‘Megalopolis’ Star Nathalie Emmanuel Talks Working With Francis Ford Coppola on His Mysterious Sci-Fi Drama: Like ‘Being Part of an Orchestra, and He’s the Conductor’

Nathalie Emmanuel knows all about not talking about the projects she’s in. Seven years on “Game of Thrones” as the fan-favorite Missandei gave the Brit an instant lesson on the dangers of spoiling a show where much of its popularity rested on an endless supply of (mostly bloody) shocks and surprises.

But Emmanuel’s now unable to talk about something very different, and for very different reasons.

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“Megalopolis” is without doubt among the most anticipated movies of the year. The hugely ambitious magnum opus — and potential final feature — from master filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola is a project he’s been trying to get off the ground since the 1980s. But it’s also a film shrouded in mystery and intrigue, self-financed to the tune of $120 million and with ongoing speculation over who might pick up the not inconsiderable tab to release it. A secret screening in L.A. for potential buyers only poured fuel on the rumors. But in the lead up to its grand world premiere in Cannes, the question on most people’s lips is: Is it actually any good?

“I felt like I had never seen anything like it… it’s epic, artistic and experimental,” Emmanuel tells Variety, having watched the finished film in London, using the sort of vague language that has accompanied “Megalopolis” since anyone got a glimpse of it. “It’s kind of in the vein of a lot of Francis’ work, which is not to conform in any way. It’s very much in line with his filmmaking.”

While reactions from the “Megalopolis” L.A. screening were wide-ranging and equally ambiguous, one key takeaway was that Emmanuel, despite being among a starry cast (including Adam Driver, Aubrey Plaza, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman and Giancarlo Esposito), delivers the strongest performance.

“That’s obviously very lovely to hear, and I humbly — as much as I can — receive that,” she says with a smile. But on set, Emmanuel considered herself the newcomer. “These are people that I’ve been looking up to for years, so it was quite intimidating. These are giants in our profession, the heavyweights. So there was definitely an element of processing that.”

In the film, set in an imagined modern America, Emmanuel plays Julia Cicero, a socialite who falls for Cesar Catilina (Driver), a genius artist hoping to rebuild the city of New Rome and create a utopian, idealistic future. But Catalina is up against the mayor (Esposito), who is not only committed to maintaining the corrupt status quo, but happens to be Cicero’s doting father.

Emmanuel says her agent, Andrew Rogers at IAG, “had his eye out on the project,” keeping in regular contact with the producers about her being involved. But she was still surprised when she got a call toward the end of 2021 saying that Coppola wanted to speak. She was filming in Budapest at the time, so had a late-night Zoom with the director, which soon turned into a game.

“Francis asked me to pick a line from a movie or song lyric or quote or joke, and then asked me to say it in multiple ways, like, ‘Oh, say it like Ophelia,’ or ‘Say it like you’re breaking bad news to somebody,’ or ‘Say it like it’s a secret’,” she says, noting that she chose a quote from “The Color Purple.” “I guess it was an exercise for him to see how I took direction. There’s obviously a multitude of ways of delivering any line.”

The ways Emmanuel delivered her line clearly won over Coppola and a few weeks on — without any audition or formal casting process — she got a call saying the leading role was hers. “It was a very unusual process, but I guess that’s how he does things… and I’m not gonna question it,” she says.

A year later, Emmanuel was on Coppola’s set in Atlanta, which she says was like being “part of an orchestra, and he’s the conductor.” Serving the “vision of a visionary filmmaker” was something she describes as being “like nothing I’ve ever experienced, and probably will never experience again.”

Appearing in the long-gestating, near-mythical passion project by one of the most celebrated directors of all time will no doubt be a landmark for most of the “Megalopolis” cast, irrespective of their experience. But for Emmanuel — whose post-“Thrones” career has seen her join the “Fast & Furious” family across four films and appear in two “Maze Runner” titles — it catapults her in a completely new direction.

“It is a new direction and I think it’s a good direction. But I don’t like to limit myself. I’ve actively tried to look around and be like, ‘Oh, let’s try over here,’” she says. “But I think with this movie, it’s very much outside of the usual Hollywood mold, where artistic integrity is held in high esteem. So I feel very lucky to be a part of something so unapologetically itself. Obviously we’re talking about one of the greatest filmmakers here, but I do hope I get to work with more people who are highly regarded.”

And Emmanuel already is, having recently shot John Woo’s English-language remake of his own 1989 action classic “The Killer” for Universal and Peacock. She’s in the lead hitman role made famous by Chow Yun-Fat, with the violence this time relocating from Hong Kong to Paris.

“It’s one thing to remake such an iconic movie — which is already really intimidating, because the original is so good — but it’s another to remake that movie with the same director and do a culture shift that blends Eastern and Western styles of action,” she says.

Woo is someone who Emmanuel says is “very romantic with his direction,” adding that he “dances with the camera, so it feels very dynamic and sort of sexy as well.”

“The Killer” is due out later this year and, together with “Megalopolis,” thrusts Emmanuel into the somewhat rare territory as a leading lady for pioneering filmmakers in both the arthouse and action worlds. But before she’s able to contemplate this, there’s another career milestone to hit — the red carpet for Cannes’ hottest ticket.

“It’s a real moment for me to be in a movie that’s in competition in Cannes, it’s bucket list stuff,” she says. “So that’s really exciting. But yeah, it’s also slightly scary to not slip up and say the wrong thing.”

Thankfully, it won’t be long before the mysteries of “Megalopolis” are finally out in the open.

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