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‘Megalopolis’ Lead Nathalie Emmanuel on Sealing Role in a Playful Zoom With Francis Ford Coppola

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It’s been just a few hours since Nathalie Emmanuel has seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis for the first time, and she’s settling on the right words to describe the experience.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” says the actress, talking over Zoom from London in late April, as she pauses for a second to collect her thoughts.

Coppola’s epic, which will have its red carpet world premiere at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, casts Emmanuel in a starring role opposite a stacked ensemble that includes Adam Driver, Giancarlo Esposito, Aubrey Plaza, Shia LaBeouf, Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Fishburne and Jason Schwartzman. “The movie feels like a real call to arms,” she says. “It asks big questions. In spite of all the horrible, hard and devastating realities of the world that we live in, how can we make it better? It feels like there’s hope or a possibility for something better.”

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And there’s nothing quite like Megalopolis’ wild backstory. Coppola self-financed the $120 million experimental epic that has been ruminating in his mind for four decades. On the eve of the film’s big reveal in Cannes, Emmanuel opened up about the experience of shooting Coppola’s passion project — which also represents a big play for the British thespian, who broke out playing fan-favorite Missandei on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Since then, she’s rolled with the Fast & Furious gang, joined the Maze Runner franchise and gone toe-to-toe with Kevin Hart in his Die Hart series.

As for Megalopolis, the film centers on an ambitious architect named Caesar (Driver), who wants to rebuild New Rome — a city similar in size and scope to New York — as a utopia following an apocalyptic disaster. Emmanuel describes her character, Julia Cicero, as the “beloved daughter” of Esposito’s character, the first African American mayor of New Rome. “She finds herself very intrigued and fascinated by Caesar,” she says. “He also just so happens to be her father’s kind of archnemesis, so she finds herself stuck between these two worlds and trying to work out her place in it.”

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” says Emmanuel (center, on set with Chloe Fineman and Francis Ford Coppola) of Megalopolis. MEGA/GC Images/Getty Images

Coppola’s hopes of making the film date back to the 1980s. Riding high after a historic run that saw him deliver 1972’s seminal best picture Oscar winner, The Godfather, followed by the Gene Hackman starrer The Conversation and The Godfather Part II (both best picture nominees in 1975), and 1979 epic best picture nominee Apocalypse Now, Coppola still reportedly didn’t have enough juice to get the ambitious Megalopolis off the ground. He revisited it many times over the years by polishing the script, and it looked close to going forward until the 9/11 terrorist attacks forced another delay. In 2019, on the eve of his 80th birthday, Coppola told Deadline that he was ready to make the “unusual” production happen once and for all on a grand scale with a huge cast. A global pandemic forced yet another delay.

Emmanuel first heard of Megalopolis pre-pandemic when her L.A.-based rep, Andrew Rogers at Independent Artist Group, tipped her off and promised to keep an eye on it. That led to a “very casual” meeting with the iconic filmmaker. “We had a chat and a cup of tea,” Emmanuel recalls. “It didn’t really feel like an audition. It felt very relaxed, and he told me a bit about his inspiration for it, and the character [Julia] that I would be playing. He said, ‘Do you want to read a page of the script?’ I was like, ‘Sure, why not?’ ”

Following the pandemic delay, the actress was in Budapest in late 2021 filming a lead role in the horror thriller The Invitation when Megalopolis resurfaced. “I had a call with Francis over Zoom,” she details of a meeting that morphed into an audition of sorts. “We played a fun game where he asked me to select a line from a song, a movie, a poem, anything. To be honest, I can’t remember what I chose in the end, but he asked me to say that line in different scenarios. Say it like the butt of a joke, like you’re breaking really bad news to somebody, like you’ve just heard the worst news in the world, like you’re celebrating, just over and over in all these different ways. That’s how we talked and got to know each other.”

Not long after, Emmanuel’s reps called with the good news that she got the part. Shooting started in Atlanta in November 2022 and continued through March 2023, but before cameras started rolling, Emmanuel recalls a week of rehearsals with more theater-style games, much like her Zoom audition. “It was a fun way to help the actors get connected, be playful and spontaneous,” she says. That sense of adventure continued through production and when asked to sum up the experience of working on Megalopolis, Emmanuel leans on one word: “Surprising.”

“That’s the word I feel when I think about the experience and the whole process,” she says. “A lot of surprising, unexpected moments. While at times that can be challenging, it’s part of the process of figuring it all out. It makes for a really unique experience.”

Emmanuel continues, “There were days when we went in and you sort of asked yourself, ‘What’s going to happen today?’ A lot of people can relate to this idea, and I know I can be this way, you can tether to a place where you feel secure and safe, but sometimes jumping into the unknown is freeing. It’s scary but freeing as well. I came up against myself quite a lot, and got to meet myself quite a few times. As an actor, as an artist, as a human being, it’s always good to meet yourself and just go for it. What’s that saying? ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’ ”

Without spoiling plot points or specific scenes, Emmanuel says that some of those spontaneous moments ended up in the finished film. “There were rehearsal-type exercise that we did that ended up in the film because they were really useful as a way to push yourself and open yourself up to surrender to the process,” she notes. “I learned a lot from his way of being spontaneous, playful and experimental. And the same goes for the actors around me who I saw and watched do the same.”

She praises the cast for the way they supported one another through the process. “Everyone was so committed to be in service of realizing this story that has been in Francis’ mind growing, evolving and percolating for 40 years,” she says.

Much has been written about Megalopolis in recent weeks after Coppola hosted a private industry screening at the Universal CityWalk Imax theater on March 28 for potential distributors and studio insiders. Some of the ink has focused on the challenges Coppola could face in landing a deal, but Emmanuel shrugs off the noise. “That feels a bit above my pay grade,” she says. “With any movie, sometimes they can be critically one thing and commercially something else, and it doesn’t really mean anything. Francis has a history of making movies that still throw up new questions over time, and this feels like one of those movies that will do that. As artists, this is what we made and what we poured ourselves into, we believed in it and did our absolute best.”

Emmanuel, who has another starring role on the horizon with the upcoming release of The Killers for action auteur John Woo, says she hopes Megalopolis leaves audiences feeling hopeful. “It’s a love letter to humanity,” she concludes. “In a world that can feel so unrelenting and painful and devastating at times, I hope people take away a hope for something better and a knowledge that we can have agency in that.”

Adam Driver and Emmanuel in ‘Megalopolis.’ American Zoetrope/Megalopolis Mihai Malaimare

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