When First Match director Olivia Newman set out to make her debut feature film—about a high school foster girl named Mo who joins a boys’ wrestling team to find common ground with her recently incarcerated father—she wanted to find a girl from the exact Brooklyn neighborhood the film was set: Brownsville. A nationwide search brought them the audition tape of Elvire Emanuelle, a young Brooklyn-based actress who was born in the neighborhood but raised in Philadelphia.
"On first watch, I knew I’d found our Mo," says Newman. "And then after her one-hour ‘wrestling tryout’, our trainer, Mike, took me aside and told me she was a natural wrestler. He’d never seen anything like it."
In First Match, out on Netflix today, Emanuelle plays Mo with equal parts toughness and vulnerability, her surliness clearly a defense mechanism. After being kicked out of her foster home, Mo runs into her father, a former wrestler, in the streets. He had been released from prison, but never reached out to her. Hoping to impress him, Mo auditions for the boys’ wrestling team and helps carry the team to finals. But her father’s failures as a paternal figure force her to look around and realize that she’s formed a different, if unconventional, family around her.
Emanuelle’s nuanced performance plays Mo’s tenacity with the pulse of desperation, an itching desire to be loved thrumming beneath the surface of her every impulse and decision. While other coming-of-age films depict young girlhood with quirky levity, the selfishness of young girls rebranded as subversive, First Match distinguishes itself as one that doesn’t treat youth with kid gloves.
Broadly spoke with Emanuelle about what it was like learning to wrestle the first time, why she fell in love with Mo, and what it was like returning to her father’s old Brooklyn neighborhood to film First Match.
BROADLY: This is your first leading role and one of your first roles in a major project ever. How would you introduce yourself to audiences who will be seeing you in First Match for the time this week?
ELVIRE EMANUELLE: Uh, a dreamer. I was supposed to be, you know, a doctor or lawyer. That would have made people in my life happier. But I had this crazy idea that you can chase the dream and that it was possible. Even when times got tough I stuck with it.
Director Olivia Newman says she was looking for someone from Brooklyn to play the role of Mo, and specifically from Brownsville. Tell me a little about how you got the role.
I sent in a taped audition. And then I went in for a callback. I didn't hear anything for weeks so I was sure they'd moved on, but one day, I woke up from a nap and I saw an email to go back in for another audition and a physical test. And then I got the official email. I was so excited. i had no idea it was a Netflix film or anything.
[I grew up] up and down the East Coast. We ended up going to Philly and I would come from there and visit my dad in the summers in Brooklyn, which I know now is Brownsville.
[The filmmakers] based everything in Brownsville, because they really wanted to include the community. They didn't just want to come in and shoot the film and leave. So the production office was there. They even hired catering from there.
One day I was on my way to to the production office. I wanted to go there and walk around the neighborhood [before filming] to get familiarized with it. So I get off the train and something seems weirdly, strangely familiar. Before I even left the train station, I called my dad, who had lived in Brooklyn for years. I was like, dad, which stop did you used to get off at for work? And he told me the name of the train stop and it was the exact train stop that I was at.
It's crazy because I found out after that they were really looking for someone who lived in Brownsville, who was from Brownsville, and I was there when I was younger. But I just knew it as Brooklyn. I had no idea all that time that I had been in Brownsville. And she found out that same day. I called her like, "Olivia, you wouldn't believe what happened, I called my dad and he said this is exactly where we used to live."
What are some of your memories from Brooklyn?
I keep remembering the corner store. It was like, one of the few things that we could walk to. We weren't allowed to stray too far, but we could go to the corner store. I remember lollipops and candy. I remember the patio. I actually walked directly to the apartment that we lived in, because, to this day, I remember the exact address number and apartment number and I walked and I saw the swings in the playground we used to play on. I remember the energy, too.
What endeared Mo to you? And how did you inhabit that role?
This might sound crazy but I feel like there's a little bit of Mo in all of us. This wasn't a movie about vanity. She wanted love from her father, and to feel wanted by the person who created her. I think we could all relate to that. Even if it's not our parents, we could all relate to wanting to be loved and having something that you fight for. I didn't have the exact life that Mo had but I can relate to a lot of the feelings that she felt for different reasons. Imagining that her life could be my life was hurtful for me, the first time reading the script crying.
Did you know how to wrestle before you made the movie? Or was that something you had to learn?
No, I didn't. They trained me for five weeks. [Director of Photography] Ashley Connor, she wrestled with me a couple of times. Nyasa [Bakker], who was in the short film, helped. But Mike was my main coach for five weeks, teaching me from scratch how to wrestle, and I've never wrestled before. It uses completely different muscles than I normally use,. Even the stance — you have to have a certain balance and stance. Whats crazy is that it's really hard in the beginning, but it's kind of cool that eventually your body learns it. It becomes more accustomed to it over time and things that were killing you before because easier.
Are you still wrestling?
No, haha, I should be. Mike was like, "Do you want to wrestle full-time after this?" I'm focusing on acting.