Emayatzy Corinealdi

By
Photography Brian Higbee

Published May 27, 2016

EMAYATZY CORINEALDI IN LOS ANGELES, APRIL 2016. PHOTOS: BRIAN HIGBEE/COPIOUS MANAGEMENT. STYLING: TIFFANI CHYNEL/THE WALL GROUP. HAIR: LARRY SIMS/FORWARD ARTISTS. MAKEUP: SAMUEL PAUL/FORWARD ARTISTS.

When Emayatzy Corinealdi first decided to become an actor, she made a vision board with her goals for the future. “One of the early, early things I had on there was ‘booking a national commercial,'” she recalls. “It has been very rewarding to be able to look at the progress and have a clear picture of what it is I’m trying to create for myself,” she continues. “It has been really satisfactory to know that you have a measure of control over things.”

Although Corinealdi has been acting professionally for over a decade, in the last five years, the breadth of her career has greatly expanded. In 2012, the Kentucky-born actor was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her role as Ruby alongside David Oyelowo and her longtime friend Omari Hardwick in Ava DuVernay‘s second film Middle of Nowhere. From there, she was cast in indie films like The Invitation and Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, and Amazon’s original series Hand of God. This holiday weekend, she’ll star as Belle, the wife of Kunta Kinte, in the History Channel’s remake of Alex Haley’s Roots

In retelling Roots, Corinealdi and the rest of the cast and crew—which includes British newcomers Malachi Kirby and Regé-Jean Page as well as Forest Whitaker, Laurence Fishburne, Matthew Goode, James Purfoy, Anna Paquin, and director Mario Van Peebles—hope to speak to a new generation. Corinealdi cites her nephew, who never felt he would be able relate to the original 1970s miniseries, when discussing Roots‘ relevance. “When I mention it to him, when I send him clips to the original, he doesn’t have that much interest in seeing it, and that made me realize the importance of it,” she explains, “how it could be an opportunity to add to that conversation and have the same effect on us now as it did when it first premiered in the ’70s, where that was what everyone was talking about, it really hit you in a place where it was real, you hadn’t seen anything like that.” 

OMARI HARDWICK: One of the things I most like about the way you see life—and I say this with so much love for our journeymen that look like us, African American artists—is I know you think expansive in terms of seeing yourself in particular roles. There’s that brain of yours and that confidence that, for me, has always been one of the things that I thought would make you stand out. You could do the same role that Meryl Streep could do, that America Ferrara could do, that Omari Hardwick could do. It was one of the things that I just thought was great about you and progressive, relatively speaking—I don’t think between you and I in a conversation it’s that progressive. Do you feel an amount of pressure to lead, not only yourself and maintain your journey and maintain a vision of “I can be expansive, I can play all kinds of roles, they don’t have to be relegated to the woman who’s this way or that way,” but to make a clear path for people of color to be able to take on roles that they might be very, very intimidated by? Do you feel this activist opportunity with where you are to both be a great actress and make people behind you go, “Oh if Emayatzy did it, I can do it”?

EMAYATZY CORINEALDI: I wouldn’t say it’s a pressure. It’s something that would come naturally just as a byproduct of the fact that there aren’t a whole lot of roles where we’re leading. There are certainly a whole lot more, but there’s still room. So I think just by the nature of that, I’m going to be looked at by some other up-and-comers, by my nieces and nephews, by kids, that way. I already know the things that are important to me, the things that I believe in, the things that I stand for, and I take those with me in every role that I’m doing. It’s not something I feel pressured to be; I don’t feel like I need to be a strong black woman to make sure I’m a good example. It’s something that just is, will be. 

HARDWICK: There’s a whole bunch of fanfare and frenzy and anticipation for a series that was so iconic, not only for our parents to view, but also for them to feel like they could connect with stories that were not necessarily told—that now are told as 12 Years A Slave or our dear friend Anthony Hemingway’s show Undergroundand that’s the remake of the incomparable story of Roots. I want to know how it came to you, if it was just a Skype session, if someone just offered it to you, if it was an actual audition where you had to go in and get down and dirty to convince the powers that be how much you were this character of Belle.

