Nathalie Emmanuel Talks the Politics of Black Hair—On and Off Screen

Nathalie Emmanuel is used to standing out in a crowd and making her mark. As the only woman of color who was a regular cast member on HBO’s Game of Thrones, her textured mane of magnificent coils garnered almost as much attention as her scene-stealing performances. But for a Black woman, hair can be fraught with meaning: liberating, confining—or a mixture of both. Emmanuel’s feelings about her own hair, especially as Hollywood executives urged her to straighten it or wear wigs, were no less complicated. “There was a period of time, when I was first starting out, when I was like, ‘I don’t want to change my hair, my hair is beautiful. My hair is part of me and my heritage and I don’t see why I should change it,’” she explained.

These days, Emmanuel sees her mane as a point of immense pride—an acknowledgement of the beauty of her forebearers. Like her Game of Thrones character Missandei, her changing hairstyles serve as a metaphor for personal growth and shifts in her own life.

The British-born Anglo-Caribbean actress’ résumé goes beyond playing Thrones’ beloved lady-in-waiting. She’s featured in the voice cast for Netflix’s “Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” alongside Anya Taylor-Joy, Alicia Vikander, and Taron Egerton, was in Mindy Kaling’s remake of Four Weddings and a Funeral, currently co-stars in Die Hart with Kevin Hart and John Travolta, and is slated to reprise her role as Ramsey in 2021’s release of Fast & Furious 9. Below, the actress touches on how yoga has helped her cope with current and past traumas, how she refuses to feed into negative tropes, and the systemic racism she’s faced on- and off-set because of her hair.

The last few months have been difficult for most people, especially for Black people. How have you been coping? Has your physical routine changed much since quarantine?

It’s really changed. I was going to the gym four to five times a week and then to yoga and other classes as well. Now, I am having to do all of that at home. I’m very lucky to have an outside space. My garden is very small but there’s enough space to do yoga and some cardio out there. At first, I was poking around a park nearby for my daily exercise. But to be honest with you, I felt that in my area people weren’t respecting social distancing rules—and it just made me nervous. You can’t control what other people do but you have control of what you do. So, now I just stick to my workouts in my garden. And then with the riots, the protests and all the unrest that has happened as a result of George Floyd’s death, and all of the emotional and mental trauma that came out of that moment, my self care became incredibly important.

There was a lot of processing of my past, with my own experiences with racism and discrimination, that I was kind of delaying—the things that I had forgotten about, which happened to me when I was incredibly young, and the things that happened recently that I shoved to the side. With all of that happening, it was just incredible anxiety for me; it was a lot. So, my exercise routine became even more important to me. I am a regular practitioner of yoga. I had trained to be a yoga teacher about two years ago. In the last last few weeks, especially, yoga became even more important; I felt myself being drawn to that much more because it really helped. But there was a period time, especially during the height of all of the unrest, when I couldn’t inspire myself to do anything. I had to sit and feel everything that I was feeling, and allow myself to do that. As I got a handle on it a bit more, I was able to find my way back to my yoga practice and my meditation. Which is funny because I probably needed it most when everything was really hard. But that’s just what happened, and I had to go with the flow.

How is it being a Black star in the movie industry right now? Thandie Newton recently spoke about how she’s been objectified at auditions for certain roles, like Charlie’s Angels Have you had any instances in which you’ve been fetishized or objectified?

Absolutely, yes. I think that has happened a lot. But to be honest, I, at a very young age, realized that the industry only wants [Black women] to play certain roles. And some of them, I just outright refuse to go up for. A lot of the time, those characters I was being asked to audition for were very negative in stereotype—usually a young, Black, mixed girl who is in a state of victimhood, addiction, or violence. And I think while those stories are valid and need to be told, they’re not the only stories that we have, and I just felt frustrated. There was a period of time when I didn’t even want to go into that. I found that, as I got older, everything I’m choosing to do, I’m very particular about—because I don’t want to perpetuate the negative tropes.

I love your hair. You have nice, tight, spirally curls and coils and you often wear it that way on-screen. Many Black actresses complain that they have to wear wigs, or get their own stylist on set to do their hair. Are you supplied with a hairstylist who can care for your natural hair?  Have you ever been asked to straighten your hair for a role?

