Nathalie Emmanuel on why Game of Thrones' lack of diversity made Missandei's death more painful
It’s been a week since Game of Thrones gave us a trying, tense and emotional episode in which one of our favorite characters met her untimely and brutal end, and Nathalie Emmanuel is still processing the wave of anger and heartbreak that has grown online since, tying her character’s demise into a larger conversation about the show’s lack of on-screen racial diversity.
After last Sunday’s episode “The Last of the Starks” saw Daenerys’ trusted advisor Missandei (Emmanuel) captured by Cersei and then beheaded when the tyrant queen’s demands are not met, a wave of outrage grew online at the fate that befell not just one of the most-liked characters, but one of only two long-standing minority characters in the show.
“To be honest with you, when I read the script for it, I was like, not surprised that she died because I had been expecting it for a really long time,” Emmanuel told EW a few days after the episode aired.
“So many people die in that show and I guess I didn’t think I was any safer than anybody else in that respect. But I am fully aware and engaged in the conversation of representation because I am the only woman of color in this show that has been on there regularly for many seasons,” she added.
After entering the show in season three when Daenerys frees her from slave master Kraznys mo Nakloz in Astapor, the brilliant, intelligent, multi-lingual Missandei has been one of Daenerys’ biggest assets, standing calm and dignified next to her queen while advising her and being her support in an otherwise male-dominated world. When she and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), the stoic leader of the Unsullied with the puppy dog eyes, fall in love against all the odds, viewers were rooting for them to escape to the warm desert island beach that Grey Worm proposes to her in Winterfell before “The Long Night,” which they both miraculously survived.
Emmanuel believes the outrage about Missandei’s demise comes not only from the tragedy of it happening in front of Grey Worm and Daenerys, the two most important people in her life, but that she was the sole long-standing woman of color in the series. “It’s safe to say that Game of Thrones has been under criticism for their lack of representation and the truth of it is that Missandei and Grey Worm have represented so many people because there’s only two of them,” Emmanuel said.
“So this is a conversation going forward about when you’re casting shows like this, that you are inclusive in your casting. I knew what it meant that she was there, I know what it means that I am existing in the spaces that I am because when I was growing up, I didn’t see people like me. But it wasn’t until she was gone that I really felt what it really, truly meant, until I saw the outcry and outpouring of love and outrage and upset about it, I really understood what it meant,” she added.
See Emmanuel’s full response to Missandei’s death below, what she wishes she could have done more with the character and her next move after Game of Thrones – the world of romantic comedies.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Missandei’s final scene was so tragic and brutal, and it stoked an anger and outrage online, especially over the treatment of not just a woman but the sole woman of color on the show, and she died in chains. How did you respond to that?
NATHALIE EMMANUEL: To be honest with you, when I read the script for it, I was like, not surprised that she died because I had been expecting it for a really long time. So many people die in that show and I guess I didn’t think I was any safer than anybody else in that respect. But I am fully aware and engaged in the conversation of representation because I am the only woman of color in this show that has been on there regularly for many seasons and Jacob [Anderson] and I are fully engaged in that conversation constantly and throughout our whole time together.
I guess when I saw that she gets captured and she dies in chains, I just felt the weight of that and what that really means, I really felt, I was heartbroken for her really. But I think in a story sense, it doesn’t matter that she’s a good kind person, she is not safe and in the grand scheme of things, she’s disposable really. That is the hard reality of the world of Game of Thrones and the world they’ve created, even that person who’s so kind and loving and calm and harmless, even that person can be taken away. I think the fact that she died in chains when she was a slave her whole life, that for me was a pungent cut for that character, that felt so painful but like I said, it’s the reality of the world. It’s kind of makes sense in a social sense, a world sense in that we’re out of chains but sometimes the world makes us feel like we’re not, and that is for me, even playing it when I had the shackles on, it made me quite emotional, it’s hard. Just on an emotional level, I just really felt the impact of that.
But generally, I understand people’s outrage, I understand people’s heartbreak, because this is the conversation around representation. It’s safe to say that Game of Thrones has been under criticism for their lack of representation and the truth of it is that Missandei and Grey Worm have represented so many people because there’s only two of them. So this is a conversation going forward about when you’re casting shows like this, that you are inclusive in your casting. I knew what it meant that she was there, I know what it means that I am existing in the spaces that I am because when I was growing up, I didn’t see people like me but it wasn’t until she was gone that I really felt what it really, truly meant until I saw the outcry and outpouring of love and outrage and upset about it, I really understood what it meant.
It was kind of like a learning moment for me but playing that part and playing that story out, I just felt like she left the show like she started, with dignity, she was strong and brave and she was angry and she left with power and she stood in her power and I thought we’d seen Missandei in a way that we had never seen her. Usually, she’s so quiet and collected and this time she was angry and she left that world with strength and I really appreciated that I got to play that. When I made the choices of how I was going to play that, it’s very easy in the moment to stand there above the man that she loves and her best friend and not to be in bits weeping, and I was like, no, she knew that was going to happen, she knew she might die, she knew she might forfeit, she knew she might go hungry, and … that was her response.
And so she was prepared to die and when it came to that moment, she was ready almost. It’s a really complex conversation and it always astounds me how much it meant to people and how much my being in that show has meant to people in terms of representation. The fact that I’ve been able to do that for people literally makes me want to up and cry every time someone says it to me. It’s a hard one and I think the fans, what we’re learning is no one’s safe and the outcry and the rage about it, the anger about it speaks to that conversation of why representation matters. So much responsibility falls on these two characters because it’s only them but if we were more generally inclusive, that probably won’t be as prevalent.
It felt really savage.
I mean, it was savage. It was brutal and hardened and that is the world that we’re in. Whether we’re talking about Game of Thrones or this one, it is brutal and that is what they did. They don’t take holding prisoners, those guys, they’re like “we’ll make you really love them and then we’ll kill them,” that’s been true for everyone. The one thing I would say is I really had wished that I had more time or scenes this season maybe with Daenerys or even with Cersei, scenes where we get to see her being brilliant before she dies, I think that might have eased the pain a bit more for people, and reinforcing a friendship that she and Dany had because we haven’t really seen anything for a few seasons but I think she’s so fiercely loyal Dany and I think she was until the bitter end, and it’s almost fitting for Missandei really, in a way.
Coming off Game of Thrones, your next role is the romantic lead in Mindy Kaling’s Four Weddings and a Funeral Hulu series. How did it feel taking on a very different type of story and world where you don’t have to worry about White Walkers or Cersei coming for you?
[Laughs] It can’t be further from the other. Nothing’s trying to murder me, the rom-com genre can’t be any more different from fantasy. I think – I won’t harp on about it too much – but genuinely, the representation element of this show, just the working environment is different because it’s really a different experience when you’re not the only one or few people of color on a set. As a person of color or as a woman of color, you generally feel more supported when there are other people who look like you around, so that was a lovely, enjoyable experience. Not to say I wasn’t supported on Game of Thrones, I love that cast and crew and everyone from the bottom of my heart, but those conversations that only you and other people of color understand, it happens and you don’t feel as shy or nervous. And also, what I’ve found is that you can learn about other people’s experiences that are different from yours, I think is important for any set. Just in terms of the story, this is much more fun and lighthearted and obviously, there’s ups and downs and trials and tribulations, but it’s just so much more polite and less intense.