As Game of Thrones ends, Nathalie Emmanuel reflects on her role as Missandei and gets ready for her next big project…
Two weeks ago, Nathalie Emmanuel flew to New York for a total of 20 hours. “I landed at 11am, the Game Of Thrones premiere was that night, and I was on a 7.55am flight back to London the next morning,” Emmanuel says with a laugh. Did she sleep at all? “No, I just packed my bag – well, when I say packed my bag I mean I put my dresses back into the suitcase.”
The premiere was, Emmanuel reflects, an enormously emotional night – the last hurrah for the world’s biggest television show, and the culmination of seven years of hard work for the 30-year-old, who joined the cast for the third season in 2013 – she was working in a clothes shop when she discovered she had got the role. As Daenerys’s loyal friend and translator, her character Missandei is one of the show’s boldest feminists, and her relationship with soldier Grey Worm provides some rare moments of tenderness in the otherwise brutal fantasy epic. (Death toll so far? 174,373 and counting.)
Once she landed in London it was straight back to work, filming Mindy Kaling’s television reboot of Four Weddings And A Funeral about a group of American friends living in London (Emmanuel plays star Maya alongside Nikesh Patel) and ironing bridesmaids’ robes for her sister’s wedding that weekend. Emmanuel drove through the night to Durham to make it to the venue just in time. “I arrived at 3am,” she says. “Then I had to be up at 8am. I was the maid of honour so I couldn’t have a lie-in!”
The actor barely knows what city she’s in right now. “I have no idea what’s going on, I’m not going to lie,” she jokes. “It’s been really intense. But I’m used to being exhausted all the time.”
Adrenaline-fuelled exhaustion has been her norm since 2006, when she joined the cast of Hollyoaks as wild child Sasha Valentine. As well as Game Of Thrones, Emmanuel is part of another huge global franchise: she plays the no-nonsense hacker Ramsey in the Fast And Furious series and will start filming the ninth instalment in June.
“Now, when I have days off, I can’t sleep past a certain time because I’m so used to being up at the crack of dawn,” she says. “But I’m going to take a nice break when Four Weddings finishes.” A very well-deserved one at that…
How was the Game Of Thrones season eight premiere? Was it rowdy?
To be honest, it was pretty tame. I think everybody was feeling the weight and the emotion of it. Sorry – I don’t have any crazy stories to tell you! I knew I had to get on that plane so I was very well-behaved…
Missandei is often called the show’s most feminist character. Why do you think that is?
Women are usually pitted against one another on screen but Missandei is all about lifting everybody up. She has survived unspeakable things and has still got this unrelenting strength about her. Also, she is just a brilliant woman who is very intelligent, with the capacity to love, to be strong and to be vulnerable. You get to see lots of sides of the female experience through Missandei.
And how do you feel now that the end of the show is finally airing?
I feel bittersweet about it. It’s been an amazing run, it’s changed my life in a way that I never could have foreseen. It’s created a career for me that was made of dreams. But I’m also grateful that I’m leaving a show when it’s at its height and people are still really excited about it. There’s something really positive about that.
A lot of people love Missandei and Grey Worm together, but we’re concerned for their safety this season…
I honestly can’t tell you anything. In this season we see the care that these two characters have for one another. But obviously, the stakes are much higher now. We’re about to face the army of the dead, you know what I’m saying?
Missandei speaks Valyrian – what was the hardest part of learning those lines?
You learn it phonetically and when you first hear it, it’s an assortment of random sounds, but the secret is just repetition. There’s only one man on Earth who knows if I’m doing it right [linguist David Peterson, who created the language], but because I play the translator on the show I wanted it to be perfect. I would stop takes when it wasn’t. I met David once and he said, “You speak it how it’s mean to be spoken.” That was the biggest compliment.
Do you agree with the criticism that Game Of Thrones doesn’t have enough characters of colour?
The criticism is fair at times, but I think it’s really important not to erase or negate the characters of colour that have existed within the show. The writers gave Missandei and Grey Worm such a platform and progressive storyline. But as a woman of colour, I want to encourage that, in the future when people are casting shows like this, they don’t fall into old habits.
You must be excited that Four Weddings And A Funeral has a very diverse cast.
It really speaks for itself. Mindy has obviously had the same feeling that a lot of people of colour have had, that they want to see people who look like them. For me, one of the greatest parts about being on this show is that number one and two on the call sheet are both people of colour. Women, people of colour… we need all of these perspectives so that we can bring the world in. The more you represent people, the more people will watch. It’s been proven.
Are you a romcom fan?
Absolutely. I’m a huge fan of Notting Hill and Love Actually and also – it’s not really a romcom, more like romantic drama – Love And Basketball. I loved that film growing up.
You started on soap operas, but a lot of people look down on them. What did you learn from Hollyoaks?
There’s such snobbery around soap operas. In my opinion, that’s where you find some of the hardest workers in the game. That was the best training I’ve ever had in terms of coping with the intensity of this job.
What other things help you with that intensity now?
Yoga, yoga and more yoga. It’s a great way to check in with yourself mentally, physically and spiritually. I feel like yoga will heal the world – I trained with a yoga teacher last year. I try to meditate daily, too.
And where are you going to go for that holiday you’ve promised yourself?
I really want to go and see the pyramids, so I think I’ll go to Egypt soon. I have a feeling that they won’t be there eventually…
Hopefully you’re wrong…
Hopefully! But I feel like there will be something awful that happens in 50 years’ time, so I want to see them before they go. I want to go to a place where there were black kings and queens.
Game Of Thrones season eight is on Now TV and Sky Atlantic on Mondays at 2am, repeated at 9pm