Less than 24 hours before meeting Nathalie Emmanuel, I watched her die. Somewhere around 12 million others witnessed the brutal execution too, as Emmanuel’s on-screen character was dramatically beheaded, in the final scene of the last-before-the-penultimate installment of the biggest television series in the world. If you haven’t yet seen episode four of this final season of Games of Thrones, you might want to stop reading now; if you haven’t yet seen a single episode of Game of Thrones, you might want to stop reading, catch up on all 72 episodes so far, then come back to join our collective grief over the death of Missandei of Naath, loyal translator to Daenerys Targaryen. Even 30-year-old Emmanuel, who shot the scenes a year ago, is still grieving somewhat.
“I feel differently about it today than I did yesterday,” she admits, as we settle on a leather sofa in a hip hotel on New York’s Lower East Side. “I suddenly feel like she’s no longer in existence; she’s now a character from the past, and that feels different.” She pauses and looks at me, quizzically. “Does that make any sense at all?” Yes, actually, it makes complete sense. The impact of her character’s shocking death is still sinking in for all of us. “The reaction on social media has been overwhelming,” she says. “And that’s testament to how much people cared for the character. A lot of the comments have been: ‘You deserved better’, but it’s Game of Thrones – there’s no justice, and it doesn’t matter how good you are or how kind or sweet you are, they [the show’s machinating, power-crazed characters] will get you if it advances their own interests.”
“The reaction on social media has been OVERWHELMING. A lot of the comments have been: ‘You deserved BETTER’, but it’s Game of Thrones – there is no JUSTICE”
Some commentators, however, have alleged that Missandei really did deserve better; the culture website Vulture accused the show’s writers of reducing her to a victim, “to only three things: her service, her brief love affair, and her violent death”. Emmanuel, however, disagrees. “In that last scene, you felt her fear but also her strength and her bravery. I love that ‘f*** you’ [moment] she had, right at the very end,” she says of Missandei’s final, defiant declaration: “Dracarys” [meaning ‘dragon fire’]. “I was really proud of it,” says Emmanuel. She is similarly happy with the show’s ultimate ending, which airs this weekend. “I felt really satisfied and fulfilled by it,” she nods, beaming. “People will be really surprised.”
Missandei’s untimely death has, perhaps, been most upsetting for fans because of the plans she and Grey Worm were making, to settle down to a quiet life together. “Some of the greatest love stories don’t have a happy ending,” Emmanuel points out. “People have commented that as soon as they saw Missandei and Grey Worm making plans, it was, like, ‘Well, one of them is definitely going to die now.’” The couple’s on-screen relationship – a slow burn since Emmanuel joined the show in season three – reached a crescendo in season seven, with a touching and much-talked-about sex scene in a series not often described as tender. It was also Emmanuel’s first ever on-screen sex scene. She called her mother in advance. “I’m her baby, and she needs to be prepared for things like that,” she says.
For the uninitiated, Grey Worm is a eunuch, but Missandei and he consummate their relationship in other ways. “A lot of the sex on Game of Thrones is lust-filled, a bit like scratching an itch, whereas this was about trust and intimacy and acceptance of the other person fully and wholly,” says Emmanuel. “There were quite a few feminist articles written about the fact that it was all about Missandei’s pleasure, but other people did ask: ‘Well, how did they do it?’” She rolls her eyes. “I’m like, guys, if you don’t know another way to do things, then I feel like you should learn. Quickly.”
“In that last scene, you felt Missandei’s fear but also her STRENGTH and her bravery. I LOVE that ‘f*** you’ [moment] she had, right at the very end. I was really PROUD of it”
Emmanuel grew up in Westcliff-on-Sea, just outside Southend in Essex, England, where she and her older sister were raised predominantly by their mother, Debs, who works as a carer for adults with special needs. Debs enrolled both girls in dance classes when Nathalie was three – chiefly to try to coax her out of her clinginess (“I was such a mummy’s girl, traumatized every time she dropped me off anywhere, even with relatives,” she laughs). They began auditioning for local productions advertised in the paper, and at ten years old, with very little experience, Emmanuel was cast as Young Nala in the West End production of The Lion King. “I remember going to the opening night party – the Spice Girls were there, Shirley Bassey was there, Claudia Schiffer was there… It was crazy. But my mum was also very strict; any drama that I did had to fit in around school. There are so many awful cliched stories of kid actors who don’t quite become fully formed adults,” she notes, raising an eyebrow.
