Since joining Game of Thrones in its third season, Nathalie Emmanuel says she never skipped ahead in a script to see who dies. The show’s writers had always been pretty good to her. That is, up until last week’s episode, when her character, Missandei of Naath, met a cruel fate that set Twitter ablaze.
On a show where the length of the call sheet puts even Arya’s kill list to shame, actors like Emmanuel had precious little screen time to leave a lasting impression. Yet from her first frame, Emmanuel’s Missandei was a fan favorite. Sure, she was a vision in costumes reminiscent of an Altuzarra runway collection. Sure, she was a figure of poise and purpose amid all the sword swinging, teeth gnashing, and occasional scenery chewing. And, sure, she aligned herself with the lady who gives birth to dragons, so, you know, it was pretty safe to root for her.
But more than that, Missandei represented a rarity on television: a woman of color who wasn’t a victim despite a backstory of victimization and who survived on her loyalty and keen accounting of allegiances. Her romance with the Unsullied warrior Grey Worm, another character of color—or rather, the other character of color—attracted a fleet of shippers desperate to see them live happily-ever-after. When the final season’s fifth episode airs on HBO this Sunday, it will be shrouded in the melancholy of Missandei’s passing.
A few days after last week’s episode, Emmanuel spoke to ELLE.com about representation (“This conversation will make me cry very easily”), nerding out on Game of Thrones lingo (she’s still fluent in Valyrian), and the unique comedy stylings of Mindy Kaling, who cast Emmanuel as the star of her reimagining of Four Weddings and a Funeral (debuting on Hulu July 31). Fans may be mourning the loss of Missandei, but Nathalie Emmanuel is here to stay.
Where were you when you first found out how Missandei would meet her end?
I was on a flight from New York and I loaded up a couple of scripts—I think I had episodes one through four at the time. I read them and basically cried all the way from New York to London. It was really emotional. As soon as I read that she was captured I was like, Oh, okaaay. I knew. But I was pleased that they gave her death such a moment. It was a game changer for the direction of the general story. I’ve always expected her to die at any moment. Every time I’ve gotten to the end of a season I’ve thought, Oh wow. She made it. It was always a surprise for me, in a show where people go constantly. So I wasn’t particularly upset about her death, but I was upset for the character because I love her. She’s a good person, and she goes out in such a brutal way, in chains, which is obviously hugely weighted because of the fact that she was once enslaved.
Before the Battle of Winterfell, when Missandei and Grey began planning for their future together and afterwards, when they set sail to Westeros, did you assume—like everyone did—that their days were numbered?
Those scenes made me really nervous for them. I thought, Oh, they’re making plans that probably aren’t going to happen…. I didn’t know who would go, or if anybody would go, but I definitely suspected. Then when [Missandei] was captured by Cersei, my heart rate went through the roof. From there I was just waiting either for the rescue or the death.
Missandei’s final line was “Dracarys!”—”dragonfire” in High Valyrian—which is the command Daenerys gives her dragons to breathe their fire. It was a powerful last stand.
I went back and forth about how I would deliver that line. Missandei is going to die. She’s leaving the only man she’s ever loved and her best friend. She’s only been free for a short amount of her life and now it’s over. If that were me, I’d be begging for my life in a flood of tears. But Missandei had survived a lot of horror and brutality. The very first time we meet her, Daenerys tells her, “I’m going to take you to war. You may fall sick, you may go hungry, you may even die.” And Missandei’s response is, “Valar morghulis,” which means, “All men must die.” To which Dany says, “But we are not men.” So I really thought hard about how she would deliver that line, how she would be in her final moments. Yes, she would be afraid, but I didn’t want her to be crying. Not that being vulnerable would necessarily make her weak. But I wanted to feel her strength and her power and her agency in this moment.
Missandei generally speaks softly. It felt notable that she shouted her last word with such furor.
She’s normally quite calm and stoic. Her yelling is not really something we’ve seen before. I wanted to make the most of this moment and make sure that it meant something. In a way it was her own war cry, to her friend and her queen. It’s so funny because she’d told Grey Worm earlier, “My people are peaceful.” But in her last breath she’s like, “Burn them all! Burn these fuckers to the ground.”
When Daenerys and her company ride into the north, there’s a scene of Missandei and Grey Worm looking out at a sea of white faces who are not looking back at them warmly. This show may be fantasy, but did you and Jacob Anderson, who plays Grey Worm, discuss the significance of being people of color in Westeros?
Definitely. Nothing is lost on this audience and it certainly wasn’t lost on us. The reality of it is that Jacob and I have been the only two characters of color on the show for quite a few years. It’s in the scripts that they’re looking at us strangely because they probably haven’t seen people that look like us before. It was a deliberate decision to acknowledge it on the page, and one that Jacob and I have discussed, the fact that we were brown people coming into a very white part of the realm.
