Vivian Oparah is aware of the spotlight on her following her BAFTA Film Awards nomination for her breakthrough performance in Searchlight’s romance movie Rye Lane, but she feels it’s imperative that she “stay grounded” because it’s a more disparate path towards stardom for Black actresses.
“For me, this is just the beginning of my career in so many ways, and to be recognized at this level so early on feels super special,” she tells me, “But I still understand that the trajectory of a Black female actor is very different to everyone else’s, so you can’t rest on your laurels because there isn’t a well trodden track that you can just jump on.”
Raine Allen-Miller’s debut feature Rye Lane, a rom-com scripted by Nathan Byron and Tom Melia and set in South London, sees Oparah playing opposite David Jonsson (Industry, Murder is Easy) as strangers who have a chance encounter in a gender-neutral toilet and spend the day getting to know each other. Deadline critic Anna Smith called it “a big, energetic bounce forward” for the rom-com genre and called in a “sunny, irreverent take on life and love” that’s at its “most exhilarating when playing out in real time, Before Sunrise-style.” Oparah and Jonsson were lauded for their performances, landing them a Best Joint Lead Performance nomination and Oparah a Breakthrough Performance win at British Independent Film Awards, where the film competed in 16 categories. Then came the BAFTA nom.
“I’m grateful but you also need to stay grounded,” Oparah tells me from Los Angeles, where she’s been meeting her U.S. reps at CAA. She’ll be back in time for the BAFTA ceremony at London’s Southbank Centre on Sunday, February 18.
Yes, the attention that winning the BIFA for Breakthrough Performance and being up for a BAFTA brings is indeed “super special” but Oparah’s mantra is simply: Stay proactive, level-headed “and hard-working.”
I wonder, perhaps somewhat provocatively, whether she felt that a young white female actor in her situation would have had her face splashed all over the British press? Maybe, she answers, but then white female actors “have been working visibly for a lot longer time.”
And, she notes, that “if a moment like this happens in someone [from a traditional acting background]’s career” there’s “a clear path” to their next job. “I feel like for us, because we’ve we’ve only just been let into these spaces, that path hasn’t really been defined yet. It’s just a matter of continuing to work hard and sometimes defining that path for yourself.”
The good news is she is up for the challenge. ”That doesn’t intimidate me,” she says. “It excites me. The playing field still isn’t level and that’s fine. I don’t really internalise it. I just know that I can’t get swept away in the moment.”
Oparah’s table at the BIFAs was next to where I was seated, and the stunned surprise on her face when her name was called brightened into the most gorgeous smile. If she initially looked stunned, it’s because, well, she was.
Equally, she calls the BAFTA nomination “insane and disorienting” because the category has so many people on it “that I am inspired by or look up to. I’m just so happy to be there, man, honestly.” It’s indeed top-level competition: Fantasia Barrino for The Color Purple, Sandra Hüller for Anatomy of a Fall, Carey Mulligan fir Maestro, Margot Robbie for Barbie and Emma Stone for Poor Things.
The movie’s also up for outstanding British Film, and those recognized on the nomination sheet are director Allen-Miller, producers Yvonne Isimeme Ibazebo and Damian Jones, and screenwriters Bryon and Melia.
The film was shot the film in 2021 during the Covid pandemic, with additional photography filmed a year later. Oparah laughs when she notes, “And now here we are three years on.”
The film’s available on Disney+ and every now and again I sneak a look at it, not only to marvel at the fact that a romcom featuring a Black, seemingly mismatched, couple of strangers — who meet cute in a lavatory in — got made, but also that the characters aren’t your stereotypical Black drug dealer or single mother with five kids. That’s a theme, by the way, that director Cord Jefferson observes in his brilliant American Fiction.
In Allen-Miller’s feature debut, Oparah’s Yas is a costume designer, who offers David Jonsson’s Dom, an accountant, a shoulder to cry on when she hears him wailing in the loo. Yes, Black people lead normal lives.
