Though The Fast and the Furious, Dynasty, Vampire Diaries and The Baker and the Beauty star has certainly earned the title. But to introduce her like that is a simplification, one that bypasses a much bigger part of her work and identity.
Zooming in from the living room of her home in Ojai, California a more complete picture of Nathalie Kelley comes into view. It shows the 37-year-old as an activist, regenerative advocate, writer and, in the near future, director and producer. Where acting was once a siloed part of her identity, it now intersects with all parts of Nat and aligns with who she really sees herself as: a storyteller.
“For me, storytelling is sacred. Humans have always created stories and myths. And the stories we tell and the myths we create, guide us as humanity, they shape who we become and how we act,” Nat says.
"I know I’m now in my integrity as a storyteller."
Over the next hour, Nat tells her story, moving beyond her life and speaking to an ancestry and proud lineage that makes up much of who she is today. “My family’s from a part of Peru called Huánuco which is in the Andes,” Nat says, pausing to spell out the city for my benefit. “It’s one of the most spectacular places in the world. We are Quechua, my grandmother still speaks Quechua. [They] are the descendants of the Incas. We come from an amazing lineage and historical legacy in that my ancestors were master astronomers, agriculturalists and engineers. My ancestors built Machu Picchu.”
Nat was born in Peru to a Peruvian mum and Argentine dad, before a relocation to Australia where she was raised in Sydney’s North Shore. “I straddled two cultures growing up. I was very much a typical Australian kid… [but I was also] raised with so much pride in my indigenous heritage,” she says, crediting her mum and grandmother.
How Indigenous people in South America live now is starkly different to the Inca Empire era Nat speaks of, with oppression, poverty and violence a common facet of life. That juxtaposition has always been front of mind.
"My mum never let me forget the privilege of growing up in such a beautiful city,” she says. “And she never let me forget that we come from very poor, humble circumstances."
It doesn’t take long to appreciate what shaped Nat into such a passionate advocate. As a child, her heroes were Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. “I remember my mum letting me stay home from school the day that Nelson Mandela was freed from prison,” she recalls.
Aged 18, Nat returned to Peru and finally understood the magnitude of what her family had left behind. “To see them not only living in poverty but living in a system of hierarchy in which they and their values were considered lesser and lower and primitive. Just that racism and classism really hurt me to my core.”
Spurred on by what she saw first-hand, Nat enrolled in a social science and policy degree at the University of New South Wales, which she hoped would one day see her changing things in places like Peru on a systematic level. But then the opportunity to live out a different childhood dream arrived.
With a gentle nudge from her Australian stepdad, a man she warmly refers to as “dad”, Nat grew up on a diet of Shakespeare. She’d read Romeo and Juliet by the time Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaption came out and, with the resolve of a determined 11-year-old, begged her parents to take her to watch it at the cinema. “That was probably the other [significant] moment in my adolescent life…I think I was crying for half of the film,” she laughs. When Nat hadn’t stopped sobbing by the time she got home, her mum was worried.
"Through my tears, I managed to express that I wasn’t crying because they died. I said to her, ‘I’m crying because I want to do that one day. I want to tell stories in that way. I think I want to be an actress'."
Nat attended theatre school at NIDA, an institute boasting alumni like Judy Davis, Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, before getting an agent and doing commercials in her teens. It had all but fizzled out by the time she went to university and she was ready to give up on the L.A. pipe dream – until one audition pulled her back in. “I said, ‘This is going to be the last one. If I don’t get this, I’m done’. And I got it. So it felt really destined that I was supposed to get out there.” That role didn’t work out, but a lead in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift did. This break springboarded Nat’s career and wed her to the States – where she still lives now – for the next 17 years.
Nat doesn’t downplay the enormity of scoring a lead part in the 2000s franchise, but she’s open about the struggles that came after.
"I got really depressed after The Fast and the Furious because I felt like I had left behind this life that was really purpose-filled. I was very clear about my mission,” she explains. “Then I got to the US and was doing these movies about car racing and it was just really devoid of purpose."
The decade that followed was challenging. Despite having the aptitude to act and the natural beauty favoured by the industry, Nat says it’s been “a long hard slog” as an actress. "I say I’m actually a professional at rejection,” she laughs. “I’ve had more experience in that than acting.”
I suspect it’s possible for Nat to talk about these experiences with such ease and humour because of the point of alignment she has now reached. She’s past her doubt-filled twenties, taking on roles that didn’t resonate and wrestling with an idea of success that felt inauthentic. She’s come into her own and, by the same token, has the confidence to own her story. Which is where another important chapter begins.
