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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ammar Kalia

Actor Bukky Bakray: the Rocks star hitting the big time

Bukky Bakray. Styling by Gabbi Sam York, makeup by Joy Adenuga.
Bukky Bakray. Styling by Gabbi Sam York, makeup by Joy Adenuga. Photograph: Adama Jalloh/The Observer

At 15, Bukky Bakray was in drama class at school in east London, working her way through lines she can no longer remember, when she spotted two unfamiliar figures at the back of the room. “We all thought they were Ofsted inspectors,” she says. “We just ignored them and carried on.”

It turns out they were director Sarah Gavron and casting director Lucy Pardee, who were dropping into schools across London to find young actors for Gavron’s new film, following her star-studded 2015 historical drama Suffragette. Bakray’s presence stood out among the hundreds of students they went on to observe and she was cast in her debut role, as the lead in what would become 2019’s Rocks.

In the film, Bakray delivered a startlingly affecting performance as teenager Olushola “Rocks” Omotoso, who is left to care for her younger brother after their single mother abandons them. Dashing through east London, only a few miles from Bakray’s own home, Rocks enlists the help of her school friends to try to avoid social services. Part uplifting coming-of-age story, part heart-wrenching domestic drama, Bakray’s unbridled emotionality lent Rocks poignant realism, making the film as much a depiction of a family in crisis as it was a statement on the myriad pressures of growing up in contemporary London.

From left, Kosar Ali, Ruby Stokes and Bukky Bakray in Rocks.
From left, Kosar Ali, Ruby Stokes and Bukky Bakray in Rocks. Photograph: Aimee Spinks/AP

Since its release, Bakray has had a whirlwind four years. Her performance was critically acclaimed, earning her a nomination for best actress at the 2021 Baftas and making her the youngest winner of Bafta’s rising star award, an honour previously won by names such as Letitia Wright and Daniel Kaluuya.

Now 20, Bakray is on the cusp of an international breakthrough, starring in Netflix thriller The Strays, the feature debut of the writer, actor and director Nathaniel Martello-White, and Apple TV+ drama series Liaison, alongside Eva Green and Vincent Cassel. She is also about to make her stage debut in Matilda Feyisayo Ibini’s Sleepova, directed by Jade Lewis at the Bush theatre.

“It all just happened so fast,” Bakray says, sitting in the studio where she has been rehearsing with her Sleepova castmates for the past few weeks. “When I got the role in Rocks I wanted to be an actor as much as I wanted to be a chef after watching MasterChef – it was all just a dream for the future – and then it became a reality. I’m lucky that this is now my career, but I still have to audition like everybody else. I’m finding my way as I go.”

The journey from school drama class to leading a movie might have been a quick one for Bakray, but she didn’t focus on whether Rocks was going to be a hit. “None of the cast really concerned themselves with whether anyone was going to care about the film, since if we did then the joy in making it would be gone,” she says. “I just knew that I needed to take what I could from the process and not worry about the rest.”

Bakray, centre front, in rehearsals for Sleepova at the Bush theatre.
Bakray, centre front, in rehearsals for Sleepova at the Bush theatre. Photograph: Helen Murray

That pragmatism is still with Bakray today. She is grounded and softly spoken, dressed unassumingly in a black hoodie and often focused on the floor as she thinks and talks. She is yet to move out of home and has just started an undergraduate course studying art at a London university. “My life has changed as much as I want it to right now,” she says. “If I wanted to leave home I could but I need to go at my own pace, so I’m just taking things slowly.”

She is still close with Gavron, Pardee and her young female co-stars, and they often get together to watch one another’s new projects, such as Ruby Stokes’s Netflix series Lockwood & Co or Kosar Ali’s Dangerous Liaisons, which launched on streamer Lionsgate+ in November. “We spent nine months workshopping Rocks,” she says. “We grew up together and they showed me the power of female friendship – it was like a community. That film opened me up physically and mentally.”

Bakray describes getting on a plane for the first time when promoting Rocks and landing at the Toronto film festival for the premiere, but when she viewed her performance, she says: “I thought it was a waste of everyone’s time and money. I was really disappointed. I know now that it was just my insecurities playing out and I had to get used to seeing myself on screen.”

It must have been particularly hard watching herself act out vulnerable moments. “When we shot the emotional scenes, my brain didn’t understand what was going on but my body just did it,” she says. “I was so young, it would have this knock-on effect where I might fall out with my chaperone or I would be moody on set and it was because it was a day when we had filmed a lot of crying. Rocks really made me understand how spontaneous feelings can be and that could be hard to watch back.”

That raw performance in Rocks might have set Bakray up as one of the go-to faces for young Londoners on screen, but her subsequent choices look set to ensure she is not typecast. In The Strays, for instance, she plays an unsettlingly mysterious figure confronting a Black woman trying to suppress her past, while in Liaison, she is drawn into an international cyberterror plot. “It’s been fun getting to work out the different Bukkys,” she says. “I found such empathy for my character in The Strays and Liaison was incredible because it was so expansive. That kind of budget allows for you to build the world as you want it. When we filmed a train crash, they actually had a whole train on set!”

There will be no big-budget set pieces for Sleepova. Instead, Bakray comes full circle: the show is a kind of introspective companion piece to her debut. Centring on four Black teenage girls as they grow up, Sleepova documents their confrontations with sexuality, identity and differing upbringings during nights at each other’s houses.

In Apple TV+ drama Liaison.
In Apple TV+ drama Liaison. Photograph: Apple

“I love coming back to exploring adolescence, since it always feels like such an exciting and emotional time,” Bakray says. “It’s when you feel things without really knowing why and this play has been a really nurturing space in which to do that. Outside in the real world, everyone thinks I’m older than I am, but here I get to play more and be my younger self. It’s a nice break from having to be an adult.”

* * *

The youngest of four siblings from an estate in Lower Clapton, east London, for Bakray those teenage years of self-discovery were filled with excitement and a hustling sense of creativity. “I call me and my brothers the Black Sopranos because we were always in the basement at home discussing our business plans,” she laughs. “We had to pay for everything ourselves so we were always grinding. My side job was that I did people’s makeup for money. I started doing it when I was 14 and I was getting £60 a week. When it was prom season, I would wrap up about £500 – it was amazing! That was the first taste I had of making money from my artistic skills.”

Watch a trailer for The Strays.

Bakray may have other people ready to do her makeup for the red carpet now but she is careful to keep prioritising her artistic side. “It’s why I chose to study art, not drama, since I want to keep learning in different ways,” she says. “ Lucy [Pardee] saw something in me that I never saw in myself and maybe someone else will do the same.”

Having worked solidly since the release of Rocks, and with a six-week run of Sleepova ahead, does she have plans to take some time off and live the life of a 20-year-old too? “The nature of my work means I don’t really have the luxury to plan ahead, so I’m turning into one of those people who just up and go. I just got back from [a holiday to] Jamaica, which I only booked a few days before,” she says. “That’s a champagne problem though. I can’t believe I’m even talking like this!”

It’s a long way from her 15-year-old self who had yet to get on a plane, but Bakray is enjoying the change. “It’s a blessing to be here and to do work that can make people feel so deeply,” she says. “I just want to keep shapeshifting and I can’t wait for people to discover the new versions of me.”

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