Many film stars will tell you that navigating life in the public eye is about having an anchor. British powerhouse Natalia Tena is one of them, but in her case, the anchor is literal – Tena is one of a handful of Londoners to call the city’s waterways her permanent home. With the Harry Potter films and multiple seasons of Game of Thrones under her belt by the age of 30, Tena had already accomplished more than most could dream up for an entire lifetime. But even with a resumé stacked with such career-defining franchises, there was still something missing, and that was life on the water.
The unconventional decision to move from apartment to canal boat seems right in line with the left-of-center characters that Tena is most known for. In Harry Potter, it was the metamorphic Nymphadora Tonks; in Game of Thrones, the primal Osha. This year, she added another enigmatic badass to the list when she joined the John Wick franchise as Katia, the take-no-prisoners matriarch of the Ruska Roma for which she learned Russian and performed with a cast of action mainstays including Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne.
Shortly after John Wick: Chapter 4 was released to widespread acclaim from fans and critics alike, Tena opened her longboat to The Untitled Magazine for a chat about the film, her recent dive into women’s activism, and how getting in trouble at boarding school was the first spark of her megawatt success. Read Natalia Tena’s conversation with editor-in-chief Indira Cesarine below, with original photos by Jemima Marriott.
Indira Cesarine: I am really looking forward to chatting with you about everything you’ve been doing, including your latest movie “John Wick: Chapter 4” with Keanu Reeves. That must have been a lot of fun to work on!
Natalia Tena: It was. There were elements that were challenging, like doing lots of scenes in Russian, but it was a good way to find the character as well. Sometimes, having something to anchor it on is a good way to platform up, if that makes sense.
I understand that your first role was in About a Boy with Hugh Grant?
Yes, it was About a Boy. I was a kid, and I got this audition purely by chance because I was at boarding school, and I was caught smoking all the time – I’ve switched to vape, which is slightly better – but our punishment was to stay at the boarding school over the weekend. My drama teacher caught me coming out of Bush behind the drama department, where I loved smoking, and instead of busting me, he sent me into this room. It was a casting, and I had no idea it was a casting. He was just like, “Just go into that room,” and it was full of 10-year-old boys and me. And at the time, I had, like, disgusting dreads. I had lice, I had a million piercings, and I was like, “I thought you sent me to babysit these children. This is my punishment? It’s better than getting properly suspended. Okay, cool.” And then this lovely casting director, who I now know – I think she was the assistant at the time – was like, “Here you go, you must be here for Ellie.” And I was like, “Yes?” And I did it and I was like, “That was the best punishment ever.” It was five minutes of me saying some words at a camera, and I didn’t really understand what it was. And then that developed, and I got recalled. I loved theater, and I loved theater school. We had an incredible theater there, but it didn’t feel like it was something that someone like me – looking like me at the time, and at that age – could do as a living. It was more like, “It’s something I absolutely love, but only very, very, very pretty, skinny girls get those jobs.”
I love that story. I love the fact that you ended up becoming an actress out of that situation!
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, they kept punishing me, which meant you couldn’t go back on the weekends. When you got punished a certain amount of times, you got suspended. I’d been suspended twice, so I was on my third. If I got suspended again, I was expelled. This drama teacher changed my life. It could have gone, you know, me being expelled from a really good school and going to a really bad one, or that. Life, right?
Were your parents really supportive of you getting into acting? They must have been pretty freaked out that you ended up doing this massive movie starring Hugh Grant, and you were this wild child with dreads.
I know, proper feral. Kind of more like preparing for Game of Thrones. My mom kind of felt like I was always going to be an actor. For some reason, she had that projection of me. And my dad, he’s the most nurturing, lovely man, and he would’ve been proud of me whatever I did and would have supported anything. He’s one of those parents, you know what I mean? He was living in this country, and now he’s in Colombia. He’s Spanish; he can’t really understand a lot of the things I do. He’ll go watch plays and stuff, and he’ll cry, and he’s proud, but he actually has no fucking idea what’s happening. He’s just like, “Yay!” I think after I did [About a Boy], I still wasn’t like, “I’m going to be an actor.” All my mates were like, “Now you have an agent.” And I was like, “That doesn’t mean anything.” I was already very cynical, so I was trying to go to university, and I got a scholarship to do philosophy, psychology, and theology in Australia. Me and my best mate were going to go. [We] were going to get a pink caravan and live by the beach. And then I fell in love, and I couldn’t leave the country. I just couldn’t. I had no money and I was busking on the tube, and I got my first lead in a play, and that’s when I started doing about three or four years of back-to-back theater and touring. That was basically my drama school. Learning on the job, essentially.