Once Emmanuel passed her GCSEs, however, she was free to pursue her ambitions, quickly winning the role of Sasha in British soap opera Hollyoaks. And, for four years, she was given some of the show’s juiciest storylines, as Sasha became a heroin addict and a prostitute. When Emmanuel left the series, however, she struggled to get work. “There’s such a stigma around soaps and soap actors – are they real actors? When I first left Hollyoaks it was very tough, I really wasn’t being seen for stuff.” She made ends meet by working in the clothing store Hollister. “I was very much an out-of-work actor,” she says, with a wry smile. “And it was awful.”
Then, she spotted a casting call for Game of Thrones, of which she was already a huge fan. “It said: 18-25, non-white or actress of color. And I was like, ‘Hey, that’s me, let’s do this.’” The role proved a turn in the tide. Before her first GoT episodes even screened, she was cast as a computer hacker in Furious 7, part of the Fast and Furious movie franchise, followed by a role in Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. “When I think about what the show has done for my life, and my career, it blows my mind,” she says.
“I was very much an out-of-work actor. And it was AWFUL […] When I think about what GoT has done for my LIFE, and my career, it BLOWS my mind”
But the public profile that the juggernaut of Game of Thrones has brought is not without its downsides. “I love meeting fans, but sometimes the boundaries of general social etiquette get crossed,” she says. “I’ve been followed, and that’s felt threatening. And when I see people taking photos of me from afar I get really self-conscious, like I’m under surveillance.” Emmanuel lives in an unstarry part of northwest London which, she says, helps minimize such attention. “No one cares that I’m some actress on whatever show. When I go to the launderette, I’m just, like: ‘Is this dryer free? Great.’ No one cares at all.”
Here in Manhattan, however, people definitely care. At one point in our conversation, a young woman in a business suit approaches and asks for a picture with the actress. “I would never normally ask, but I’m a huge fan, and you died last night,” she gushes. Emmanuel laughs and agrees.
“They did 11 WEEKS of night shoots [for the Battle of Winterfell], and I wasn’t upset to MISS that. People were losing their MINDS, and I was in Morocco, like, ‘Namaste, guys’”
Yoga also helps her keep things in perspective; during the filming of the final season of GoT, she hopped off to Morocco to train as a yoga instructor. “I wasn’t in a lot of this last season of filming, because I wasn’t in the battles – they did 11 weeks of night shoots [for the Battle of Winterfell], and I wasn’t upset to miss that,” she laughs. “People were losing their minds, working at night in the cold and the rain, and I was in Morocco, like, ‘Sorry that’s happening. Namaste, guys.’”
Finding time to actually teach what she learnt is tricky; she’s just wrapped six months of filming on Four Weddings and a Funeral, a Hulu miniseries inspired by the seminal Richard Curtis film, and her first leading role. Unlike the film, which, when viewed by today’s higher standards, was shockingly monoethnic in its casting, the television version, written by Mindy Kaling, is groundbreakingly diverse for a rom-com. “The fact that Nikesh [Patel] and I are the leads on that show, that really means something to us,” Emmanuel beams.
The actress plays Maya, an American who works in US politics in New York, but whose college friends have mostly decamped to London. After having her heart broken, she follows them across the pond, “and tries to figure out what she wants with her life, with love and friendship. It’s stuff that we can all relate to.” Emmanuel, who recently turned 30, seems to have already figured much of that out for herself. “I’m much more equipped for all of this now than I was when I was 23 or 24,” she acknowledges. “I know exactly what I want for myself. And I’ve been building towards this thing, and working really hard for it, and now I get to enjoy it.”
The final episode of Game of Thrones airs May 19 (US) on HBO. Four Weddings and a Funeral premieres on Hulu on July 31
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