Tova: Hi and welcome to the backlot, I’m Tova Laiter moderator and director of the New York Film Academy Guest Lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about her experience in the entertainment industry. And now Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.
Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode we bring you an actress whose credits cover pretty much every corner of the entertainment globe. She rode shotgun with Vin Diesel in the Fast and Furious franchise, helped turn Kevin Hart into an action hero in Quibi’s Die Hart, voiced Deet in The Dark Crystal reboot and RSVP’ed to Four Weddings and a Funeral in Mindy Kaling’s reboot. But a lot of you might know her best as the Khaleesi’s BFF Missandei in Game of Thrones. We are talking about Nathalie Emmanuel. Like a number of us, Miss Emmanuel got her start as a kid playing an animal in a show, except hers was one of the biggest musicals of all time.
Nathalie Emmanuel: I actually just got into performing arts and dancing, singing, acting, it was just like a fun hobby. Like my mom wanted my sister and I to have, you know, extracurricular activities. And it was really just like a fun thing to do. And I was quite a shy kid. And so, you know, going to dance, going to acting classes and all of that kind of helped me build confidence away from her. I’m I was I am still a huge mommy’s girl. So, you know, being away from her was so traumatic as a kid. And she was like, I need to do something with this child. Like, she keeps breaking down every time I have to leave her anywhere. So with dance classes, singing, acting, it sort of helped me come out of my shell a bit. And then it just was this fun thing that we did. And like we used to have this newspaper in England called the stage. I don’t know if it still exists or if it’s just online now. And they used to post like auditions for shows, for commercials, for, you know, TV shows. It was crazy, like look through it. And my mom would circle the ones that weren’t like too huge commitments because she was quite particular about school. Yeah. And then I guess the sort of turning point for me was when I got cast in the stage show The Lion King, when it first moved to London, I was like 10 years old in this like huge production with all these incredible people like Julie Taymor was there to teach us the show, Lebo M. and all these incredible artists. And I think that’s when I went, oh, wow, yeah. This is what I want to do. I want to keep doing this. Whatever this feeling is, I want to keep doing it. And then and then I sort of got my big break, so to speak, in the UK when I’m 17. And I went and did a TV show. So that was pretty cool. And now I’m still here somehow.
Eric: Her big break was the long-running British soap Hollyoaks. But even after appearing on that show four years, Miss Emmanuel’s road to success was still far from a steady and straight line. In fact it was won with plenty of missteps and rejections.
Nathalie Emmanuel: How did I keep going? I mean, I have a wonderful support system. I have people that really believed in me, and I’m lucky enough that those people always kind of rallied around me even when I didn’t necessarily believe in myself in the way that I should or could at the time so, you know, I’m I’m incredibly grateful to many people for that support. And I think at one point I had to I was making the decision about whether to go back to school and do a degree and try and like, you know, have something else. And and the reason why I made that choice was because I was like I’m a smart person. Like, I can do other things that I enjoy. I have lots of interests. You know, acting is like a passion. That was also another creative outlet, to be fair. It was a very artistic thing. And then what happened specifically was like Game of Thrones happened. I was very much like, I’m going back to school and blah blah blah. And that happened. And my life is sort of like I feel that fate just decided that now wasn’t the time. And then, you know, there have been other times where I’ve been kind of discouraged and think, oh, you know, I feel like the parts that I’m being asked to audition for are just all really like, you know, is this is how people see me? And you know, it can really mess with your head and your self-esteem and things like that. And I have had to work really hard up positive affirmation and like telling myself that, you know, I decide who I am and I am in control of me and my career and like the things that I will do and that I won’t do. And, you know, and there’s like a confidence that comes with that even when you’re, like, really discouraged and you’re like, no, no, no. I need to figure out exactly what it is that I want from my career and from, you know, the parts that I do. And if this isn’t the thing that works out for me, I was like, the idea of giving up, like, obviously breaks my heart, but like, I’m a smart woman. I can do lots of other things. There are lots of things I’m passionate about. And my life I think has sort of taught me that you have to give yourself time and that just because things aren’t happening in the speed that you think is or comparison to someone else’s timeline doesn’t mean that it won’t or can’t happen. Maybe you just need to find a different way to it. And I think there’s a lot of solace in that thinking because you just can go, OK, before I get all panicked and start being unkind to myself with my words and my thoughts, what can I do that is proactive and positive, as opposed to, you know, the opposite.
