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.”
Corinealdi ate her salad slowly. “I have always kept an audition log,” she said. “I write down the project, the casting agent, what I wore, my notes, and how I felt about the audition. When Middle of Nowhere came along, it was something new. I hadn’t read anything like it, and I’d never auditioned for anything similar.” I asked her if she’d been to a prison before making this film. “I have visited someone in prison,” she replied. “All I can say is those memories helped me.”
Corinealdi didn’t have any photographs of her triumphs at Sundance or the Gotham Awards. Those seminal moments were stored on her phone. She asked the waitress to wrap up her half-eaten salad and scrolled through the images: Corinealdi with an open suitcase, packing for Sundance (“I label each outfit when I travel so I know what to wear when: This one for the Q&A, this dress for after the screening, this other one for the party, etc.”); taking a bubble bath in her rented condo during the festival; wearing a short white cocktail dress and gold shoes at the Gotham Awards in Manhattan. “When Emily Blunt handed me the award, I whispered, ‘I love you,’ in her ear.” Corinealdi laughed. “I was not expecting to win.”
She put her phone away. The critical success of Middle of Nowhere has, she says, changed everything: “I’m now in rooms I’ve always wanted to be in.” But then again, nothing has changed. “I still have a schedule. My car is still filled with carrots and nuts so if I get hungry when I’m auditioning, I have a snack. I still come home and cook dinner. And I always make enough for two because then I’ll have leftovers for lunch the next day.”
Corinealdi got up to leave. I asked her if she needed me to pay the valet for her car. “Oh, no,” she said, gathering up her giant albums. “I found a great place on the street.” She smiled. “One movie doesn’t turn you into a different person.”