So you were busking on the tube? Were you performing?
Yeah, the guitar.
I used to live in London, so I recall often seeing buskers. Were you an “official” one that was licensed, or were you just doing it?
Well, from 16 to 18, every weekend when I wasn’t being punished at school, I was coming back to try and earn money in some way. You could tell when the transport police were coming, it was like, “Run!” but they made it official when I was 18. I did get a badge, but it was pretty cutthroat, man. If you are one minute late to your post, especially the Piccadilly one, which everyone wants because everyone’s there – all the tourists and everyone – there’d be altercations. I’d have to really fight for my spot. That made you be on time. That and getting a theater job is what made me be very, very, very punctual in life.
You obviously became a presence in the public eye with your Harry Potter role, right? Do you consider that your breakthrough role?
Yeah, in many ways it was because it was such a huge thing. I knew nothing about Harry Potter. I thought Voldemort was a country somewhere. I didn’t understand it. When I went through the audition, I actually did a terrible audition and I rang my agent. I was like, “It was terrible.” She’s like, “Nah, you always say that,” but I was like, “No, it was fucking terrible.” And the director, for some reason, was like, “I just feel that you are this person,” so he gave me another chance, which has never happened to me before or since, ever. I came back, and I’d read the books by then and I kind of understood it, and he was really kind and was like, “I’ll give you a three-hour slot.” And within half an hour, he had it. He was like, “That’s it.” He was very kind. After that, things did start to come in a bit more. I just had more auditions, and it was easy to move from being in theater to film and TV – that shift can be quite hard. At that point, I was a fully working theater actor doing little bits and bobs in films. Maybe that could have been my life and I would’ve loved it, but this suddenly propelled me somewhere else, and it opened different audition doors, you know?
Exactly, and that probably propelled you right into Game of Thrones.
Yeah, because it was one of the things that I was [then] auditioning for. Exactly.
What’s your fondest memory from Game of Thrones?
I’ve got quite a lot. When you’re on location, it’s a very different feel to when you work at home; you are all put into hotels in a random city. At the beginning, no one knew how big it was going to be, so it was quite liberating. It just felt like a cool job to be part of. It didn’t have that thing you can get when you’re like, “Oh my god, I’m joining something really big and scary.” A lot of us were very young, so we had a lot of fun and we were very silly. And they wouldn’t let us go home unless we had three days off, even though Belfast is around the corner. So, we had all this free time, and we really got to explore the city and have so much fun with each other. But some of the days on set were really hard. It was a hard job, and what helped with that was how we laughed about it – and the camaraderie – because it was fucking freezing. It was in the forest in Ireland, and the costumes were so legit, but that means they weren’t very warm. I mean, I looked like a medieval bag lady. That’s my character’s look, and she wasn’t wearing very much, so there were a lot of cold times. I think I had quite a lot of fun on the day that I had to skin a lot of rabbits. I think we went through 42, and by the end, there still weren’t enough of the shots, so we were having to glove it again and fake the skinning. It sounds quite gross, but it was very, very funny, and it was the only day that was warm. The only day that we were dealing with dead animals was, like, the hottest day of the year in Ireland, and I was covered in flies. But me and Ellie [Kendrick] had a lot of fun doing it, even though it was gross.
Let’s talk about John Wick. It’s really exciting that this is your first movie in the John Wick franchise, which was such a massive production. Can you tell me about your role as Katia?
Katia is the matriarch of the Roma side in Berlin. When you think about it, she’s grieving when you meet her. Her dad’s been killed, and she’s having to establish a position as the new leader of this section of the underworld. Chad and Keanu and the writer and me, we chatted about what family relation she might be. Like, “I feel like they haven’t seen each other for a while. I think the last time they probably saw each other was 20 years ago, and I probably looked up to him. It was probably a very weird, gothic family Christmas.” I was thinking that she’s maybe his cousin or niece, something like that.
She’s his cousin or his niece, you’re not sure?
Well, we couldn’t work it out. We were just like, “Look, it’s a kind of distant family member, or it could be close, but they’re not close.” You can have cousins that you’re close to, but [she’s] kind of a distant family member and they haven’t seen each other for years.
