Emma Nelson’s powerful performances have established her as a young actress on the rise. She can be seen in the Netflix drama film ‘The Unforgivable’ alongside Oscar winners Sandra Bullock and Viola Davis. The film opened for a limited release in theaters on November 24th and then premiered on Netflix on December 10th.
Emma made her big screen debut in the film adaptation of the best-selling novel ‘Where’d You Go Bernadette’. A native of the Chicago area, she has participated in many local theater productions including a lead role in the pre-Broadway production of Trevor! The Musical.
Emma, you’re starring in the recently released Netflix film ‘The Unforgivable’. Tell us more about the film itself and your role of Emily.
The film is about a woman named Ruth who has recently been let out of prison. She was in prison for 20 years for the murder of a cop. And my role as Emily is Katie’s sister who Ruth essentially raised because her mother died. So she gets out of prison and she is looking for her sister that went into the system, she went into foster care when Ruth went to prison for killing the cop. My role essentially is kind of like a catalyst throughout the movie, to try and help Ruth and Katie reconnect. And I am really the only one who knows about what has really been going on with Katie and some of the struggles that she’s been facing and how they kind of relate to Ruth’s absence in her life.
You’ve worked alongside many Oscar winners already. What are the most valuable things you have learned from them and their experience?
The one thing that I have recently been thinking about and using a lot is connected especially with my experience with Sandra. I think that sometimes I would approach a scene and I would be really impressed with how grounded I felt that she was. It wasn’t really like a spoken piece of advice, but more something that I just observed and felt when she was my scene partner. She is really a very present actor and obviously she’s one of the greatest actors of our generation, but I think that there was just this presence and it reminds me to slow down and enjoy my scene. I remember when I went to the premiere and I got on the red carpet, it was a bunch of people taking pictures and I said hi to her for the first time since we had finished filming and I’m like ‘this is crazy’. And she’s like ‘just slow down, just enjoy it’. I think I often forget to do that, to just really be present. Not only when I’m in a scene, but also when I’m doing anything related to performance and I think that’s something that I’ve been carrying with me recently.
You have also played in quite some local theater productions. In your opinion, how do film and theater differ? And what do they have in common?
I think it’s probably different for every actor who does both theater and film. For me, I think that theater was a lot more stressful. I love doing it, but there’s this really intimate performance aspect where the audience is right in front of you and everybody who’s seeing your performance is right there. And you’re seeing them just as they’re seeing you. But with a movie, there’s so many other aspects that go into it and people aren’t watching and you’re not watching them watch you as you’re doing it. I think there’s so much more opportunity with theater, you’re being intimate with the audience. But with film, it’s like intimacy between you and the camera or you and your scene partner. They’re both performance, they’re both acting, but just in a different medium.
For me personally, I’m most comfortable with film. And I find that I enjoy it best, but I have always loved theater and I will always love theater. I think that when I get older, if there’s a show that I have the possibility of doing, I would totally love to go back and revisit it. But there’s just something about film for me that I feel so connected with when I watch a movie. And I love being able to do that for other people, when watching my performances, hopefully.
You’re still very early into your acting career. Who would be the one actor or actress you have always wanted to work with one day?
I get asked this question a lot and it has been the same answer, like forever. I love Natalie Portman. I am obsessed with Black Swan. I have watched Natalie growing up and I absolutely love her and I don’t know what I would possibly be in with her as, other than playing her daughter. But it would be such an incredible experience to be able to act alongside her.
And a male actor, this is gonna sound like a really obvious answer. In the past few months I have watched five Tom Hanks movies. I have always been a fan of his, I feel like he hasn’t made a bad movie and I always love watching his performances.
You grew up in Chicago. What are your top 5 favorite things about Chicago?
Let’s see, five things. I think that the attitude of the people here is so incredible. I think that people are generally nice for being in a big city, the attitude of people is really friendly in general. I also think we have great food. Not just deep dish pizza, there’s like a ton of amazing food in Chicago. We have really great architecture. If you’ve ever been to the city and taken a tour of Chicago, there’s just beautiful historical buildings. Also the museums are incredible in Chicago. I think that sounds like a touristy thing to do, but you have to visit the Art Institute. The museums are a really beautiful part of the city. And the fifth thing, this is like a really girly thing to say, but I think we have great shopping in Chicago.
