But behind her reserved exterior, which, today, is draped in a yellow cheetah-print midi dress by sustainable brand Farm Rio, a quiet self-assurance has developed.
This is a woman whose tenacity has enabled her to crack Hollywood, after starting out on TV – first as a teen addict in Hollyoaks and then Missandei, right-hand woman of Daenerys Targaryen in global phenomenon Game Of Thrones. Next she’s reprising her big screen role as computer hacker Ramsey in the ninth instalment of Fast Furious. On the way, she’s learnt to develop a thick skin – and a little ferocity – when needed.
If there’s one thing I never thought the Mother of Dragons’ wingwoman would be, it’s shy. But, while chatting with Nathalie Emmanuel after our shoot, she confesses it’s what kick-started her whole career. “I was a real mummy’s girl, so I started acting to express myself,” she laughs. “Even now, I’ll sit back and observe rather than putting myself in the centre.”
“That job changed my life,” she says of Game Of Thrones. “I really am grateful for that time, because it pulled me out of a slump. Suddenly, I was being thrown onto these big stages and I had to woman up to it,” she nods. “I had the opportunity to shape a person who had been through unimaginable things and really tell her story.”
The role generated as much fervour off screen as on after Missandei’s untimely death provoked fury among fans. “It sparked such necessary conversation around diversity and inclusion. I’m used to there being only one role for the ‘brown person’, but when you’ve got a show that has so many eyes on it, you realise she represented so many people. When you kill the only woman of colour, there’s going to be a huge reaction.” Moving forward, she says, “Hopefully there can be a discussion about representation. And, when shows of that scale are made again, that the cast looks like the world we live in.”
It speaks volumes that the next big project Nathalie put her name to was Mindy Kaling’s remake of Four Weddings And A Funeral, which aired last year. “It was a breath of fresh air because we had a British-Pakistani Muslim man and an African-American woman at the centre of a rom-com. And you’ve got Mindy Kaling, an iconic woman of colour, writing it.”
Asked what it was like working with Mindy, she lights up. “She’s such a cool lady – so brilliant and quick,” she says. Mindy’s influence in assembling a representative cast and crew, Nathalie insists, was a shining example of women infiltrating the industry and using their influence to ensure progress. “When you’ve got more points of view in the room, you’re less likely to make silly mistakes that could have been avoided. Bring those opinions in and you’ll find that you’re likely to create something that is more authentic and inclusive.”
I ask Nathalie what she does to unwind. “Downtime is very much about family, friends, food, health and wellness,” she ticks off on her fingers. “I spend time with the people I love and I practise yoga,” she says. “I’m a believer in food as medicine – if you look after your insides, it will show on the outside.”
She makes sure to take care of her skin: “I recently met the genius Dr Barbara Sturm. She’s got a line for darker skintones and it’s been a revelation. I’ve got scarring from hormonal breakouts and her skin range has really helped minimise some of the hyperpigmentation,” Nathalie shares.
As for beauty, “I have a lot of fun with it,” she says. “I love a bold lip and when I have my hair out, I feel strong and unapologetic.” There’s little time to rest though, since Nathalie is gearing up to promote her third stint as hacktivist Ramsey in the upcoming Fast Furious.
A woman in a room full of men, her character doesn‘t fall into the predictable pitfalls it could have. “She has to explain her technology to this group of badass, capable guys. There’s something so powerful in that,” Nathalie grins, when I ask what drew her to the role. “She doesn’t fit the image of a tech genius. She’s not the stereotypical nerd. She’s vivacious, slightly sarcastic and she knows her shit.”
It’s working with and playing such defiant women that has encouraged Nathalie to be more forthright in her own approach to tackling problems she encounters in the industry. “I’ve become much less afraid to say things when I feel uncomfortable, whether it’s happening to me or someone else, I’ll just say it straight up now,” she says.
An example? “I’m not going to destroy my curl crown – my beautiful hair that I was so blessed to be given – because of a role,” she notes, matter of factly. It’s a decision she made a long time ago after being asked to straighten her hair on set. “I was working alongside another mixed-race actress and they said people wouldn’t be able to tell us apart,” she grimaces. “I remember thinking, ‘Really?!’ but I didn’t have the confidence to say no then. I was much younger. Now, I’ve found my voice.”