Some viewers were upset that Missandei died at least, in part, because of the motivation of a white savior character.
It’s fair that people are frustrated that she was killed. At the end of the day, it’s like I said, there aren’t many of us [people of color] on the show. So to lose one of them—one of two—is hard. But if I immerse myself in Missandei’s place in the story, she is somebody that is very close to, and important to, Daenerys. For someone to capture her and to use her in this way is a really strong move in this chess game they’re all playing. She is naturally a target anyway just for being so close to the Dragon Queen.
What’s been really overwhelming to me is how much it’s meant to fans that she died. When people tell you how much your character means to them, or how they were rooting for you, it’s so lovely. It’s been emotional hearing a lot of people and women of color say, “It meant so much seeing you there.” And now she’s not there.
I’ll be honest, this conversation will make me cry very easily. The fact that people looked to Missandei in that way—I knew what it meant to be there. Because I’ve had those conversations, the ones being had all the time, surrounding representation. Now that she’s gone, I’ve really felt her impact. You come up in this industry and you come up in life, and you want to see yourself onscreen. Often, I didn’t. The idea that I was that for our audience has been overwhelming and amazing.
Missandei was also one of a handful of characters who couldn’t rely on highborn status or physical strength.
Right. She survived because she’s smart. Well, some might think that she wasn’t so smart because she blindly followed her queen. Especially this season, where Dany has been exhibiting some concerning behavior. But she is the reason Missandei is free, so she made the choice to follow her, and she stuck to her choices. She’s incredibly loyal, yes, but she’s also incredibly assertive. She knew what she was doing, and she chose to do it.
You mentioned the impact of Missandei dying in shackles. It’s a detail that speaks to Cersei’s cruelty. How did that feel to shoot?
It was a punch to the gut, is what it was. I found shooting those scenes in chains really hard, really emotional. Being shackled—even though it’s make-believe and somebody comes straight away and lets me out of them—is really heavy. As a person who has ancestry of slavery, the impact wasn’t lost on me. The fact that this was her journey, she was free, and now she’s found herself back in chains. It was cruel, as you said. But this is the brutality of the world that we’re in. As much as we love these characters—”She’s been through so much!” “We’re rooting for her!” “She didn’t deserve it!”—nobody deserves it, but it doesn’t mean the bad guys won’t get them anyway.
Do you feel a certain responsibility to talk to a show’s writers about matters of representation and authenticity?
I think it’s important to give your perspective as much as possible. Not necessarily surrounding that particular scene, but I’ve never been afraid to express my concerns around race to the people writing for me. As a woman of color in this industry sometimes the responsibility falls on you to educate people around you. Mostly people are very receptive. Even if they weren’t, it wouldn’t stop me from saying something.
Obviously that leads to a wider conversation about who is writing characters of color in shows. The writers’ room of the future should and will be more and more inclusive. Because that’s just how you write our stories.
You’re starring in Hulu’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mindy Kaling’s reimagining of the 1994 rom-com. She brought in a diverse group of writers and actors to tell that story. How did that experience feel?
Mindy has worked incredibly hard and probably had to fight so many battles as a woman of color in a writers’ room. She deserves every single piece of success that she has. And it just goes to show what we can create when somebody like her is championed and gets the funding, production, and backing behind her. The diversity of the cast and writers was the whole point, right out the gate. The original Four Weddings is a mostly white movie. In 2019, you can’t make a show or a movie based in London, which is just a big melting pot of culture and race and language and music and food, and not make it diverse. It doesn’t make sense.
And it makes for a whole different experience as an actor. People may ask, “Why should diversity on set matter?” And the answer is: “It just does.” When you have a room of people that looks like the world outside, it makes for a working environment that is, for me personally, so much more relaxed.
A romantic comedy is a major departure from Game of Thrones. Was it a difficult shift?
Having Mindy on set was an incredible learning experience. She’s so quick witted, thinking on her toes all the time. She’s so great at just coming up with stuff on the go. It’s a completely different ballgame. It was really exciting to try out this new way of acting and shooting. But the scripts are so good and so funny, and the tone of it was so clear, that it made it easier to hit the beats that you needed to hit and to just focus on making choices for your character. Because the comedy is already in there.
Rom-coms are having a major resurgence both in the movies and on TV, with more and more being written and directed by women. To what do you attribute this upswing?
Women know how to write women. For certain rom-coms, especially from the ’90s, the roles for women were somewhat problematic. They often had to be really “likable” and not very troublesome in order to be attractive. But a lot of the characters in our show are really complex and flawed and messy at times. Women in the genre weren’t always given the permission to be all of those things. We want that permission. And we want characters with their own agency and power. The rom-com genre has taken a backseat for a while, and as it comes back, it makes sense that women are taking control and saying, “We’re going to write and direct these parts now. You’ve done it. Now we’re going to do it. We’re going to tell our own stories.”