So, there’s no guarantees in this game, but the way that we speak to ourselves and the way that we, you know, encourage ourselves really matters. And like I said, also having a support system and a community, because nine times out of 10, a lot of your peers are going through a similar thing. And you can find comfort with those people and take those risks together and bounce ideas off the wall. I also think like now, like young people with all the technology that we have now just at our fingertips, that people are making movies on mobile phones, which are making it into festivals, you know, and launching careers. And I think there is also something really great about going, OK, like, OK, maybe I write something, maybe I’ll get my friend who I know does sound or my friend that does cameras. Great. Like maybe if I’m like, let’s get this guy and we can just go and shoot something. It’s just about keeping pro-active and trying to generate something either within yourself or literally physically with a piece of work.
Eric: That attitude of making things happen and creating opportunities would eventually lead to Natalie Emmanuel’s biggest audition, a show that took her from working actor to star: Game of Thrones.
Nathalie Emmanuel: I had been harassing my agent about Game of Thrones, I was like, so this show, I need to I just really want if there’s ever anything, I’m right for for it. You have to let me know. And so when I got that audition, I phoned her up and I seen it on a casting sign of, like, Joe, you know I’ve seen it. You’ve got an audition on Wednesday. And I was like, yes. And it was just like very exciting. And then the reality dawned on me and I was like, OK, this is a show you really like and you really want this. You can overthink it and then, like, freak out and then just completely sabotaged yourself. So like I said, I just like did as much research as I could. I hadn’t got into the books yet, so – that’s not true. I’d read book one at that point and so I hadn’t met Missandei in the book. So I went online and the fandom really helped me with all the breakdowns of all the characters from all the books. And I found Missandei and where she came into the story. And I, I guess I made choices for her and I thought, well, this character is a child in the books and I was a woman, so I had to kind of just make choices. But that still carried the essence of that person that I was reading about online. And and I just tried to be as prepared as possible. And that’s kind of like, all I can do. The other thing with Missandei was they told me they were like, oh, no, we just want you to do a standard British accent. It doesn’t have to be. And I thought, you know what, this woman is from a different part of the realm and she’s speaking another language. Maybe I need to try and get like an accent that is like an accented English. And so I sort of prepared this accent that to be honest with you, I mean, I’ve no idea what it was even now, but I went into the audition and then we did the scene. And Robert, who is the casting director with Nina Gold, was like, oh, that was great. That was really cool. But you know what they haven’t really quite decided whether Missandei has an accent on not. And I was like, well, I thought, yes, this is like the joy of being prepared. And so I did another read with this accent I worked up and I walked out and I was like, great. And I sort of just let it go. And then the rest is history. But but for me, it’s like preparation like was so important and it meant that, like, I could be confident when they sort of did this other thing, I sort of considered all the possibilities. And sometimes it’s as simple as like doing a self take at home with your mum in the kitchen and then sending off. And then it’s like you’re just like, oh, OK, well, I did this thing and you just kind of wait to hear. And everything is really different. I mean, for Fast and Furious, a lot of those scenes were like really action scenes, which are quite hard to put on self type. You know, like that’s hard to do. And it’s like a lot of stage directions and you’re going like you’re crazy or whatever the scene is. And we just had to just try something. And then, yeah, sometimes the kind of preparation there’s not really time for, it’s not very clear what preparation you can do. So I guess for me it was like, OK, learn the lines, get the accent right or get whatever right, and then just throw it at the wall and see what sticks and see if they like it. I don’t know. It’s like it’s different from everything I’ve read – every audition.
Eric: Ms. Emmanuel’s preparation for an audition also speaks to the work she does when she gets a role. She connects with the character on a deep enough level to make her performance less like acting and more like being.
