ART photography BY DELPHINE DIALLO WORDS BY TAMARA RAPPA
As She Steps Into The Leading-Lady Spotlight, There's No Match For Talented English-Caribbean Beauty Nathalie Emmanuel
Listen to the extended interview on episode 44 of the Story + Rain Talks Podcast. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, + Stitcher.
Tamara Rappa: Let's start at the beginning. Nathalie, you were cast in a big production of The Lion King at a very young age. Where do you think your ability to perform came from?
Nathalie Emmanuel: It was born of a sort of joy and enjoyment of it. Music and dance were always very much a part of my life. My mom put us into performing arts when we were very, very young. My confidence went from there, really. I was such a clingy child to my mother, and I think she wanted to try and create scenarios away from her that I enjoyed.
"Because I come from a family of grafters, we roll our sleeves up and we get on with it."
TR: How has growing up with a single mother and older sister shaped you? What did that female energy impart, and did it impart something that you feel you take to your characters?
NE: Well I think being around lots of women has definitely shaped the woman that I am. I have such a real sense of my independence and of making sure that the things that I want, I have to get myself. I don't want to generalize, and say that people who grew up around brothers don't have that. I think sometimes as women, the messaging in the world has told you about the things that you can't do. In my teens and coming into my womanhood, my mom was incredibly inspiring because she had to do a lot of rebuilding by herself. She worked really hard and created the life that she always wanted. And I think that has really inspired me to be incredibly independent and go for the things that I want, and yeah, just do the work. Because I come from a family of grafters, we roll our sleeves up and we get on with it. And my mom and my older sister, were very much an influence in building that in me.
TR: Speaking of the work, how do you prepare for a role? How do you get yourself prepared to be creative?
"I think people believe if you're an actor and you perform, you're really confident. It's just no big deal, all the time. But I think creatives are some of the most insecure people. We question everything."
NE: It really depends. First things first, I read the script quite a few times. I will read the script, then I start to break down the script, and essentially make notes on my character's specific journey. I think to myself, 'what am I trying to achieve in every moment, in every line, in every scene, and how do the other characters feel?' I try and work out how other characters might respond to my character. Sometimes it's written in the script; what they think of her, or how they feel about her. I make notes on all of those things, and see how I can map a journey for the character. There are so many movies that have been made in the history of time, there are so many great references. There are loads of resources you can watch and go, 'they're going for this kind of tone, and this kind of sensibility.' There are lots of things that you can do, but it's important for me to have a quiet, clear space to work in, because when my space is cluttered, my brain is cluttered.
TR: How important is the look and feel of your home, how important is atmosphere and setting to you as an actor and a creative?
NE: It's your safe haven. It's where you come back to when the cameras aren't rolling, and the flashes aren't flashing, without the image of the person that is pushed out in front of the world. I don't want to say I'm a different person in those situations. I feel I'm pretty consistent wherever I am. But I think that I'm very much an introvert, and I think people are surprised by that, because they think it means that you're shy or you don't like meeting people or you can't talk to people, and that's not always true. It's more about the desire or the need to recharge, that need to be quiet, that need to be with yourself only, and be alone. That is essential to my mental and emotional wellbeing, and my ability to do my job. Coming home and having a space that is comforting, and safe if I need to vegetate for three days...that space needs to feel suitable.
"In my brain, I had to picture me and Vin at the screen test, exactly the same size, physically. Vin is a huge action star, he's a big guy. By comparison, I'm just this little person from Southend-on-Sea! I imagined myself to be exactly the same thing. And it helped me carry myself slightly differently."
TR: I find that for creatives, myself included, there needs to be the mental space to explore ideas and to get inspired by things. You mentioned that you're an introvert, and you've also said that you've gotten worked up, or emotional, or exhausted, or overwhelmed, and sometimes consumed by worry...from working. Is that because it can be hard for you to shake off a part or a project? Is it hard for you to turn off after a day's work?
NE: I think there's an analysis of the day that happens. You think, 'how did that go? I wish I'd done that thing that I wanted to do, but there wasn't time.' You have this whole conversation about how it went, but ultimately you do just have to let it go because you have to trust in the work that you've done and the director that you're working with. They don't move on, generally, unless they're happy with what you've done. So there is a sort of processing that just naturally happens for me and then there's a moment where I just have to let go and just trust in the process I think people believe if you're an actor and you perform, you're really confident. It's just no big deal, all the time. But I think creatives are some of the most insecure people. We question everything. And I think in our profession, if we're not careful, we tend to get sort of fixated on getting patted on the head. You have to learn to validate yourself and empower yourself, even in the very moment.
"It changed my life. There would be no Fast + Furious without Game of Thrones. There would be no Die Hart without Game of Thrones. There would be no Maze Runner. All of these amazing things that have happened to me, have happened because of that show."
