Landing her first role as the lead character in a film has been “surreal” for English actress Nathalie Emmanuel mostly because she remembers all the times she considered giving up on her dream career.
The Emmy-nominated actress, best known for portraying Missandei in HBO’s Game of Thrones, appearing alongside Kevin Hart and John Travolta in the former Quibi series Die Hart, and acting in the most recent films from the Fast & Furious franchise, is set to star in the horror film The Invitation. The film is out in theaters as of Aug. 26.
Emmanuel, 33, said the starring role is made all the more special by the fact that she’s working in a genre that doesn’t typically have diverse leading characters. “The idea of playing a female lead as a woman of color and in the horror genres space, it's just sort of, not really something that you see,” she tells xoNecole.
The actress wouldn’t give too much of the Dracula-inspired film away, but she described the premise as “the worst-case scenario of doing a DNA test and finding out your ancestry.” Emmanuel portrays Evie, an only child who has lost both of her parents when a newly discovered relative invites her to a seemingly glamorous destination wedding.
“It's on the backdrop of this very wealthy aristocracy in Britain, and the sort of power structures involved intersecting with a woman who is a Black, mixed-race and working class,” she says. According to Emmanuel, it was the female-centered lens through which director Jessica M. Thompson tells the story that originally drew her to the project. During her childhood in England, the actress says her parents were very protective of the media she consumed, but she says she got into vampire mythology later in life.
The Invitation is a long-time coming for an actress who first landed her first role in a West End theater production of The Lion King at just 10 years old. In 2013, she landed the role of Missandei on Game of Thrones while working in retail. “I was working in retail, and I was folding clothes and cleaning and doing things to get by,” she reveals. “After a long time of not getting seen for things or being cast in anything, you start to doubt yourself, and then you have to decide whether you're going to keep going or give up. That’s happened many times.”
Emmanuel is on the cusp of a new time in her career, but she’s also switching things up in her personal life, too. Earlier this year, she documented the emotional moment when she cut her signature curls and posted the video on social media. “There was something really empowering about shedding this thing that had so many complex emotions attached to it and just kind of starting again,” she says. Today, she wears her hair in a cropped cut, with her curls framing the top of her face. Cutting her hair is a decision Emmanuel says she’s been considering since she was a teenager, although the motivation has changed.
Despite being complimented as an adult for showcasing her natural hair on television, Emmanuel says struggled with feeling like her hair was a “problem that needed to be managed” as a teenager. “The first time I asked my mom, I was maybe 14 or 15. And she was right to say no, because I think it came from a place of frustration or seeing what was considered beautiful and not being that,” she notes.
As an adult, work demands and the comments she got from fans kept her from cutting her hair initially. “I was so proud of that and so happy that I could be that for somebody because I had such a long journey to that place myself. So I then I kept it because I wanted as many people as possible to feel good about their natural texture.”
Emmanuel is hoping to continue to inspire Black and biracial women, although this time on her own terms. With this new film, a forthcoming season of Die Hart (now on Roku), and a starring role in the forthcoming film Megalopolis alongside Adam Driver, Laurence Fishburne, and Forest Whitaker, she’s hoping to continue to showcase her range as an actress, too. “I've done the comedy stuff a bit. And now I'm doing a bit of horror. I've done the dramatic stuff, the fantasy thing. The more I can diversify my body of work, the better."
The Invitation is out in theaters now.
Featured image by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Sony Pictures Entertainment