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Generation next: the rising stars of Steve McQueen's Small Axe

The Guardian logo The Guardian 16/11/2020 Interviews by Damien Morris, Marcus Barnes and Kadish Morris

Amarah-Jae St Aubyn: ‘I never saw myself being a lead in a love story’

Amarah-Jae St Aubyn plays Martha, a churchgoing girl who sneaks out of her bedroom window into the endless possibilities of the night in Lovers Rock, the second episode of Small Axe. It’s a coming-of-age tale inspired by the blues parties of the late 1970s and early 80s – club nights held in homes because young Black people weren’t welcome in nightclubs.

Twenty-six-year-old Amarah-Jae St Aubyn’s debut has made her a Screen International Star of Tomorrow, but it’s been a long road to here. She’s performed since she was tiny, attending performing arts school Italia Conti with a cousin, then graduating from the Brit school in 2012. Moving into theatre, the south Londoner often found herself not just the only Black woman in the room, but the only Black person, a perpetually disconcerting situation.

She nearly gave up, became a published poet, yet eventually secured tough but high-profile understudy roles on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. When she got the Lovers Rock lead last year, St Aubyn carefully researched turn-of-the-80s London (the drama is set in 1980) – the fashion, the segregation, how these parties existed because Black people weren’t allowed into white nightclubs. In the film, she conjures a wide-eyed girl floating through the world in a dream, yet pin-sharp and completely grounded.

Steve McQueen knows what he’s found. “There is a brightness and freshness about Amarah,” he says, “an optimism which just reflects on the screen. Astonishingly, Small Axe was her first time on camera. She is what you call a star.”

“I never saw myself being a lead in a love story, being a Black female,” she says. She’s developing screenplay ideas of her own now. “I don’t want this to be just a trend, I want people to understand how talented we are, not just to tick a box.”

What do you do when you’re not working?I work weekends in a bar-restaurant, I’ve got a little work family there. I do a lot of reading. The Untethered Soul by Michael A Singer is about the inner voice and how you see yourself, the opening and closing of the heart. It’s good for me, being socially awkward.

What would people find surprising about you?Maybe how short I am. The nurse said I’m 5ft 1in and a bit, and I really hold on to that ‘bit’.

What makes you laugh?My friends, a lot. Karaoke nights, laughing till our bellies hurt. And the fart noise! Some of my friends really like to fart.

  • Interview by Damien Morris

Alexander James-Blake: ‘When I hear a song from the film, I get goosebumps’

Plays Parker B, owner of Mercury Sound and the selecter, the person who chooses the music at the Lovers Rock party.

Raised in Brockley, south-east London, Alexander James-Blake (AKA Blakie) is a 22-year-old actor and musician who has appeared in Top Boy and EastEnders, where he played Zayan Scott. James-Blake is a member of grime crew the Square, along with Novelist; he’s also good friends with Skepta, and produced a track on his 2016 album Konnichiwa.

His character Parker B provides the soundtrack to Lovers Rock, and James-Blake’s heritage and passion for reggae music made the role feel natural. “My uncle Mickey was part of a sound system,” he explains. “Steve gave me a character that was made for me. He won’t find any kid that feels like they grew up in that generation as much as me. When I got to put on the clothes from that era … I can’t even explain it.”

McQueen says James-Blake and his fellow soundman, Kadeem Ramsay, were vital to the party scenes in Lovers Rock. “Without these two there is no party. Their commitment to the role and the vibes which were reverberating round the room were infectious.” James-Blake is now working on music, with a few tracks due soon; he also has a role in Ashley Chin’s forthcoming film Faith, about a gang member whose life changes when he discovers Islam.

Who is your acting hero?I rate Idris [Elba], because he does what he wants. If he wants to go and make music with Skepta tomorrow, he’ll do that. I’m like that.

What would people be surprised to know about you?I’m fearless. I walk into situations without a care in the world. I [would] walk into the Dorchester with my dry feet in my slippers and not give a flying toss in the world about what anybody thinks about my toes.

What do you do when you’re not working?I skate all over, I go to my local park in Telegraph Hill. And snowboarding, I go to Hemel Hempstead. I love cooking too, stewed chicken and rice and peas is my dish. I go to the Royal Air Show, that’s one of my hobbies. Biggin Hill man, I love that.

What makes you laugh?Seeing other people happy and laughing, or being intrigued by something. I gave my friend granola yesterday, and he’s never tried it before. His reaction, I find stuff like that hilarious.

  • Interview by Marcus Barnes

Daniel Francis-Swaby: ‘We’ve got to write our own stories’

Plays Lovers Rock ladies’ man Bammy, one of the most unsettling presences in the film.