TR: Describe what happens to an actor who's an introvert such as yourself, when it comes to being on set in front of tons of crew. Does a sort of subconscious switch happen?
EM: Yes. I think what it is, is that a set is a kind of sacred space for actors. And I think we all kind of go into this space with everyone there, thinking, 'this only works if we're all here in it together.' You come in with this expectation of this being a safe space, and you learn very quickly when it's not, or when it feels like the energy is off, or there's tension, or anything else. It's almost like a current between everybody. And when there's an interruption in the current, you all all feel it. You have to have a certain openness. Even though I can be very open and warm and be excited to meet new people, as somebody who has the capacity to be a little inward, I can come across a little shy---people have always commented on that. I think it takes me a minute to warm up to any space, to any new people. And then once I become acclimated, so to speak, I open up a little more. But until that can happen, my confidence comes from my preparation and from saying and practicing positive affirmations. Playing a character is just easier than speaking as yourself sometimes. When I'm playing a character, it's other people's words and other people's stories. Even though I'm connected to them, I can compartmentalize it. But when people, for example, interview you on a red carpet, there is 100% a conversation that I have with myself where I go, 'okay, today you're playing the Nathalie that's really confident and articulate and knows what she wants to say', because I might not necessarily feel that way inside. I sometimes worry about saying that to people, because it makes it sound like I'm putting on a performance, pretending to be somebody else. I'm always me. Sometimes I have to says those things to myself in order to be able to do it.
TR: What was it like coming into the Fast + Furious franchise? Was it intimidating, joining that franchise family?
NE: Oh my God, yes. I've literally watched all of them my entire life. The very first thing that I had to do [on Furious 7] was, my character gets driven off of a cliff with Vin Diesel, rolls down a hill, and somehow survives it. Then as she wakes up, the entire Fast family are waiting. And I have this scene where my character is basically telling them all about themselves, about who they are. She's really quickly rolling off all these facts about them, and her first instincts about them. That was my first day on set, and I was terrified, literally terrified! I have a practice of positive affirmations and also meditation. And sometimes what I have to do, and I actually did this in my screen test as well with Vin, in my brain, I had to picture me and Vin at the screen test, exactly the same size, physically. Vin is a huge action star, he's a big guy. By comparison, I'm just this little person from Southend-on-Sea! I imagined myself to be exactly the same thing. And it helped me carry myself slightly differently, not 'I'm this small person from Essex who has never been in a studio like this before.' I had to reverse the mental thoughts.
"I've been very engaged and continue to be engaged, and obviously this is a movement we are in right now, with the fight for equality for black people everywhere. And for all people who have suffered racism of any kind, or religious persecution, or homophobia, or transphobia. Everybody deserves equality. But right now this moment is for black people. "
TR: When you reflect on your role and time on Game of Thrones today, what do you think about?
NE: I think about a lot of things. I feel so grateful for that experience. It changed my life, it changed my life. There would be no Fast + Furious without Game of Thrones. There would be no Die Hart without Game of Thrones. There would be no Maze Runner. All of these amazing things that have happened to me, have happened because of that show. It put me on a platform and in front of an audience. It changed everything. I had some really beautiful stories to tell, and I'm just so proud of so much of what we did on that show. Then there is the conversation around inclusion, and my being the only prominent, long-running character of color. It was a lot of responsibility. I felt that they wrote so beautifully for me, and I got to do some really lovely stuff. My whole storyline with Jacob...Grey Worm and Missandei getting to explore the journey from enslaved person to free-thinking, free-feeling, falling in love, exploring all of these things; was just such a joy. Jacob Anderson is my brother for life, we went through so much together on that show. Exploring womanhood and friendship with Emilia, she's my sister for life as well. So much joy came out of it. Watching really experienced and talented actors, being around that caliber of talent, was so rewarding and I loved it. In the final season, with the conversation around Missandei's death came a lot of controversy, and people were disappointed or had opinions about how the only women of color was treated on the show. And I guess I had to be and wanted to be a part of that conversation too. What often happens, is there's the one character that somehow represents so many groups of people, even though she shouldn't represent every brown or black person that's watching. Because, how could I possibly represent every black or brown person? As black people specifically, we're so diverse, there are so many cultures and traditions. The idea that I should represent all of those people is kind of absurd, but somehow the women of color that I would come into contact with would be like, 'oh my God. We're so proud of you. We're so glad that you're there. You're repping us, repping the women of color.' And I realized that she meant so much more than maybe I had even realized. As a black, mixed woman in the industry, I do know that whenever I'm in any space, it means something in the wider, societal or sociopolitical sense. I'm aware of that. I think maybe I, to an extent, had an education about how important that moment and the wider conversation was, that happened afterwards. I've been very engaged and continue to be engaged, and obviously this is a movement we are in right now, with the fight for equality for black people everywhere. And for all people who have suffered racism of any kind, or religious persecution, or homophobia, or transphobia. Everybody deserves equality. But right now this moment is for black people. And I think these discussions about inclusivity on all levels in the industry just need to happen, and it will bring more voices into the room and will help people avoid situations in the future. I'm so here for that conversation. Always, always, always.