CORINEALDI: It came about through an audition that I had to go in there and fight for. [laughs] The offers have been few and far between, and some of the ones that have come have been for things that are almost trivial, things you could do in your sleep. A lot of the good work—because it’s a good role that everyone would want—you still have to fight for, so this definitely was that. I think now it’s such a perfect time given the climate that we’re in. We still have a lot more room to go. The fact that we have a Black Lives Matter movement along with Roots coming out again, there’s room for a conversation to be had as a result. That’s when I said, “I would be humbled to be a part of this for what it can be and the whole generation that it can speak to.”

HARDWICK: There’s that part of Belle that we know—the proverbial resilience, the Harriet Tubman nature of “I will not fall for anything and I will continue to move on,” and I know you to be that way. As an actor, we always get asked these questions of, “Where did you get that from? Were you transferring an emotion that came from this time? Is there a specific pain that you’re channeling? Is there a person that you know that you’ve transferred that pain from?” When you approach a character like Belle, that’s been played and been documented, was there fear? If there was fear, what are some of the adjectives that you feel describe Belle that equally describe Emmie, and what are some things that you didn’t necessarily associate with.

CORINEALDI: Yes, there was fear. There was definite fear. Because what Madge Sinclair  did with Belle [in the original series] was absolutely perfect and iconic in its own right. Just the impact of Roots period, it was perfection by itself.  That’s why I love that in doing this one, it isn’t, “We’re doing this one so that it can be better than the original because that one missed the mark in some way.” No. This is an opportunity to speak to another generation and that’s what’s important. So there was a fear because she was just so wonderful in what she did. But for me, the thing that struck me most about the character of Belle was her own confidence, her own courage to stand in what she believed. For me Emayatzy, where we differ, I think I would’ve been a bit more of the school of thought of, “Okay, I’m not going to accept this. I’m going to keep trying to fight. I’m going to make my way out of here”—similar to the Kunta character. But in doing the work and really beginning to understand, not only who Belle was, not only who she represented, but in reading through these actual slave testimonials and doing all this research on my own, there is such an amazing amount of courage and strength that it requires to say, “This is where I am now, and this is what I need to do to survive everyday,” and to do that. That in itself requires a courage. I think that’s where Belle and Kunta came together and understood each other. He believed that he was never going to be enslaved; she believed that you have to accept this life as it is now in order to survive, but at the same time, she knew inside that she was not a slave herself. It’s kind of an external versus internal thing. So once I was able to see it in that way, I completely understood her. I completely understood all of my ancestors who experienced that and said, “You know what, I’m choosing to live, and in order to live, this is what I’m going to do.” There’s such a courage to that. There’s a scene in the first night where Kunta has been captured and he wants to run away. He sees this field of slaves and only one overseer and he says to himself, “Why aren’t they running?” It’s before he’s gotten to the farm to really understand what’s it all about; from his perspective, he doesn’t understand. So for me, that’s what got me into Belle’s character and understanding her will to survive and what that had to look like for her and for her child and for her husband. It had to come in a different form, but at the same time it was still something that was so necessary. Her way of survival was equally as important as his.

HARDWICK: To become the very small percent of the Screen Actors Guild who are actually able to call what we do a job, you’ve got to go through sacrifices. You’ve got to slow down and pick your fights, pick your battles, pick when to go off on people, pick when not to. That journey is very…there’s an abandonment feeling. I’ve always said, New York and Los Angeles, through a multitude of human movement, there is a loneliness that is indescribable. And what I always connected with in Roots, is that I always thought all the characters were lonely while right next to each other. 

CORINEALDI: I did understand and relate to the loneliness that Belle felt—like you said, that they all felt. There’s a certain method of survival that they had to employ, and sometimes that method required you to be inward. I did connect to that feeling of wanting something so badly, of having a vision of a life that you imagined for yourself, and someone or something just bearing down on your back and you’re not able to get there, and what it takes to keep trudging through and holding onto that vision all the while. 

HARDWICK: Not that dissimilar from some of the pull it took to play Ruby when you and I finally met on screen in Middle of Nowhere with the brilliant Ava DuVernay and her team—Bradford Young and all of these incredible people we got to work with. There was that loneliness for both of those characters, Derek and Ruby, so well said. I don’t know how much you’ve talked about your travels in life and your military background in terms of, now, your very special younger brother whom I adore, and your father. I don’t know what an “acting bug” is. People always say, “The acting bug bit you.” I’m like, “No, that’s God tapping you on your shoulder with a heavy-ass hand and you’re kind of like, ‘Really? You want me to tell stories for the rest of my life?'” When did the God-hand press on you and do you remember that moment being connected to hopping around so many places? I want to know about your background of movement in life and where you went and the vagabond of life that, as the daughter of your cool-ass father, you were forced to live. Did you feel like you found a lot of story telling from that movement in life?