Nathalie Emmanuel: For me preparation is key. I do lots of work kind of before we even get to filming, you know, it’s like all that character work, you know, figuring out in any scene like what my character’s intentions are and literally per line, I’m quite like methodical. I’m like, why is she saying that line? Why is she doing that thing, mapping that journey throughout the entire story, understanding how they feel about the people they interacting with or the situations they’re acting with and just sort of knowing this person in and out as much as possible. And then when you know your lines as well, I think once you know exactly what you have to do, like from the script, that gives you a confidence to kind of play and like, relax into it. I always feel like there’s this moment where, like, the lines and the ideas kind of drop in the body. Literally, physically, I feel like this person’s voice, this person’s movements, like it becomes second nature. And sometimes it can be inspired by like music or sometimes it’s as simple as just putting on their clothing or I don’t know. It really depends on the part on the day as well. And but yeah, I think for me, like making sure that I really understand the scene and that I’m about to do and just like the character as a whole and how they feel about the world and the people around them, like once I know all of that and I’ve done that kind of work, it kind of helps me connect to them quicker. But there has been, you know, in a sort of more technical sense, like if I’ve been doing an accent, for example, there is a real benefit for me when I just like, stay in accent all day because in a way, like I’m kind of staying in character. So I’m not like the person that’s living as this, like I’m not like that method where I’m living as this character for three months. But I think it’s just really useful for me to sort of stay somewhere close to who they are and how they speak so that when the cameras start rolling, I’m not reaching really far to access them again, like after lunch or something. And so that for me is just like in a more kind of simple technical sense. That’s something that I find really useful. And my mom, often she’ll phone me at work and I’m like in a different accent. She’s like, oh, you’re at work. And I’m like, yes, you know, whatever so, yeah.
Eric: So all the preparation and training only went so far with perhaps Game of Thrones‘ trickiest challenge, acting believably opposite creatures that aren’t even there. Though her solution gets back to that kind of acting most of us did when we were kids.
Nathalie Emmanuel: Well, the thing about green screen is, is you just – OK, so, you know, when you’re a kid and you’re like, let’s play dragons and knights and you all, you’re like, oh, we’re like on an adventure. And like, this is basically all the imagination that we just have as a kid. Like, you get to do that in front of a green screen. So you – often you can’t see, like they might show you a previous of like what the scenery looks like. But often you’re using your imagination and it can be quite challenging at times, especially in – the place where I probably find it the hardest is in the Fast and Furious movies, because, you know, you’re in a car often that’s in a soundstage surrounded by blue or green. And they’re like on the left, there’s a huge explosion like like there’s not really. So, like, I don’t know what it feels like to have a huge explosion happen right next to me. So it is really just like using your imagination and just going for it. And often you’ve got the director being, like, yelling stuff at you to add to the, like, energy of it. There’s also really fun times where you’ve got like, for example, in Game of Thrones, once the dragons got very big, it was just kind of this poor guy with a green ball on the end of a stick, just kind of running in the distance and we all had to follow it. And, um, yeah, it’s not quite as like, to look at this poor guy running as fast as he can with this kind of green lollipop. It’s funny, but we have to play it like oh wow there’s a dragon. So, yeah, it’s always fun.
Eric: It takes immensely talented directors to help an actor navigate the technical and dramatic terrain of an epic like Game of Thrones. Fortunately, that show had some of the best.
Nathalie Emmanuel: One of the best experiences I’ve had with the director. It was with Mark Mylod on Game of Thrones. I worked with him a number of times before in previous seasons. But during the scene, the scene with Grey Worm and Missandei when they finally acted on their love.