If you could do anything in the world, what would you chose?
I literally could not ask for doing anything other than acting. Being an actor has been the ultimate joy for me. I never felt more purposeful and where I’m supposed to be than when I’m acting. And I would never choose anything else. There was really no other career that I ever considered. It kind of developed through my love for singing and performing as a younger girl. And then through theater, I kind of realized where my heart was, in the acting portion of performance.
I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to be able to act. I don’t think I would ever feel fulfilled in doing something unrelated to film. I would love to one day be able to venture beyond the camera, directing or producing or helping to write a script. I’m so lucky that I’ve been able to do this and I really hope that I get to continue doing it.
How do you like to spend your free time, when not working and studying?
I spend time with my sister when she’s home from college and I spend a ton of time with my dog. I have a dachshund and we love him so much. And I’ve been trying to teach myself how to play piano. I’m not against taking lessons, but maybe I can just try and do this myself. I’ve been singing since I was seven years old and so I try and use my ear. I am not super great with music theory and stuff like that, but I love doing that.
Other than singing, I love to write. I’ve never completed a whole screenplay, but when I started auditioning and reading scripts, I transitioned from writing narratives to trying writing scripts. I don’t have the fancy script writing software, I just go on my Google docs and jot down ideas.
How would you describe yourself, if you had to use only three adjectives?
I would say the first one that always comes to mind is passionate. I think I would describe myself as passionate, ambitious and tenacious.
Balancing your personal and professional life is very important. How do you take care of that balance?
It’s easy to say that there’s balance, I just don’t know if it’s even achievable. I think that I take care of myself the best I can and I try not to let myself get consumed by the really stressful aspects of being a part of this industry. As much as I love it, there are some really demanding parts of it.
What I do is I try and take care of myself, I try and take care of my mental health and make sure that I don’t feel burnt out. When I’m working, I’m really working and then when I’m home, I really try and be present in each setting. I really try and enjoy it as much as I can. I think sometimes I tend to worry about things that are about to happen or things that have happened and just trying to focus on where I am right now helps me.
What is the most rewarding thing about your work and what is the hardest part about it?
The most rewarding part, besides seeing the final product of a project that you’ve worked on, is seeing how people respond to it. It just makes me so happy when people come up to me and they’re like ‘I loved this and it made me feel all these different ways. I connected with your character in this way’. I love hearing people’s feedback about it because to me, I connect on such a personal level with the movies that I watch and hearing that when people watch me and watch things that I’m in, they can feel the same way, is incredible. It’s like a full circle. It makes me really happy to hear that I have the ability to affect people in the way that I’m affected by other actors.
I think that probably the hardest part is learning how to be comfortable being perceived by so many people. It’s kind of difficult to put myself out there, having my pictures everywhere and being comfortable with possibly hundreds of thousands of people watching me. And I think that that it can be taxing, especially when you don’t feel pretty enough or you don’t feel good enough because a lot of acting is rejection. It’s something that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better with and more comfortable with as I get more comfortable with myself. But just generally, having to let go of control and allow people to feel however they want about me and say what they want about me without letting it affect the way I feel about myself.
How do you cope with fame that comes with being such a successful young actress?
I don’t have to cope with nearly as much as somebody like Sandra. It’s like a totally different universe, but when it comes to red carpets and interviews and that kind of stuff, I have just really been trying to be my own support system and have a really solid foundation of self-esteem because I think it’s really easy to feel down about yourself when people are looking at you and you feel like everyone’s looking at you and everyone’s criticizing you. Working on my own perception of myself and making sure that I’m unflappable in that way really helps. And it can be overwhelming, but it’s always worth it. The social and the flashy aspect of it can be super fun, but it can also be taxing, especially as a young woman. Just relying on myself really helps me.
Talent: Emma Nelson
Photographer: Vincenzo Dimino
Stylist: Raz Martinez
Make-up: Camille Thompson
Hair: Marc Mena
Casting: Timi Letonja
Special thanks to imPRint
This interview was done for Numéro Netherlands by Jana Letonja.