"I had a lot to do, a lot to challenge myself with. It was my first time leading something so the pressure that it brings...really, really pushed me. And I was so grateful for that push and that challenge, because I think it molded me into a different kind of professional."
TR: I so enjoyed Four Weddings And A Funeral. You're the leading lady in the Hulu reboot, the film-to-series adaptation by Mindy Kaling. As viewers, I felt we were really pulled in to root for your character, Maya, and Maya and Kash as a couple.
NE: It's so funny, I literally just had a social-distanced brunch with Nikesh Patel, who plays Kash. He was so lovely, he was such a good partner in crime. That was such an incredible production in terms of [racial and cultural] inclusivity. I hadn't worked on a set like that before, in terms of the cast being as diverse as it was. And I was like, 'wow, this is really different.' Listen, in the UK, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to the crews that we hire and production people that we hire. It's still very much a predominantly white space, but it was really amazing to be on a show where the cast and the people in the show looked like the world we see when we step outside. That was really beautiful. I think that there was a lot of care taken in how the characters were treated and represented, and I really love that.
TR: It was very interesting to see how differed it was from the original film.
"I realized that she meant so much more than maybe I had even realized. As a black, mixed woman in the industry, I do know that whenever I'm in any space, it means something in the wider, societal or sociopolitical sense. I'm aware of that."
NE: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I love the original Four Weddings And A Funeral movie. It's the whitest film ever! It's great, but this is a real testament to how times have changed. Mindy Kaling, what a goddess. Just a boss. I was so excited at the idea of doing, well, anything with her.
TR: It's so witty and so funny. And the set design, the costume design...was like its own character.
"Listen, in the UK, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to the crews that we hire and production people that we hire. It's still very much a predominantly white space, but it was really amazing to be on a show where the cast and the people in the show looked like the world we see when we step outside."
NE: Salvador Perez, the costume designer...he just did the damn thing and he was amazing, and the set design was amazing as well.
TR: Do you like dressing up for your roles? Do you like that part of things?
NE: I do. I do because so much of the character comes through clothing and jewelry and hairstyles. You are literally putting on a costume and in the most subtle of ways, you are able to say so much about a person. And I noticed that with myself, my clothing will reflect how I'm feeling. It will reflect what I'm thinking sometimes. It changes, but there's always a thread that is consistently me, always. I wake up sometimes thinking, 'I'm feeling like I want to be really powerful today', so I'll wear something more structured or tailored. Or, 'I'm feeling very free', and so nothing can be huggy or fitting. Whatever that spectrum is, I definitely go up and down the masculine-feminine spectrum in my fashion. It really depends on the day and my mood and how I'm feeling and what headspace I'm in, and whether I'm operating more in my feminine, or operating more in my masculine. And I think that can be brought to characters as well. [Four Weddings An A Funeral's] Maya, because she works in politics and she has very serious job and is around very serious and important people, she has to, especially as a woman of color, be dressed right and dressed well and be smart and be put together. It was a really lovely journey for her, in her fashion and hair and makeup. I think we really saw her grow throughout the course of the series. As a show, it was so much fun to do. We had such lovely people, such a lovely crew. It was really close to home, so that was nice. It was nice to shoot in London, and to celebrate different aspects of London. Often it's the very upper-class areas; the sort of Notting Hill's, and the Chelsea's, and the Kensington's. While those were touched upon and seen---because it's quintessential to the Four Weddings movie---we also saw Hounslow, which is a very South Asian, Pakistani area. We saw the multiculturalism of London.
TR: It was a love letter to London.
NE: Yeah, absolutely. It's such a melting pot of people, and if you don't show that in 2020 or 2019 when we shot it, then what are you even doing? It was a lot of fun to play Maya. It was fun, it was dramatic, I had a lot to do, a lot to challenge myself with. It was my first time leading something so the pressure that it brings; the responsibility it brings---is really, really tough. It really, really pushed me. And I was so grateful for that push and that challenge, because I think it molded me into a different kind of professional by the end of it. And it gave me a confidence that maybe I hadn’t had before.
"Mindy Kaling, what a goddess. Just a boss. I was so excited at the idea of doing, well, anything with her."
TR: In your latest role you play Jordan, in Quibi's Die Hart opposite Kevin Hart, and also John Travolta, Josh Hartnett, and Jean Reno. Everything about Die Hart feels so fresh. I think the humor in it pops even more, because of its 7 to 8 minute episode format.