Clip: [Clip from Game of Thrones]
Nathalie Emmanuel: He just took the best care of us and, you know, we went into rehearsal and essentially, he did with us what intimacy coordinator would do, where we established what boundaries were, what we didn’t want to do. He gave his ideas. And then we, I would be like, oh, I’m not comfortable doing that. Or I’m like, yeah, that’s fine. And the same for Jacob. And he just was so respectful and so wonderful and really just helped us bring out the kind of beauty of that scene and the sort of like, oh, all that like, we really earned this moment. And he treated it with so much respect and treated us with respect as actors and obviously the people having to do this very intimate scene. And it just really – for such a challenging scene for the obvious reasons. Like, I felt incredibly safe. And it was also a testament to my relationship with Jacob and our relationship as friends and colleagues. Like we just kind of had each other’s back. And then it was just really, we were so happy when we found out that Mark was directing that episode and we were like, oh, it’s in the perfect hands. And it really, really was. And he just was so wonderful. And yeah, I couldn’t have asked because that was the first time for me doing a scene like that. And so for me, I just was like so grateful and like I was so proud of it when I watched it and I was like, Oh, thanks Mark and thanks Jacob. But we had to it was yeah, that was really special.
And in terms of communication, like, I just need people to tell me what’s what. Like I realized that often in this business with actors, they sort of treat us like we’re like these fragile things that you can’t be told no, or be told something negative. I am, like I’m just kind of real and I just want to know, like, what do you need? Like, you don’t have to worry about upsetting me. Like, as long as people talk to me respectfully, I don’t really mind what the note is. You might say to me, yeah Nathalie not really feeling it. I’m not really feeling what you’re doing. I think that we need these things. And like when it’s laid out to me in a clear way and like even if it’s negative, even if you don’t like what I’m doing, people are allowed to tell me that because I think that a set is such a safe space. It’s such a sacred space. And in like, sometimes you have to work stuff out. Sometimes people have to kind of get upset and get frustrated and then find something else, find a new way through. Like that’s part of the challenge for me as an actor. I’m like, I’m not afraid of those situations, although, you know, like we’re all human and we have emotions and I’m a sensitive soul just like anybody. But I really hate when people don’t tell me the truth and tell me, like, it’s not working because, you know, at the end of the day, like, I am the one that’s on camera and my director is, I guess in a way like I’m sort of tethered to them. I’m really looking for their – I’m I’m an actor like that really wants to hear my director and their thoughts and feelings and let me know straight up, like, what’s up and what’s not working or is and blah blah blah. So, yeah, for me, just being honest and being respectful, you know, that it really is quite simple, I think.
Eric: And part of acting is also dealing with directors when the scenes or communication are not quite clicking.
Nathalie Emmanuel: At the end of the day, it’s about compromise and sometimes something just isn’t working and you just have to be open to trying something else and stepping outside maybe what you perceived the scene to be or that moment to be, or that line to mean or whatever. So because often as actors, we can get so connected to a character. So it almost becomes a part of us that sometimes when people – like people can say something you’re like, no, that’s not that’s not what I was doing, you know, and actually to double down, I sometimes. You know there’s always opportunities where you need to fight for your character. But like, I think that sometimes when it feels like there’s so much of a wall there that maybe you just need to try something else. And that’s like you just have to try and practice openness and practice taking a new route. Then hopefully you will find somewhere that works, both of you, but kind of getting frustrated and angry and defensive. I just generally in life, I don’t really feel like that’s particularly productive and doesn’t really encourage, like, creativity particularly. So I try to, breathing and, you know, like try and kind of be like okay I’m trying to listen, I’m trying to be open and that’s all I can really do. And I guess hope for the best.
Eric: After Game of Thrones finished its legendary run, Ms. Emmanuel had to face a new battle, how to move on from one of the biggest shows in history.
Nathalie Emmanuel: I mean, there is always a period of time after you finish something where people will only see you as that thing. Like that’s just inevitable. I was slightly in a privileged position where I had this other thing, like I was doing the Fast and Furious franchise. So I was already kind of established in this other thing when I finished Game of Thrones, which is the not so common position to be in, I imagine. And so I kind of had that other thing and it kind of happened not too long afterwards. It came out like not too long afterwards. I can’t remember the timeline exactly, but I just remember I had some time off to the show where I was in this privileged position where I knew that I had that thing coming up and I could really take a moment to decide what do I want to do? You know, what kind of parts do I want to do? Like I had a whole meeting with my team and I said, let’s try and send these kinds of scripts and these kinds characters and just see what’s around. You know, that is an incredibly unique position to be in. You know, I was sort of like, you know, financially as an actor, I was like, great, I don’t have to worry too much for a while. You know, I can take some time where it’s not a matter of like, OK, I need to get money to live like it was. I had time. And so I really made the most of it.