That’s so fascinating. How was it working with Keanu Reeves?
It was lovely. Everyone was lovely. He is lovely. Chad, the director, is so warm. Going into this massive production, as a minor character as well, people don’t have to be that warm. It can be very like, “Hi, yeah, great.” But Chad went out of his fucking way to make me feel completely comforted and safe in great hands. He showed me all around the studio. He introduced me to all the dogs. He gave me and Keanu our own reading and rehearsal. I just felt very looked after.
That’s so cool. Did you have to do any special training?
I had no stunts. I’m not a stunt person. God, I’d love to come back in any future things they might have of this ilk and be Katia and do something mad. I feel like everyone in all the John Wick things has a dog. I think she would have some sort of leopard or cat animal that would be her weapon. My challenge was just learning Russian. I had a lot of Russian to learn. All my scenes were pretty much in Russian, so I had to kind of nail down the accent. I’ve done Russian before for something else, but it was so long ago.
Well, that’s pretty serious special training.
It’s an oral stunt, yeah!
Moving forward, what would be your dream project or director to work with?
Oh, that’s too hard a question because there are too many. I’ve got a cinematic family in Catalonia. His name is Carlos Marqués-Marcet, and I’ve done two films with him, and I’m hoping to do a third one this year. I just love working with him. I love him on a personal and professional level, and I can’t wait to do that. It’s a bit like, and maybe everyone gets this, I’m sure you get this as well, when you read one kind of book or see one kind of film and you’re like, “Okay, I now want to do something else. I want to watch something else.” I kind of love all the genres. I did something that was very sci-fi, and then I came back and I had a romcom and it was so, so nice to chop and change so you don’t get kind of stuck in that world. Thinking about it, I haven’t done a costume drama for a very long time. Maybe I’d like to do some, or a costume comedy, or a tragedy. Something in some mad, old-school outfits would be quite fun.
I was actually going to ask if you’ve ever done a period drama.
Yeah, I’d love to go back. I’ve been in a corset once, and I always say that I want to go back, when actually after a month of wearing all that gear, you’re like, “Why? Why did I yearn for this?” but it is very fun. Again, that’s where a costume really helps. Costume and makeup always. I feel like as an actor you get 60 to 70 percent of the character, and then the director guides you to the next, maybe, 20 percent. And then hair and makeup finish you and you’re like, “Oh, okay. This is who it is.”
Tell me about your music. You’re also the frontwoman of an indie band Molotov Jukebox? Are you still performing?
Yes, but I wouldn’t call it indie at all. It’s more tropical Gypsy music, very fun and Latin. When we started it, me and my fellow were really into Gogol Bordello. Imagine them, but more tropical, Latin vibes added to it. Molotov Jukebox, we’ve got a few gigs this year, which will be really fun. But it’s very hard to manage both music and acting because one of them gets booked up in advance. Music gets booked up, like, six months [in advance]. I’ve already got gigs that they’re asking for in November, and those things are set in stone, whereas acting, I did two auditions last week – one of them in Italy, one of them somewhere else. And then I might suddenly have to go. It’s very hard, and I kind of struggled with constantly letting down my band and my manager. But it’s okay to do it on a few weekends here and there. That works, so that’s what I’m trying to do now.
I could imagine if you have a massive last-minute film opportunity come up, for example, to be in John Wick…
Yes, it’s stuff like that. And John Wick – I think loads of us during the pandemic rewatched all of them, and I actually watched all of them before I even got the meeting with this guy. It was like, “What? I literally just rewatched all of them.” They’re just amazing, like watching the art of martial arts. It’s kind of like a poem to martial arts, a physical poem.
With so much going on, what’s your average day like?
I think with a lot of self-employed people, it’s always chaotic. I’ve realized that if you don’t have an anchor, you can go a bit mad. For some people, it’s a person, although that can be dangerous because obviously, you can’t always be in the same place as your anchor if it’s a person. But for me, it’s my running shoes. I get up, I get running. I’m going to get up, I’m going to have my hot water and ginger and lemon and my bits and my coffee, and I’m going to go for a run, and I’m going to do this plank because I can take it wherever I go, and that’s my solid, kind of normal thing that I do on a weekday. Whether I’ve got a job at the moment, or I’ve got an audition the next day, or I’m filming, or whatever’s happening, that’s the one thing that kind of balances me. I think everyone has it, whether it’s yoga, or for some people, if they’re religious, they pray or meditate or whatever it is. And I really love baking. I actually got into it before the pandemic, which was dangerous because suddenly I had all this time to be like, “Cake!” So much fucking cake, but I think that’s my only constant. Oh, and my dog, obviously.