Daniel Francis-Swaby, 33, normally plays the boyfriend, the good kid in a bad crowd, yet here he delivers a queasily convincing performance as the kind of ghost-eyed seducer everyone will remember from their party days. “He never broke character the entire time he was on set,” McQueen recalls. “The focus and the commitment is all there to see on the screen. He is Bammy.”

Acting gripped Londoner Francis-Swaby at the age of 10, and he kept at it after emigrating to Australia in his teens. When he came back to England, he hoped to split his time between the countries. But while he got into the Italia Conti academy and landed commercial work with Ewan McGregor and Ryan Reynolds in the UK, Australia was much tougher. “The only agency that accepted me was called Coffee Coloured Characters,” he says. “Didn’t matter that I’d been to an accredited drama school, done National Theatre, Royal Exchange. They just didn’t want to hear it. I thought I’d at least get a couple of interviews, but nothing!”

Shakespeare lover Francis-Swaby was more welcome in England’s classical theatre, starring in Twelfth Night and The Tempest. “Especially when I first graduated, a lot of ‘yes bruv, no bruv’ stuff was thrown my way,” he remembers. “It was only Shakespeare companies that offered me any depth of character. Not just: ‘You’ve got to mug him.’”

Francis-Swaby is keeping busy with his new production company, which has secured Arts Council England funding for a film about a 16-year-old Black kid who befriends a seventysomething white woman. “We’ve got to write our own stories,” he says. “Not just see everything through a single lens.”

Who is your acting inspiration?Leonardo DiCaprio. I was a kid when he did Romeo + Juliet and I’d never seen anything like it. The camera shot on his face after he kills Tybalt, the tears and the pain!

Who is your dream person to work with?Denzel [Washington]. Iconic. And Lucian Msamati – his Amadeus at the National was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. And Shane Meadows – the rawness, that gut-punching pain in This Is England. It’s something I aspire to, showing that depth.

What makes you laugh?My family. My partner’s silliness. She’s an amazingly talented portrait artist. She sees beauty in things I walk past every day. Sometimes it makes me chuckle, there’s this whole other life I get to see through someone else’s eyes.

  • DM

Ellis George: ‘I’m asking my mum for dancing tips’

Ellis George is Lovers Rock’s Cynthia, a 17-year-old who is celebrating her birthday with her friends at the party.

Ellis George, 22, got her big break in Doctor Who, where she played Courtney Wood. Since then the actor from Barking, east London, has performed at the National Theatre in the sold-out show Extremism as well as appearing in a performance of the overture from The Magic Flute for the BBC Proms. “When I read the Lovers Rock script and the way Cynthia looks at certain people, I realised what kind of person she is,” George says. “She’s cheeky, she’s sassy. And even though she’s got a little bit of attitude, she’s a warm, kind person.” McQueen describes George as “a deep well. Fearless, courageous and technical. I felt I could parachute her into any situation. Another star on the horizon. Her comedy timing is amazing.”

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Most of the Lovers Rock cast are under 25, which meant that they had to learn about the nuances of the 80s. “I had to speak to my mum so much. The wining [dancing] nowadays is so different to how it was then, it was much slower,” she says. “I used to cuss my mum like: ‘You can’t wine’, now I’m asking her for tips. My legs are hurting, I haven’t got the thigh-strength I thought I had. It was funny to think: ‘I’m actually playing my mum!’”

George also loved the “positive emotion” of the Lovers Rock set. “We came in the day after [the 2019 Notting Hill] carnival and went into a dance scene, all of us pretty tired. Coral the choreographer says: ‘OK, I just want you guys to start dancing’, and she puts on soca, and then bashment. We all started dancing and everybody knows. It’s like: ‘This is us, this is a collective, we’re standing with each other.’”

Who is your acting hero or greatest inspiration ?Daniel Kaluuya – there’s something about the way he’s able to take on these characters and each time I don’t know who Daniel is.

What would people be surprised to know about you?I write poetry and I have a poem about Black men. I love Black men, I think they’re so beautiful, but I’ve also had some issues with them that I needed to get off my chest. Whenever I’ve read that poem a lot of people have been quite surprised!

What makes you laugh?My brothers, my friends. I’m just bare moist, I’m just silly… imagine saying that, for the Observer: ‘I’m bare moist’!

  • MB

Kadeem Ramsay: ‘It was good to see people like me getting opportunities’

Plays Samson, the host MC for Mercury Sound.