CORINEALDI: Absolutely. Of course I didn’t know it at the time, but I really do think that all of my moving around and travels and whatnot have contributed to my curiosity when it comes to acting and the characters and wanting to know about people. I’m curious about strangers. I want to know where you’re from. I want to know what you’re doing. So I think that does come as a direct result of having to move and make new friends all the time, just that curiosity. As far as the moment that I felt when god was tapping me on my shoulder, I do remember the moment where I realized, “Oh wow, this is what I want to do.” It came when I was 18. I had been acting and everything before then—I had been doing summer theater and was involved in everything I could be in except for drama in high school because I was an athlete. I was like, “Oh I’m not going to be in the drama department. That’s so silly.”

HARDWICK: The nerdy drama people that we laughed at while athletes.

CORINEALDI: Exactly. So silly. I was always one to be involved in anything that involved acting but nowhere during that time did I think of it as a career. It was just something fun that I wanted to do. It was my senior year and Dad really wanted me to go into the military and my mom really wanted me to go to college and become this lawyer, and it was this little conversation that I had outside with myself, with god. It was, “I really think I want to be an actress…can I do that? How do you do that?” “I don’t know, but I think you should do it.” “Well that’s what I’m going to do.” It was literally like that. That is how the decision came, and the path was made from there. 

HARDWICK: [laughs] I only laugh, Emmie, because it’s the eight-year-old in you that I know. Interview magazine wanted to know, “What was the connection between you and Emmie?” And I always tell people, “We’re old souls. We’re 95 years old on one Wednesday and the next Wednesday we’re nine years old.”

CORINEALDI: [laughs]

HARDWICK: That’s a very dichotomous life to try and navigate, so I can hear you at nine, even if you were literally 18, in a conversation with yourself. It’s like Kizzy and Belle. It’s unbelievable. And that led you to, obviously, taking it seriously—we talk about that old soul and that desire to take things seriously and be crafted. My father always said, “Talent will keep you at the table.” It won’t necessarily get you to the table, it won’t necessarily make you best friends at the table, but talent will at least keep you at the table. And best friends…as we get older, we start to understand what does that really mean? You just want to be a respected friend. You want folks to respect you. So, when the respect was born in terms of respecting the craft of acting and wanting to become that next whomever, whether it was Angela Bassett or vying for Viola Davis’ roles or looking at a young Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and going, “I could do that, I could tell that story.” Or looking at Sophie Okonedo or someone you could relate to being a serious person and also this light-hearted person that I know so well. When and how did you decide between L.A. and New York? I know you’ve done both. I met you in L.A. obviously. You’ve done Jersey, you’re from there, in part. Then you found yourself in L.A. How did that work?

CORINEALDI: Once I decided that’s what I wanted to do, and that decision came while I was still in Kansas, I knew the first step was going back to Jersey and getting a job and studying a doing all of that. I knew that I could do that in Jersey. I went to the Actor’s Training Studio in Jersey and then the William Esper Studio in New York, and I was just going back and forth doing that, and after a while I began to get a better idea of what it was that I wanted to do. I really enjoy theater, but I realized I really, really want to do movies and I was really influenced by, oddly enough, Bill Murray.

HARDWICK: Please expand. Please elaborate.

CORINEALDI: It was his movie Stripes [1981]. It was maybe the connection with my dad in the military, I don’t know. I thought he was so funny but at the same time so dramatic and I just loved the mix of the two. He was one of the early people that I connected to.

CORINEALDI: Once I made that connection I learned movies are taking place in L.A., you’ve got to move to L.A., even though it’s easier to stay right here in Jersey. But that’s how the decision was made, when I knew I wanted to do movies I knew I had to come out here.

HARDWICK: Did you feel that clock? Did you take off your watch in terms of, “I’ve got to make it in this amount of time. I can’t be living in a car underneath an overpass on the 405”? Did you take a big deep breath and go, “I’m in it to win it. It’s a marathon.” Or did you feel like you had a clock?