If you’re one of Nat’s 1.5 million Instagram followers, you’ll know she’s a passionate environmental activist. She has a nearly evangelic attitude to regeneration, sitting on the board of directors for both Kiss the Ground and the Fungi Foundation. Recently, she started collaborating with Earthrise, a platform sharing stories from climate activists and people living on the frontlines of climate change. She’s even floating a new persona online – the ‘Compost Queen’ – to help break down the complexities of composting and cultivating healthy soil for her audience.
Nat is whip-smart and articulate about environmental issues. More than that, she wants to talk about this stuff and she has the vocabulary and knowledge to back it up. You wouldn’t know it from listening to her, but, as she explains, this part of her story is relatively recent.
At the end of 2019 and early 2020, while Nat was wrapping filming on The Baker and the Beauty, Australia experienced one of its worst and most devastating bushfire seasons. The horror and helplessness she felt towards what was happening at home would be the catalyst that steered her in a new direction.
"I was like, ‘What are we doing?’ I had this stocktake of everything I had thought was important and where I had been spending my energy, my time, my money. Even the way I had been using my platform."
Even though The Baker and the Beauty was hugely successful – hitting number one on Netflix all over the Americas the week of its release – Nat informed her management she planned on making a transition. “I told them it’s not going to look like the way we maybe imagined my next career move would look, but I need you to trust me that I am tuning in to something much greater than me and channelling stories I know I need to tell.”
A good storyteller knows how to hold attention, intonating at the right moments and emphasising the points that will keep their audience listening. Which is why I can believe Nat when she admits to knowing how good she is at it. “In fact, more than an actress, I’m a storyteller,” she says.
One of the reasons Nat has shifted her focus from acting and is so critical of the stories Hollywood is spending so much money to tell is because she knows the power they have to shape reality. “You start to question what the end goal is…[especially] at a time when the choices we make in the next decade will decide the fate of humanity on this planet forever,” she says. For Nat, it doesn’t make sense not to use this massive talent pool to reach global audiences and paint exciting futures, showing potential technologies and bringing people together. “It just seems so ridiculous to me that we’re missing this huge opportunity as storytellers.”
Instead of waiting around for industry execs to stop staring at their bottom lines, Nat’s using her voice to push her ideas forward. “I think there’s this very misplaced idea that altruism doesn’t sell. That if there’s no conflict or violence…then it’s not going to be interesting,” she says. “So, in the last few months, I’ve just accepted the challenge.”
Stories about permaculture and tropical glaciers and a mockumentary personifying a family of fibres, in the same vein as Keeping Up with the Kardashians (think polyester and wool battling it out), are just a few of the concepts she’s pitching. She wants to bring these stories to life, whether that’s through parody or comedy, and really entertain audiences, even when the information is dense.
In the interim, Nat is comfortable leaning into her social media platforms to creatively execute other concepts, backing her intuition for what evolving audiences are paying attention to.
"I think one of the exciting things about the time we live in is that storytelling is so democratised. 15 years ago, if I had all these ideas, but Hollywood told me that they weren’t interested in making them, there’d be nothing I could do. But now I can just film it myself and put it on YouTube or Instagram or TikTok. There are so many more options now for storytellers to get their stories out."
Younger generations know this. They’re leading the way with these new avenues of communication – and they’re the ones that Nat really wants to listen, and speak, to. “Storytelling itself is evolving,” she explains. “And I have the statistics to show that these stories that we’re telling, like the ones [I did] with Earthrise, are really resonating.” Applying this theory to streaming services, a market that has exploded exponentially but is now inundated with choice, Nat points out another wasted opportunity. “If streamers recognise the enormous money in bringing in these stories that appeal to Gen Z's and evolving the way that they tell stories, I think there's a [really exciting] future there,” she says.
The idea of being in true alignment cycles back into the conversation. Nat is clearly at peace with where her journey has taken her. She no longer has to assuage the two parts of herself that have always been in conflict – the girl who wanted to help the world and the one who wanted to act and tell stories – because she’s found a way to do both.
“I’ve finally found this sweet spot of being in this position and doing what I’m doing. I know I’m very privileged, a lot of people have to get up and survive and go to work. And the fact that my job is not only to tell stories and be creative and imaginative and play all day but do so for some very important causes. That to me is like I’ve hit the jackpot in life.”