“Samson is the one responsible for bringing life to the party. Very lively, he’s a bubbly person,” says Kadeem Ramsay, 24, from Hackney, east London. Ramsay’s acting career began when he appeared in the film My Brother the Devil aged 15. Soon afterwards, he began posting comedy videos of himself on social media, building an avid following. Through his actor friend Shone Romulus he landed his dream role, in Top Boy, playing Kit, right-hand man to ruthless dealer Jamie (Micheal Ward, who also appears in Lovers Rock).

Ramsay’s family background gave him plenty of material for his role, including his dad’s own antics on the mic. “[The hosting style] came from my dad.” he says. “He’d plug a microphone into the jack on the hi-fi system and start saying things like: ‘Check one-two, inside!’”

“Working with Steve was truly a blessing,” Ramsay says. “The scene where all the men are dancing and one of the guys is on the floor, on the first take Steve didn’t like it. He was trying to get us to really feel the vibe, getting us into that tribal mood. As soon as he saw we were in that mood, he got on the floor and crawled out of the room. Literally. It was so hectic. I respect that man, highly.” “[Ramsay and James-Blake were] one of the reasons why the dance was the dance,”” says McQueen. “They were like priests chanting at the altar. Big, big talents.”

The shoot was a refreshing experience in an industry that is still very white-dominated, Ramsay says. “It was good to see other people like me getting opportunities. I know what it’s like trying to get those opportunities. They’re very slim.”

Ramsay has just started filming for the next season of Top Boy, and he recently filmed a music video for the Wu-Tang Clan and Sharleen Spiteri.

Who is your greatest inspiration?Ashley Walters has been an inspiration to me. Top Boy gave me the idea, “maybe I can be an actor”.

What do you do when you’re not working?I chill, meet a few friends, I like to write. Not a day goes by when I don’t write lyrics. I love having the freedom to be creative and no one can tell me: “You can’t put this there, or that there.”

Favourite film or TV show?It’s got to be [US crime series] Power. That’s my show, as it starts: [sings] “They say that this is a big, rich town…” I’m there with the popcorn!

  • MB

Sheyi Cole: ‘I’m in love with Motown – the flamboyance, the way they support each other’

Cole is the lead in Alex Wheatle, episode three of Small Axe, which tells the true story of the acclaimed novelist, from his youth in the care system to the streets of Brixton, where he finds music and community.

“It’s such an honour,” says Londoner Sheyi Cole, of his first professional role. A heartbreaking but endearing story about being Black in the care system in 1980s Britain, the film traces the time Wheatle spent living in a children’s home and, as a young adult, in a hostel in Brixton.

Survival and adapting are central themes in the film. Though Cole was born decades later than his subject, in 1999, he identifies with Wheatle’s struggles to find his way. “Being a teenager growing up in London, you have to learn to adapt, otherwise you get eaten alive.” Cole also found common ground in the setting for Wheatle’s early life – Shirley, east Croydon, where he himself grew up.

Still at drama school, Cole is part of the NYT, the Arcola Youth Theatre, Rada youth theatre and the Almeida Young Company. He has a face made for storytelling; his portrayal of Wheatle’s transition from bewildered innocent boy to unshakeable dread has genuine force. “Sheyi was up for the challenge,” McQueen says of his young star. “For someone who has never been in front of the camera before, he owned it. He is an actor who is destined to become an artist in his craft.”

What is something people would be surprised to know about you?From age 10 to 17, I was training to be an athlete. I was training with the Olympian Dina Asher-Smith in the 100 and 200 metres. When you are an athlete, it’s so strict. You have your food planned, you train early and four times a week. But when I hit 15 years old I didn’t want to be constricted to being on the track four days a week. I had freedom!

What would be your dream role?A film or TV series that focuses on Motown. I’m in love with Motown. The flamboyance, the way they support each other and work with each other as a community. That’s what I would love to be a part of.

What music are you into?I’m heavy into Travis Scott, and also, some upcoming UK rappers, such as DigDat, Dutchavelli and Digga D. I’m also in love with Roy Ayers. Right now, my album of the year is Nines’s Crabs in a Bucket.

  • Interview by Kadish Morris

Calum Callaghan: ‘These moments are uncomfortable, and they should be’

Callaghan plays racist policeman Beck in Red, White and Blue, the third Small Axe film, which tells the true story of Leroy Logan, a forensic scientist who joined the Met in the 1980s to tackle police racism from within.

Beck is not the first villain Lewisham-born Calum Callaghan, 34, has played. Twenty-five years ago he was playing Little Lucifer, and Mini Mark Owen, on Take That’s European tour. “We did a lot of work,” he laughs. “We earned our money!”