Eric: Nathalie Emmanuel found herself in an enviable position. Financial security, finishing a major role in one of the best TV shows in history, and she had time to find that next great role, which turned out to be not so easy.
Nathalie Emmanuel: There was one point where I did get quite disheartened because there was a couple of things that I really liked and I got quite close to and it didn’t work out. And I was just like, I like people. Is it because they can only see me as this one thing? And and then while I sort of got a bit down. Suddenly this opportunity kind of came out of nowhere. And it was something that I’d auditioned for months and months, months ago. And it kind of just like came back around and I thought, oh, my goodness, this is amazing because I thought that had gone away and that I hadn’t got that thing. And I’m talking like five months ago I had auditioned for it. So it wasn’t like, oh, a few weeks ago. It was like I’d forgotten that I’d even auditioned for it. And so the fact that that came back around was like amazing. And it was like everything that I had been manifesting. You know, I tend to decide the things that I want for the next year or six months. And I’ve been craving all of these things. I was like, I want to work back home. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for however many years. I was like, I want to be in London. I want to challenge myself with an American role. I want to have a role that is more of a lead or supporting lead where I have more responsibility. And then Four Weddings and a Funeral kind of came back around and I was like, it’s perfect. It was shooting 40 minutes in the car from my house. I was like, this is amazing. And I got to and it was kind of just happened so organically as well. And it was a strange time because I really at one point was like, what is it? Is it because they can’t see me as anything but Missandei? Is it too soon? But yeah, I guess I kind of just gave in to the and just go, OK, got to let it go and just see what happens. That’s the thing about this life. It’s, you know, there’s no guarantees and you kind of have to let go into it a bit. And you know, what I was saying before how I count my lucky stars, well, they were shining on me then. And so I was, that happened and it was amazing.
Eric: What helped Ms. Emmanuel’s journey since leaving Westeros was having a clear direction on the role she wanted.
Nathalie Emmanuel: I will always read a script through, and I guess I, I look for aspects of the character that firstly, like I understand and can relate to or stuff that, you know, I’m like, oh, that’s really challenging. I always look for the challenges, really. Things that I’m like, oh, that’s going to be quite fun to try and discover and find. But really just like as a woman, as a woman of color, I always just want to see that these characters are being written in a rounded, authentic way and not in a sort of superficial trope-y way. So that’s the first thing I’m like, is this like tokenistic or is this, you know, interesting? And it’s always fun for me, like to play people who are complex and, you know, not all good or bad, all just one thing. So I like to see some variety in the character’s journey. And I guess I ask questions like, what else can I bring to this? How else can I kind of feel out or expand this character beyond what’s on the page? And do I think that’s exciting? You know, and if it sort of stirs something in me, I’m like, oh, yeah, that’s kind of cool. Maybe we should pursue this further. But just generally, it’s always fun for me to play kind of badass women.
Eric: Which included the Kevin Hart action comedy series Die Hart, a chance for her to flex both her comedic and athletic muscles.
Nathalie Emmanuel: The script was so great. I mean, I remember reading it and just, like, laughing so much. And it was quite funny, actually, because I was in Los Angeles and I was like on my way to a meeting and I had about an hour to kill. And I thought, oh, let me just have a little flick through that script that I got in my inbox earlier. And I phoned my agent within the hour. I just was like, guys, we’ve got to do this. This is fantastic. And it was so, like, self-explanatory and sort of like the way that this show was structured, like the writing was just so brilliant. And so it was quite clear for me quite quickly how to sort of map this character and some of the choices I made or what that might be fun. And it kind of inspired ideas for me. So, yeah, it’s always challenging shooting out of order. But I feel like Jordan was such a fun kind of challenge for me and I was really into it quickly. So and Kevin and John as well were just so, straight away, were just so committed and like, really embraced me and we just became this little trio that just kind of fit quite quickly. And it was great. It’s hard, though, like on your body, like after doing the same move a few times on one side, like suddenly you’re like, okay, my shoulder is really aching and then the next day you’re like, why am I standing like, lopsided? Because you only do it on one side all day as they get all the angles. But actually the stunt team are incredible and shout out to Deandra to who was my stunt double. She made me look so badass.
