Emayatzy Corinealdi brought two large, overstuffed loose-leaf notebooks to lunch at Culina at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. It was mid-January, three days after her 33rd birthday, and Corinealdi, who won the Gotham Film Award for best actor for her breakthrough role in Middle of Nowhere, wanted to “reveal herself.” In the film, she plays a woman married to a man who is in prison, but she is dramatically different from her character. “Ruby is an introspective person,” Corinealdi said, as she slid into the booth. “I’m pretty much going to say what I feel.”
Middle of Nowhere, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, has dramatically altered her career. “It was the opportunity I was waiting for,” she said. “When I auditioned, I thought, This is the reason I drove here 10 years ago.” Corinealdi, who has short black hair and huge dark eyes, has an efficient way about her. Dressed in jeans and a loose beige sweater that camouflaged her striking curves, she seemed more like a young soccer mom than an aspiring actress. Her manner is more organized than artistic, and if she has demons, they are well hidden.
After examining the menu, Corinealdi decided on a bread salad with salmon. When her food arrived, she bowed her head and quietly said a prayer. She grew up as an Army brat, never staying long in any one place. When she was 15, her family moved from Fort Dix, in New Jersey, to Fort Knox, in Kansas. “I thought my life was over,” she said. “I remember thinking, In Kansas my name will be Evett—which is my middle name. I didn’t want to explain to anyone how to say Em-a-yat-zee.” She paused. “I was fighting all the time in school back then. But I calmed down.”
Corinealdi opened one of the giant albums, which chronicled her life until she was 22, when she decided to leave Leavenworth, Kansas, for Los Angeles. There was a photo of her in Mainz, Germany, on her 8th birthday, sitting in front of a giant cake in the shape of a bear. Corinealdi’s father, who was a cook in the Army and now works as head chef at a Hilton hotel in Kansas City, had baked it. “We left Germany when I was 11,” Corinealdi recalled. The photos jumped around: Corinealdi as a track star in short shorts; looking very Jersey in junior high school with long orange nails and a matching orange halter dress; backstage at a Los Angeles fashion show in a glittery silver ensemble. She was clearly a star wherever she went.
“After high school, I had $2,000 saved,” Corinealdi said. “And I packed everything I could into my ’95 Nissan Sentra with no air-conditioning, and I drove out to L.A.” The first job that meant anything to her was a role on the soap opera The Young and the Restless. She played a nurse. “I was on the show for five episodes, and I guess I either quit or was fired from the hospital.”