Performing was a hobby for Callaghan then. He got the Take That gig at an open audition, and it wasn’t until he was 16 that he realised acting was all he wanted. Now he’s been doing it half his life, but Small Axe struck when he was questioning his place in the business. He’d started saying no to smaller parts, afraid of getting stuck at that level, and wanting to start a family. But when he heard Steve McQueen wanted to meet him, he didn’t care if the audition was for one line or a single word.

Callaghan has always been a fan of McQueen’s films: “He creates these moments, and they’re uncomfortable, and they should be. You should feel something, clench your fist or feel uneasy.”

The small part he won expanded quickly from those early auditions. McQueen saw in Callaghan someone who’d been overlooked a little, who hadn’t been appreciated enough for his ability to improvise, or draw humanity out of villainy. “Calum was working on a building site before his role in Red, White and Blue,McQueen points out. “It’s a tragedy that someone so talented could not find work in the industry. He represented for me a type of white, working-class angst that I was very familiar with growing up. Anyone that can go nose-to-nose with John Boyega without blinking is worthy of a career and more.”

Callaghan went back to the building site after filming, but now his career’s picking up, and his wife’s expecting a baby. “I’m getting a lot more racist parts!” he says. “As horrible as that is, if that helps get these stories told and highlights the issues in society, it’s a good thing.”

What would people be surprised to know about you?I’ve got an unhealthy obsession with gaming. If I was allowed, I’d probably play PlayStation indefinitely and fade into the sofa. Some games I can’t even download… you don’t want to poke the dragon.

Who’s your dream person to work with?Scorsese’s got to be up there as a goal. And Spielberg. How amazing would it be to make blockbuster films!

What’s your favourite TV show?When They See Us [Ava DuVernay’s series about the Central Park Five] is the pinnacle of what a TV show can be, it moved me so much.

  • DM

Kenyah Sandy: ‘I fell in love with TV and film. It felt more natural than theatre’

The star of Education, the 1970s-set story of a 12-year-old Black boy labelled “disruptive” and sent to a school for children with special needs.

The 13-year-old star of McQueen’s Education, Kenyah Sandy plays Kingsley, a 12-year-old boy with reading problems who is sent to a special needs school in the 1970s. The film depicts the explicit racism young students faced in those times, with Black children regularly dismissed as “problematic” and “disruptive” and removed to special schools.

Comparing Kingsley’s experience of this de facto educational segregation policy to his own, Sandy thinks time has healed some old wounds. “I think back then, there wasn’t that communication between the school and parents. Nowadays, we know what dyslexia is. We know how to deal with it.”

Sandy, whose family is from Kenya and Grenada, got his start on stage, appearing in plays including Caroline, Or Change at Hampstead theatre, and this is his first screen role. “On my first take, I realised I was overexaggerating. I was put in a bubble of overexpressing!” the young actor says, but he soon hit his stride. “I fell in love with TV and film. It felt more natural. I played myself, but as someone else.” To prepare, he spoke to cousins with dyslexia, and swapped the sleek hair fades boys wear today for a little afro. “My mum sent pictures of me in my outfit to my grandparents’,” he says. “And they were sending pictures back. I look like the spitting image of my grandad Peter, when he was 20. The same outfit, the same glasses, the same choker!”

“Kenyah is a boy wonder,” says McQueen. “There is something worldly about him. He went to places in his characters which were very harrowing. Often I would ask him if he was OK. He would snap back at me with a smile, saying: ‘I’m great.’ Watching scenes of Kingsley not being listened to, or overlooked, or talked to with the wickedest of tongues, it’s impossible to disagree.

What do you do in your downtime?My dad’s a choreographer and my mum’s a dance teacher and a producer, so I do dance on Sundays.

What is your dream role?I’d love to be in a Marvel film, even the smallest part, just to be a part of the Marvel world. I also love Liam Neeson’s films, like Taken and The Commuter. I like the mystery of suspense.

How was it studying during lockdown?It was challenging at first, but my parents made sure we were occupied with homework. We had a family meeting and my dad asked if there was anything we wanted to do after school, like go for a walk. We’re privileged to have a garden, so we played football and had picnics.

What makes you laugh?My brother. He makes me laugh the most. He doesn’t really have to say anything, it’s just him. We’re 18 months apart. He’s joined secondary school now, so he tells me stories of what happens in his lessons. We just feed off each other.

  • KM

  • Lovers Rock is on BBC One, 9pm, Sunday 22 November; Red, White and Blue, 29 November; Alex Wheatle, 6 December; and Education 13 December. Small Axe launches in the US on 20 November on Amazon Prime


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