portray trauma all day – emotionally, mentally, physically – but it was very rewarding in the long run.”

Game Of Thrones
As MIssandei in ‘Game Of Thrones’. CREDIT: HBO/Alamy

You mentioned creative struggles, how did you overcome those?

“It was post-Hollyoaks. I was working in retail and on zero-contract hours minimum wage just trying to get every shift I could. I wasn’t earning money as an actor. I would never change a single thing about it but at one point, it kind of got to me. I started to think this wasn’t the career for me and I wanted to go and finish my A levels.”

So many British actors of colour – yourself, Idris Elba, Daniel Kaluuya, John Boyega – have had to go to the US to find work, why is that?

“It’s frustrating, but it’s in no way surprising. In America, where they don’t know the things that you’ve done, they just want to know you’re the best person for the part. They don’t care that you were in a soap once.The British film industry has some way to go in that respect because I think it took me going to the US and getting work there to see the boxes I was put into didn’t matter.”

Nathalie Emmanuel
Hacker Ramsey is Emmanuel’s role in the Fast and Furious franchise. CREDIT: Alamy

One of your Hollywood roles is in the Fast and Furious films, as hacker Ramsey – what’s that been like?

“It’s a very testosterone-driven set but they’re all really good people. I love that as those movies are progressing, more and more women are being bought in and more women are starting to equal if not outnumber the guys on the set.”

There hasn’t been many women of colour hackers in the history of cinema…

“Exactly. The fact that she’s a woman of colour in tech and a computer genius running these operations with big muscle cars and big muscle men is badass. I live for that. If any young girl who wants to get into tech or computers, maybe not hacking, thinks, ‘oh yeah, I can do that,’ then that makes me really happy.”

What can you tell us about your next film, Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis?

“Not much! It’s a really big, big movie with big ideas. His films are operatic, and this is no exception. I think that it’s going to be quite timely.”

‘The Invitation’ is in cinemas now