CORINEALDI: When I first got here I definitely had a clock. When I look back at my goals, it was, “I’m going to get an agent, I’m going to get head shots, and I’m going to take over this business.” It was really that cliché. They were not going to know what hit them and it was going to happen in the next six months. So I did have a clock. [laughs] Little did I know…

HARDWICK: Do you remember that moment. I know Renée Zellweger spoke years ago about that moment, I guess when she got Jerry Maguire, when she didn’t have enough money to put an ATM card in the bank to get money out of the bank. Do you remember that moment of going, “So the clock is done now?” Finances and the L.A. legendary having to pay a down payment on an apartment become so intimidating, but you put that in your tool box. Do you feel like more now than ever—more than when you first started,  more than Ava wanted you and I to bring the life to these characters in Middle of Nowhere, more than what you’ve brilliantly done with Don Cheadle that I just had the pleasure of watching in Miles Ahead, more than what you’ve recently done with bringing the character of Belle alive in Roots—you’re reaching back and pulling out of that toolbox that back then might have been a little tough to swallow?

CORINEALDI: Absolutely. All of those experiences, all of the struggle, all of the eating oatmeal every day for lunch when I was going to work and having my coworkers say, “Oh, do you want to go out to lunch?””Oh no, I love this oatmeal. This is what I want to do to stay in shape—eat oatmeal.” No, it’s cause I can’t afford anything else. All of those moments for sure have helped to shape everything and certainly I use them when I’m creating these different characters. How can you not? It’s in there. That’s the fun part of being an actor, being a storyteller—being able to use all those experiences and use people’s experiences that have crossed your path and influence you to help create a character. That’s the fun part. It may not have been fun when it was happening, but you get to keep it in the toolbox and pull it out when the time is right. 

HARDWICK: So when asked by young actors far and —and you’re going to get that question a lot more because the far and the wide will get even wider and become even farther—when they say, “Can I learn how to be a good actor? Is it innate?” Are you correct when you tell them that a lot of the acting teachers make money off of kids that are perhaps wasting money on acting class because it’s innate? Or do you think you can learn to be a good actor? What do you think? I get asked all the time so I’m wondering.

CORINEALDI: I think there is definitely a place to be held for acting schools. I don’t think teachers are completely wasting their time or the student’s money. Going to acting school will help to teach you the craft in a technical way, but acting is so indescribable. You can’t really tell someone how to get to that moment where it looks so real. You can’t teach that. I feel like it’s the same thing with singing; the notes that Whitney was able to hit, you can’t quite teach that—you either have it or you don’t—but you can teach from a technical standpoint. School can teach you technically what to do but acting is something that you just, in living, in life, in being, are innately able to do or not. I don’t think you can be taught the intricacies. 

HARDWICK: When I get asked that question in future, I will say, “Refer to Emayatzy’s answer in this here interview.” That is well said.

CORINEALDI: Acting is really something that if you keep it grounded and fun and childlike, that’s when it’s the easiest. That can be true in anything you’re doing, whether you’re doing your serious drama or your comedy. If you can connect to that, anyone can do it in that sense. There may be different measures of doing it well or not, but anyone can do it. It’s not rocket science to me. You can do it if you can connect in a grounded way to being a child. 

HARDWICK: I just took the kids to the zoo recently, and I remember learning from an acting coach that all the characters we ever play are animals. I remember Stella Adler telling a story about the late, great Marlon Brando being in a class with a bunch of people: She asked everybody to be a chicken, and everyone was going, “Pock, pock pock” and clucking their heads and doing on paper what a chicken looks and sounds like. She looked over into the corner and Marlon’s sitting there quietly squatting, and she’s like, “Marlon, what are you doing?” “I’m laying an egg.” 

CORINEALDI: [laughs]

HARDWICK: She said at that moment, she went, “He’s brilliant.” Prior to the work you did on Roots, you got to play alongside one of the greatest actors, definitely of his generation, Don Cheadle. What animal did you make if you made that character an animal? I definitely saw so much quiet work, so much Marlon Brando laying an egg work.

CORINEALDI: I didn’t approach her from an animal sense, but in thinking what animal she would be, the first thing that came to my mind was a tiger. What animal did you think she was after seeing it?

HARDWICK: I thought that she was an eagle. She saw very well, very far.

ROOTS BEGINS MONDAY, MAY 30TH, ON THE HISTORY CHANNEL. OMARI HARDWICK IS AN ACTOR, PRODUCER, AND WRITER WHO IS RETURNING AT JAMES “GHOST” ST. PATRICK FOR A THIRD SEASON OF STARZ’S POWER.