Nathalie Emmanuel was a fan of Game of Thrones long before she joined the cast in Season 3 as Missandei, a trusted adviser to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). As fate would have it, after two seasons of faithfully watching the HBO series along with other fans, she saw the listing for a “nonwhite actress, playing age 18 to 24,” and immediately jumped at the chance.
“I phoned my agent and she was like, ‘I’ve already got you an audition,’” Emmanuel told BuzzFeed News. The actor knew little about her character’s arc besides the fact that she would appear in a few episodes in Season 3 of the HBO original series, with the possibility but no guarantee of returning in future seasons. Emmanuel was also drawn to the role because of Missandei’s relationship with Daenerys, also known as Daenerys Stormborn, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Mother of Dragons, and Breaker of Chains, among other names.
“When I first had the audition, they just gave us one scene to prepare, so I didn’t know much about Missandei. But what I did know was she’d been through a lot and was a very strong individual,” Emmanuel said.
When viewers first meet Missandei in the first episode of Season 3, she was a slave to Kraznys mo Nakloz (Dan Hildebrand) in Astapor. Kraznys is a slave trader and a Good Master — someone who rules over the three cities that make up the appropriately named Slaver’s Bay. We learn later that she was born on the island of Naath in the Summer Sea, and was removed from her home at a young age before she began her life of servitude. Fluent in 19 languages, Missandei acted as an interpreter between Kraznys and Daenerys when Daenerys visited Astapor. While the slave master was rude and condescending to Daenerys, Missandei “diplomatically” — as Emmanuel described it — translated his words so as to not offend Khaleesi.
After reaching an agreement to trade one of Daenerys’s dragons for his 8,000 Unsullied soldiers and Missandei, the Queen of Dragons spoke to Kraznys in his own language of Low Valyrian and revealed that she understood his insults the whole time Missandei was translating for him. She then orders the Unsullied to attack the Good Masters and kill all of the slave owners and their soldiers. Daenerys and the Unsullied leave Astapor, and Missandei joins her new queen on a journey to reign over Westeros. After freely serving Daenerys and assisting her with handmaiden-like tasks, Missandei eventually earns her place as one of Daenerys’s trusted advisers.
Emmanuel thinks of Missandei’s current role as a significant shift and major achievement, considering where she started. Aside from being Daenerys’s adviser, she’s a member of her small council, the most trusted people within the queen’s inner circle.
“She’s gone from enslaved object and a piece of property to this free-thinking, free-feeling person with emotions, opinions, and authority. And in a way, assertiveness,” Emmanuel said.
Missandei and Daenerys’s friendship has become one of the hallmark relationships on the show. She spends most of her days with Daenerys — the two powerful women existing in a world dominated by men.
“Missandei had seen this woman free people and show her incredible humanity to people. Missandei believed in her and wanted to support her,” Emmanuel said. “But then in return, Daenerys has this person who knows this world and understands these people, and she obviously seeks her advisement and her expertise on it. As a result, they’ve got this pretty great team.”
Missandei and Daenerys's relationship extend beyond the politics of Westeros — it’s deeply personal. In Season 7, Episode 4, “The Spoils of War,” Missandei had a moment alone with Daenerys and asked if she'd heard from the Unsullied after they were ordered to storm Casterly Rock. Daenerys picked up on Missandei’s sense of urgency about Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), an Unsullied soldier Missandei has developed a strong affection for. In fact, the two had a romantic encounter before Grey Worm left for Casterly Rock. When asked by Daenerys what happened between them, Missandei coyly replied, “Many things.” Daenerys replies, “Many things?” and the two smirk at each other, leaving the obvious unsaid.
It’s not uncommon on Game of Thrones for advisers to develop strong bonds with the kings and queens they serve, but Missandei and Daenerys’s relationship is still a unique one; the two can go from discussing war policy to “matters of the heart,” according to Emmanuel.
“The story is mostly about this war and this journey that we’re on with these characters, and so I think these very real moments between Missandei and Daenerys are lovely to see because it reminds us that they’re really just human beings,” she said. “They all have crushes, and it’s an aside from the official business.”
Their characters' friendship on the show reflects a genuine relationship in real life, according to Emmanuel. The cast members have built an authentic bond off set and hang out outside of work, which often results in “chatting and drinking tea.” “Bless her heart, she works so hard,” Emmanuel said of her Emilia Clarke. “She’s up and puts in work a long time before I am even waking up.”
Missandei’s relationship with Grey Worm — who is also a part of Daenerys’s small council — is another window into her character’s evolution. Grey Worm, like Missandei, has been loyal to Daenerys since her usurping of Astapor, and has risen through the ranks to become the leader of the Unsullied forces. The pair’s relationship is based on their mutual understanding of where they both come from and what they’ve survived, from enslavement and abuse to gaining freedom and power.
“They found themselves in the middle of this new world, and they’ve almost helped each other through it,” Emmanuel said.
The feelings between Grey Worm and Missandei came to a head in Season 7, Episode 2, titled “Stormborn.” When Daenerys sent the Unsullied soldiers to overtake Casterly Rock and fight the Lannisters, Grey Worm was forced to leave Missandei behind in Dragonstone where she and Daenerys awaited Jon Snow’s arrival and plotted their next moves toward Westeros. In a vulnerable moment, before Grey Worm left, the two are physically intimate.