What kind of dog do you have?
I rescued her. She’s like a Chihuahua – some sort of pavement, special mix – mongrel. She’s definitely got Chihuahua in her because she doesn’t stop shouting, and she’s got the ears, but definitely mixed with something a bit bigger because she’s got some weight on her. She’s a bit big. I rescued her in LA when I was working on a show. I moved there, and the running anchor didn’t quite work there. I thought I was going to do this job for six years, but it ended up only being six months because it wasn’t picked up, even though it looked like it was going to be. I was like, “Well, I’ve now moved to another continent,” and it kind of freaked me out. I walked in one day, and I rescued a dog.
Dogs are incredible emotional support.
Yeah, a hundred percent.
I was spying on your Instagram, and I noticed that you’re supporting the Orchid Project, which is a non-profit for women and girls. Can you tell me about that?
Yes, they are incredible. I came across this book, I didn’t know that much. I mean, I knew about female genital mutilation, but it just felt like another horrible thing the world was doing to women, and I was so angry. For like a year after I read this book, I’d have a glass of wine and start ranting about it, and eventually my friends were like, “Nat, shut up and do something about it. You’re just shouting.” So, I went to meet them, and I did some videos and stuff with them. And then, when we had to raise money, we did it through Pledge, a crowdfunding thing, and I realized that when you do that, a percentage can go to them. And then in 2019, I met with them again and I was like, “Look, what else can I do? I don’t know what else I can do,” and they were telling me stuff like, “Do a marathon.” I was like, “I love running, but I can’t commit to that because if I get a job again, it’s one of those things that I can’t commit to.” They were like, “You can do anything.” I’d always wanted to do the Camino in Spain, being Spanish as well. The Camino is a kind of pilgrimage across the entirety of Spain. I did a tiny bit in 2019 to test it and I was like, “I can do this.” And then 2020 happened, and obviously, I had to cancel it. But then later in the year, it opened up. There was that moment in September/October, and people were traveling just a little bit. I did it in that time, and I managed to raise about five-and-a-half grand, which was pretty good. That was an amazing experience. I mean, I’m an atheist, but it was – I suppose the word is “spiritual,” although I hate using that word – but it was a big thing for me to do. In 2019, I was going through a bad patch, and I think that helped heal me just a little bit, so I thought, “If I do this whole thing, maybe it can help heal this horrendous situation that’s still happening.”
It’s mind-boggling. I know a few women that had that done to them. It happens really quite young.
It’s all the different ages, and it happens in all different countries, and there are obviously different levels of it. I think there’s level one, level two, level three, and three is, like, everything. It seems barbaric to me, but it’s how you battle it and how you convince people, rather than make them defensive. Actually, saying that now, it’s called “female genital cutting” because “mutilation” is putting a morality on it. And obviously, if you’re going to try and convince people, you can’t really do that by making them feel like they’re wrong.
It is one of those things where it can become an uncomfortable subject because of the nature of it.
Exactly. As my friends will testify, which I did for a year at Strangers, just, like, talking about vaginas.
It’s really important to speak up about things that make people uncomfortable and that need to be changed in the world we live in, especially for women and girls.
Yep, a hundred percent. I’m there, and I do try and support, but I want to try and get more into that one as well because domestic violence, as we’ve seen in the pandemic – I don’t know about in America, but in the UK, domestic violence rose by 25 percent. That’s fucking staggering. And during the beginning of the pandemic, I did a little festival, just me and my fellow here playing, and they got loads of bounds to do a song for this online festival to raise money for that, as well. It’s just mad, man. Every time you think we’re progressing forward, it’s like one step forward and then, “Oh, no. 10 steps back.”
Is that a canal boat that you’re in?
Oh, yes. I live on a canal boat!
Tell me about living on a boat in London. That must be like an amazing lifestyle. What made you decide to do that?