Basically, I was never really fighting, say, Kevin or the person that I was fighting, because basically, when the cameras on me, on my face, like I’m doing all of that fighting when it’s on the other person, like they’re usually fighting my double. And it’s a bit safer for the actors because the stunt guys are so great at reacting. If you throw like a wrong punch like their whole thing is like being able to move. And so if I throw a wrong punch or if Kevin throws a wrong punch, it might get a bit messy. So we worked very closely with the stunt team like I mostly fought Kevin’s stunt double and he mostly fought mine. But there was a couple moments where we had to do some stuff together. But yeah, we really yeah, it was very much like a partnership in that respect. But all the very dangerous stuff, I was more than happy for Deandra to do.
Eric: Part of a filmmaker’s job is to make established performers excited about jumping on board, whether it be for emotional dramas, hardcore action scenes, or maybe even doing a short film for an up and coming director.
Nathalie Emmanuel: There were many actors who want to discover and work with up and coming talent. You know, I’ve definitely done some shows because I just liked the idea and I liked the person. I was like, wow, you’re really interesting and cool. And, you know, and both the short films I’ve done, like, they came through my agent and they were like, hey, we know this might be a long shot, but would she do a short film? And, you know, it’s been it’s been it’s been a couple of years since I’ve done one. But it was such a fun experience. And to be able to work with someone who, yeah, is kind of starting out in their career. And I personally think that there are many actors who will want to enjoy that process of working with new filmmakers. But I think you just have to try. You just have to, like, shoot your shot, you know, and like who is like the dream casting? And then shoot your shot, you know, that’s all they can say is no. And then you can maybe have like a list of people that, you know, you would also love to have and then reach out to them, too, and see what you get back because who knows? Like, who knows? You might even make this great thing with an unknown actor. And it gets really well recognized, really critically acclaimed for the short film that you’ve entered into a festival and everyone and now you’re on this journey together, too. So, you know, there’s benefits to that as well. But I always say, like, what’s the best thing? Shoot a shot. Let that person know why you want them, why they are your perfect casting. You know, if your script is strong and your idea is strong and your vision is strong, I think people really respond to visuals as well. And I really enjoy like mood boards and things like that. Just to give me an idea of the tone and the colors and the worlds that you kind of want to create. And if you have any previous work, like let people know what you’ve done, show them what you can do, and that’s all you can do at that point, you know. Yeah, maybe someone will be like, hey, that’s great. And get involved.
Eric: Although there are no guarantees you can get Nathalie Emmanuel for your project – she’s pretty busy nowadays – a success which can at least be partially credited to having a terrific work ethic.
Nathalie Emmanuel: Yeah, I think that, you know, I’m a very determined person and I’m sort of a hard worker and I’m really determined. And I guess that I’m just willing to get, you know, in the trenches and roll my sleeves up and graft, you know. So I think that’s what’s kept me going. Like as an actor, I’m, I don’t know. I mean, I kind of hope that there’s something that people can connect to in my performances. Something that someone has said to me before is they’re like, oh, you know, it’s very clear that you have a strength about you. That’s really, you can see on camera. And I was like, oh, really? Thank you. That’s like a huge compliment. But they were like, there’s also this vulnerability. And behind it, that was a really nice, lovely compliment that people have kind of said to me before. And if that’s the thing, that means that people connect to what I’m doing. And I’m very grateful that that’s coming through. Yeah, I don’t know, really. I think just like my ability to kind of like just keep grafting and try anything until I find where I need to be. And maybe that’s it.
Eric: Sounds like the right attitude to me. We want to thank Natalie Emmanuel for zooming with our students and sharing stories about her amazing career. And thanks to all of you for listening.
This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon, Helen Kantilaftis, and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter and the New York Film Academy. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.