“From what I imagine about Missandei’s sexual experiences as a woman and a slave, they would not have been consensual or what she wanted,” she said. “So, this is her first time being touched and embraced by a man who cared about her, who loved her, and who she felt the same way about.”
After it appeared in the July 23 episode of Game of Thrones, Missandei and Grey Worm’s sex scene was at the center of the conversation around the show. It was well-received by critics and was considered “a big deal.” Emmanuel thinks a lot of people reacted so positively to Missandei and Grey Worm’s sex scene because viewers have watched their relationship build for a long time. “Often, a lot of the sex scenes are about gratification, stealing moments with each other, and with certain people it happens in the brothels or it’s been rape,” Emmanuel explained. “That’s been very brutal.” The only exception Emmanuel could think of is Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Ygritte’s (Rose Leslie) cave moment in Season 3, which, like Missandei and Grey Worm, involved trust and consent.
As a member of the Unsullied, Grey Worm was castrated, leaving him especially vulnerable with Missandei. That factor alone made this moment incredibly important to him. “She wasn’t concerned with what was there or what wasn’t there, essentially. She was like, ‘I love this man, I want to see him in his entirety, and love him just as he is,’” Emmanuel explained.
“She knows where he comes from, she knows what happened to him,” she said.
There aren’t many actors of color who appear on Game of Thrones in significant roles, and the HBO show has received backlash for its predominantly white cast and lack of diversity. Daenerys has even been at the center of this criticism, with people calling her a “white savior” for emancipating slaves and “helping” people of color. In Season 3, Episode 10, there was an especially controversial image of Khaleesi being lifted up in a large crowd of Yunkai people who were worshipping the woman who liberated them. The shot shows Daenerys (white, blonde, and wearing a light blue dress) lying on top of a sea of nonwhite people, repeating the word mysah (mother) over and over again in gratitude.
Emmanuel thinks her role as a woman of color on GoT is crucial and she's grateful that the writers on the show gave Missandei an interesting and important storyline. When it comes to diversity on television overall, however, the actor believes there are still many strides to be made in the name of progress. “Hopefully in the future when we have shows on this kind of level, we can see more and more characters of diversity and actors from different backgrounds being included,” she said. “I’m hopeful for that, and am willing to work and push toward that.”
While she personally will always want to discuss representation on television and film, Emmanuel believes it’s a conversation everyone needs to have.
“I feel like it’s a question that’s often posed to people of color and actually the conversation is for everybody — the people who are making shows, writing, and casting on every level,” she said. “Maybe one day I’ll be in those rooms and making my own things and I can influence that more myself. It’s a conversation that I enjoy having and will always have, but I do think that it’s a conversation that needs to be had with everybody at every level.”
As far as Missandei’s experience as a person of color with power in Westeros, Emmanuel thinks “you can relate that back to real life.”
“Missandei is very aware that she’s in new territory with new people and probably people that are racially different from her,” she said. “That can often be a huge shock to your system when you’ve been growing up in one place with people who look like you, and then all of a sudden you’re thrown into this world where you’re one of a few. And then especially also being a woman, there’s no doubt she’s felt a little trepidation about that.”
Despite the fact that she’s an outsider in the predominantly white and fictional land of Westeros, Emmanuel thinks her character still holds her her own agency and power.
In Season 7, Episode 4, when Jon Snow and Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham) were visiting Dragonstone at Daenerys’s invitation, the men asked Missandei why she still serves Daenerys even though she’s freed from slavery and servitude. Missandei replied that she’s free to serve who she wants, and that she genuinely believes in Khaleesi. Jon Snow then asked what would theoretically happen if Missandei wanted to return to her home, to which she said, “Then she would give me a ship and wish me good fortune.” Missandei’s power lies in her own choice to stay loyal to Daenerys, and whatever role she is given if Daenerys does become queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
“They believe in this woman and this queen based on her actions not based on anything else,” Emmanuel said. “That’s the world that I want to live in one day, one that’s based purely on your actions and who you are, not based on your gender, race, sexual orientation, or gender identification, and it’s about what you are as a person who you are as a person.”
With Season 7 drawing to a close on Aug. 27 and only one final season to follow thereafter, viewers anxiously watch each week to see what will happen to the people of Westeros. Emmanuel is one of the millions of people watching GoT on Sundays, and like the show’s fans, she’s watching these episodes for the very first time.
“We’ve read scripts a year ago and maybe have an idea of what’s happening. I know my own storyline, but even with that, it was such a long time ago,” she said. “It’s hard to know how it’s going to unveil on screen. And no matter what you think it might look like or feel like to watch it, it exceeds all of your expectations, ever.”
Missandei’s fate, much like everyone else's on Game of Thrones, is currently unknown. Emmanuel said she isn’t sure what’s in store for her character, but that she’s happy to be a part of Season 8.
“She is smart. I feel like when things get more dangerous, it’ll be a chance for Missandei to show what she’s really made of,” Emmanuel said. “She’s got the bravery to get to this point, so maybe we’ll see a bit more of that bravery.”
As for the prospect of Missandei enduring a less positive outcome, Emmanuel said she’s made her peace with that being an option for her character. After seven seasons fans of Game of Thrones are aware that death is always a possibility, especially as the plot thickens and tensions rise between the Lannisters, Starks, Daenerys Targaryen, and the White Walkers. If Missandei does die in the midst of the impending action, Emmanuel said she wants people to “feel a lot of things.”
“I want her death to be an epic moment that people remember.”