This is a widebeam, which is a much more comfortable version. I used to live on a narrowboat, which is half the width. I love cooking too much and hosting and feeding people. I’m like, “I want to make a lasagna and I want everyone to eat it,” so I had to upgrade. This director I was telling you about, Carlos Marqués-Marcet, he wrote a film when he met me in my narrowboat that was kind of inspired a bit by my life. So, I got the widebeam to be the kind of hero boat that we did everything on. We used my friend’s boat to film the interior, and he inspired me. The production gave me a bit of money to upgrade so we could have two boats on the canal. That’s why I’ve got this one, but the first one I got when I was 27. I’d always wanted a canal boat. I’d wanted one since I was 19, but my mom very cleverly was like, “Don’t just don’t invest in that. Invest in someone else’s property. Rent it out if you want. You never know what it’s like as an actor. It’s a really, really, really, really, really, really hard life. You need to have lots of Plan Bs and Cs and Ds, and you’re a woman,” blah, blah, all that stuff. But at 27, I was living in a flat that was on the canal, and I was seeing them every day. I don’t know, something happened to me at 27. I was like, “I’m literally now an adult. I’m not a young person anymore. I’m an adult,” and there are all these things that you say you’re going to do like, “I’m going to go to Vietnam one day. I’m going to live on a canal boat one day.” I was like, “But I’m going to die. Like, I’m going to die,” and I made a lot of changes that year because of that. I felt like it was going to happen soon. I had a moment of, “I might die before I’m 30,” so I just did it. I also felt like I really wanted to do it because I’ve got to rest this energy in general, and after about a year of living in a place, I’d get bored and I’d move around London. I was moving around house, finding a flat – doing all that paperwork is so, so stressful and I was like, “I know that I’m going to keep doing that my whole life, so I might as well get something that moves so I can avoid the stress.”
How does it work with the canal boats? Can you just reposition it at an empty dock? Do you have to rent out the dock that you’re located at?
No, you get a cruising license, and actually, it’s getting more and more gentrified. There are a lot of boats trying to fight the Canal and River Trust because obviously, just as London’s getting gentrified, they’re trying to do the canals. When I got my first one in 2012, it was not like that at all. Now, you do still have to move every two weeks, but then you have to fill up your water and empty your toilet, whereas before, you could just move every two weeks. Do that and move somewhere else relatively close. Now, there’s a trajectory that you have to do 25 miles in a year. In November, finally, we got a mooring, which is like gold dust because they’re auctioned, but we bought it off an old socialist who owned the actual mooring himself, so we didn’t have to do any of the auction, which can be incredibly expensive. Now, I’m stable in one place, but I can still move, which kind of appeases both sides of myself. I’m getting older, and doing the locks and having to move every two weeks… My partner calculated it and, by having a mooring, we are saving 26 days of the year. That’s quite a lot of time actually, and a lot of those would be weekends. So it’s like, “Ahh,” actually being able to relax and only moving when I want to, now.
It’s such a fascinating lifestyle. I think in the summer, it’s probably a bit more advantageous, but in the winter…
[Laughs] You say that, but my boat is hotter than everyone else’s house in the winter because I’ve got a wood-burning stove that my fella built, and it’s hot. I’ve got radiators as well. The energy bills in this country are now terrible because our government’s ruined everything. So now, I realize how much more money and everything I’m saving, and I think that’s more green as well. It’s actually not as bad as people think.
What is your next big project is that we can look out for? Any new films or productions that you have in the works?
Yes! There is – well, I don’t know if I can say because it hasn’t been announced yet – but it’s in Spain. I’m really excited because it’s shooting in Bilbao. It’s the second installment of a film, and the first one did really, really well in Spain and in a few other places, as well. I can’t wait to be in Bilbao because my dad’s side is from that bit. My mom’s from the south, my dad’s from the north, so I can actually hang out with the family a little bit. And the food is incredible, the food and wine in Bilbao is some of the best in all of Spain.
Bilbao is gorgeous. Such unique architecture there as well.
Yes, I like going for a run there. The other week, I was there for the read-through, and I was going for a run and I was just like, “Oh, there’s the Guggenheim. There’s statues everywhere. There’s graffiti, that’s beautiful. There’s bridges.” It’s an idyllic place to go running.
I can’t wait to hear more about it. Thank you so much for the interview and for inviting me into your houseboat! It’s fabulous.
Photography by Jemima Marriott for The Untitled Magazine
Lighting by Eric Anderson
Photo Assistant: Lee Furnival
Styling by Stephanie Major
Styling Assistant: Annum
Grooming by Jon Chapman
Make-up by Michelle Webb
Publicist: Sophie McAlpine