NE: Do you know what? The process of shooting it felt just like shooting any movie, but a slightly shorter movie. The way that the script read was almost like a slightly shorter feature script. So in terms of how we shot it, it felt very similar. Obviously with comedy, and because there was a lot of action, we had to get through scenes quite quickly. Eric, the director, was so gracious and generous. Even though we were moving at pace, everybody was looked after, and I really appreciated that. Often, sets are stressful, busy, intense places. So the fact that he was very much like, 'have you done what you wanted to do?', was appreciated. And Kevin was very, very supportive. Kevin was like, 'whatever you need, let me know'. He was really great.
TR: Was it fun to tackle both humor and action on one project? You play an action star in parody of the genre itself.
NE: SO much fun! It was so much fun. I spent most of that job just laughing. Kevin Hart was really hard to play opposite, because often [in Die Hart] I'm his straight character. You have to hold it together while he's being very funny.
TR: What's your favorite thing about Kevin Hart?
NE: I've only known him a short time, but he was very generous with his time and supportive. He was very accommodating, and I liked that he can laugh at himself. I think that he has great humor, can have fun, doesn't take himself or situations too seriously, but he's also an incredibly hardworking man and very serious about what he does. He has a really lovely balance of that, which I appreciate.
"It was so much fun. I spent most of that job just laughing. Kevin Hart was really hard to play opposite, because I'm his straight character. You have to hold it together while he's being very funny."
TR: You also starred in romantic comedy indie film, Holly Slept Over. What do you think you're going to be looking for in roles, going forward? You have such a varied background. Are you going to continue to make it a big mix?
NE: Yeah, because I'm so open to everything. I'd quite like to do a play, and I'd quite like to do some more indie films; the smaller stories that are more dramatic roles, and challenge myself that way. Because those are the kinds of movies that I like to watch as well. And then I also want to be a superhero, and shoot sci-fi movies, and horror movies. I don't really want to limit myself to any one kind of movie, but I'm always looking for characters that have depth and complexity and aren't a stereotype, or characters that I learn something from. As much as doing it, I want to learn something from the character too. Like any actor, I just want to do good work. I just want to work hard and do my best. I want to try my hand at things.
"I’m reading Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. Akala is a brilliant, brilliant man, British rapper, writer, and academic. This moment in time is all about educating ourselves".
"My friend Alex sent me samples from her candle company @theafterglowshop in London, which she’s launching in September. The candle called We Dream is sooo amazing.”
"My fave candle is the Amber Voluspa candle".
"To be honest, lip balm is my favorite makeup".
"In recent years I've worked with Reebok, and I have some really great stuff. I love their sports bras and they have the Puremove bra, which is just really great".
"It's so funny and light, and it transports me to a place where things are simple. I think the thing that was so great about Fresh Prince was the really happy, successful, black family. It was something that was aspirational".
A Note From The Editor
I had Brooklyn-based, French and Senegalese visual artist and photographer Delphine Diallo in mind for this story for quite some time. Story + Rain is all about Magic In The Mix. And the "mix" is a lot of what I love about Delphine's work. Delphine combines an eye and flair for fashion with powerful images that carry meaningful messages, along with a multicultural sensibility. And since collaging and mood boards are core to our brand DNA, I was thrilled to collaborate with Diallo in this way, who once famously apprenticed for recently-deceased legend, Peter Beard, and whose work has recently appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic, and the Washington Post. You can read more about Delphine in our Her Life Is Her Art series. Stylist Cher Coulter gathered dresses in pop-y brights from Miu Miu, Preen, and Alberta Ferretti that would be juxtaposed against an organic, largely green setting, and paired with Delphine's signature collage-layering technique. “Working with Nathalie is a pleasure, she is always open to ideas and her trust in me fuels me to do the best possible job for her”, Coulter told us. What's remarkable about this, one of my favorite cover stories to date, is that it was shot remotely (in Nathalie's back garden), due to the limitations the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on our new, day-to-day reality. It created an opportunity to showcase the work that we do at it's finest: when creatives come together to make the most beautiful art in the most difficult of circumstances. Before sitting down to my interview with Nathalie, I found myself intrigued and impressed by the effortlessly low key way in which she worked with Delphine to capture stunning images, how she kicked up the volume on her own hair, how she embodied the elegance, drama, and color of the clothes pulled by Cher, and how she created a perfectly painted face, guided by makeup artist Beau Nelson. For this shoot we wanted the lip to be the focus. To achieve the look, "everything else was kept simple", Beau explains. "We worked with Chanel, and selected a gorgeous fuchsia shade to be the star of the show. Paired with a lightly defined brow, pretty skin, and mascara, it’s a look that’s both youthful and beautiful". Collaboration like this fuels my fire. The title of this piece is Game Time . And it was game time, indeed. -Tamara Rappa
JULY 2020 COVER
WITH BEAU NELSON
USING CHANEL BEAUTÉ