Yas is a bit of a live-wire, and Oparah loves that she’s not a measured, strait-laced romantic lead. ”She is messy and chaotic and is unapologetic in her mess, and I loved that they wanted to portray that,” she says, though she confesses it required “a lot of stamina.”
“They’re picking us because they want us“
When her agent at Independent Talent Group suggested she send in a self-tape to audition for Rye Lane — remember this was during lockdown and self-taping was novel — she scoffed at the idea, thinking, ‘No-one’s watching all of this’.”
Lo and behold, a month later she was meeting casting director Kharmel Cochrane, who was telling her to “just act cool” reading for the audition. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what that means… Have you been in my house?,’” she says laughing over our Zoom call.
After the audition, she did a chemistry read and got the part. She’s still shocked she got it.
“I was like, ‘You would want me to be in a romantic comedy?’ Usually, if you have a dark-skinned male lead you might have a light-skinned woman, and we’re both dark-skinned. I was like, ’They’re picking us because they want us.”
She admires Allen-Miller for creating “such a loving set” and because the director “cherry picks people that she thinks are extremely talented” but also has “a ‘no dickhead’ policy,” which was felt during filming as “everyone was so warm and collaborative.” For that reason, Oparah happily refers to the shoot as “my best filming experience.”
Hailing Allen-Miller as the “captain of the ship,” she was cheered to see “so early in my career, an example of someone who’s incredibly talented and unwavering in their kindness,” she says warmly. “Everyday you’re looking forward to be at work and seeing someone crafting something really masterfully.”
Meeting with her CAA agents has given her a boost, she says. “I have a lot of writing aspirations and everything that I thought that I wanted, but didn’t know how to access now seems accessible, and that’s the most exciting part for sure.” She adds, “I really want to actualise these writing projects.”
Writing was her first career arc, she jokes, “when I was literally a kid, when I was ten.” While she was appearing in a junior production of Snow White, gleefully playing the Wicked Witch, she and a friend wrote a book called Roxie and Dynamite, about two girls who were adopted and left to their own devices by the mother. “That was so fun to write,” she says, adding: “And I won a poetry contest when I was in primary school — I was like a book worm.” The tome has been carefully preserved by her mother.
Upcoming is a TV series, a comedy thriller called Dead Hot for Amazon’s Prime Video, directed by Sam Arbor and David Sant, and written by Charlotte Coben. Oparah plays Jess — “a very insecure, grief-stricken girl,” according to the actress. The role follows key parts in television shows that include Intelligence season 2, I May Destroy You and Class, a Doctor Who spin-off series.
I saw her at the Old Vic in Fanny & Alexander, but I really noticed her in Brandon Jacobs Jenkins’s exhilarating An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, my old stomping ground, and when it transferred to the Dorfman at the National Theatre.
She’s definitely up for more theatre. “Something boundary-pushing. I’d be down for that, for sure,” she says.
Out of nowhere, a line she utters in Rye Lane comes into my head [very mild spoiler follows]. It’s where Yas announces that she’s always wanted to own a restaurant called Maggots by Candlelight. I dunno, it’s silly and just makes me smile. I wonder whether some of the lines in Rye Lane will catch on with the public, the way, say, people quote from Notting Hill and Love Actually?
Oparah indulges me, and thinks my point isn’t as daft as it sounds.
“Rye Lane means so much to people in our community and that means the world to me,” she says. “The Black community isn’t a monolith, and we know that, and there are different pockets that this film still manages to resonate with: People from 17 to 60. I hope that it chrysalises in British culture.”
Now this is important: Oparah is a north Londoner, now based in Tottenham, though her early childhood was spent in Highbury. Soccer fans will know where this is headed.
Is she a Tottenham Hotspur supporter? Anticipating the question, Oparah quietly announces that she’s always been a follower of Arsenal. I raise my arms in delight.
“Oh, wow, you too!,” she cries.
Vivian Oparah will go far.