I have. And the thing is, at the end of the day, as an actor, I enjoy the process of creating a character and putting on costume and changing my appearance—that’s part of being an actor. But there was a period of time when I was first starting out, I was like “I don’t want to change my hair, my hair is beautiful. My hair is part of me and my heritage and I don’t see why I should change it.” And I think what I also realized when I was coming up watching movies, TV, and other media, was that women with my hair weren’t represented. The amazing Black women who were paving the way for me were often pressured to not wear their natural texture and their natural hair. They had to either straighten or wear wigs, and as much as that was a reflection of the fashion and trends of the time, it was rare to see a Black woman rocking her natural hair back then—and I found that really hard.

I remember when I saw the Spice Girls, and Mel B. was there with her big curly hair—I was like, “Wow!” I mean, yes they called her Scary Spice, but still, she was brown and she had an Afro. She was doing high kicks and was amazing. I remember how that felt to me. And, the fact that I’ve been able to just be myself and wear my natural hair has been really important. I’ve had people say to me, “My little girl who used to hate her hair now wants to have her hair like you.” And that makes me so emotional, because it took me a such a long time to love my own hair. It took a really long time to love and appreciate this crown that grows out of my head. I literally had teachers at school say, “Oh, we could turn Nathalie upside down and mop the floor.” “We could use her as a Brillo pad to clean the pots and pans.” Also, there was one time when I was on a show where there was another girl who had curly hair. She was a Black woman too, and we looked absolutely nothing alike, but they were like, “We need you to straighten your hair because people have to be able to tell you two apart.” And that was so disappointing. I think at the time, I justified it by telling myself, “It’s a different look, and you haven’t really done that before. It might be fun to just have this other look and this is just part of the character.” But in hindsight, my hair was absolutely destroyed from straightening it every day for that job. Now, if people want to straighten my hair or they want me to have a straight-hair look—that’s fine if it’s right for the character that I’m playing, and I agree that it’s right for the character—but they’re going to have to put a wig on me. Nothing is destroying this glorious thing that I’ve grown out of my head that my mother gave to me.

Last week I had really intense feelings of anxiety and could not mentally or physically relax. I would be sitting on the sofa or lying in bed and realise I was unconsciously tensing pretty much every muscle in my body or holding my breath… having to process everything going on is exhausting. And there has been a lot of processing… a lot of old memories that I’d shoved all the way down making an appearance… like I said… exhausting. But feeling less bound by it all this week, which is a relief. Just a reminder to be gentle and kind with yourself. #bekindwithyourself #blacklivesmatter #blackliveshavealwaysmattered #mentalhealth #getoffyourphoneifyouneedto

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Your hair is indeed glorious. How do you care for your curls? 

It took a long time to learn how to do them. When I was younger, there wasn’t really much product around [for natural Black hair]. But as I got older and more experienced with doing my hair, it became all about moisture and maintaining that moisture, which just helped my hair thrive. And so I learned what has been called the curly girl method: I try not to manipulate my curls too much. I deep condition my hair. I comb my hair when it’s wet, and I’ll put in my leave-in or styling product to establish the curl pattern and then let it air dry, if I can help it. If I have to use heat, I’ll use a diffuser and put the dryer on a very low setting. I also sleep with a bonnet. I oil my ends regularly, and get my hair trimmed a couple of times a year. I try to eat well and drink water.

In Die Hart, there’s a scene where you play a James Bond-like femme fatale and you’re sporting very chic cornrows. I love that they show cornrows can be fabulous, upscale and elegant—and very versatile in that way.

I think it’s important to dismantle some of these stereotypes about Black hairstyles. Wearing cornrows doesn’t mean what they position it as—thuggish or ghetto. Cornrows are beautiful. The history and the meaning behind them is so beautiful. I’ve worn cornrows on and off my entire life. It was a great way to be expressive and playful with my hair, as well as looking after it and protecting it while doing something different. The idea that, in that scene, I had cornrows in my hair, a beautiful dress on, looking sexy in heels—it just made me feel powerful. I felt beautiful.

Let’s go back to the role that really got the world noticing you— Missandei from Game of Thrones. The show was known for some of its intricate hairstyles. Can you talk about your character’s hair journey?

For the most part, my hair was pretty natural with a simple braid across the front. Toward the later seasons, I had a hairpiece with a lot of intricate braids—and that was very pretty. It became very much a part of Missandei. During my first season, in my very first scene, I appear on screen with my hair tied up with cloth. It represented [my character’s] enslavement. Her whole look became much more empowered as time went on, and she found liberation and a cause with [Daenerys Targaryen]. But for the most part, it was very much a headband braid across the front of the head, and then my natural hair. It was simple but delicate; yet, also a statement because my hair is so big and round, and you can’t miss it.

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