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Alongside an A-list cast including the likes of John Boyega and Letitia Wright, Steve McQueen’s film anthology series Small Axe — exploring experiences from London’s West Indian community from the late 1960s to the early ’80s and landing on the BBC and Amazon Nov. 15 — has given a number of emerging names the chance to rise up and shine.
Among these is Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, who landed her first-screen role in one of Small Axe’s five features, Lovers Rock (which, together with Mangrove, had been destined for this year’s Cannes before the festival was pulled).
A euphoric celebration of music, youth and romance set over a single evening at an energetic 1980 house party, the film sees the young British actress play party-goer Martha, who must negotiate not just complex dance moves, but various offers of courtship (including from Franklyn, played by recent BAFTA Rising Star winner Micheal Ward) as the night goes on.
For St. Aubyn — still working at a London restaurant as she juggles theater work and whatever Small Axe brings next — Lovers Rock struck a phenomenally strong family chord. As she explains to The Hollywood Reporter, not only was her own dad a reggae musician involved in the same party scene at the heart of the story, but a picture of him next to a sound system popped up — entirely coincidentally — on a mood board during rehearsals.
One of the first things I took away from Lovers Rock is how much it made me miss going out, hanging out with friends and dancing.
Yeah, everybody has been saying that it made them miss house parties! We got to see it at the London Film Festival, and everyone there was just saying that they wanted to get up and dance.
Was it all shot pre-lockdown?
Yeah, we shot last September. A long time ago. It’s so weird for me because it was my first screen job. I was doing theatre, where you do a show, bow, people clap and you go home. For this it was very weird. You can’t forget something so amazing, but when the hype comes up again around it, it’s like, oh my gosh, yeah!
How much of the production was actually spent dancing?
Quite a lot of it. And we rehearsed a lot beforehand, because the style of dance is so different to how it is now. We had a wonderful choreographer, and she told us that it’s a lot more heavy-footed, grounded and rooted in you. As opposed to it being up and high it’s very low, it’s very rooted and earthly. And the boys had to learn how to wind their hips, because it’s the figure of eight. And the key thing that I always remember is her saying that the figure of eight is the unity of life. Because the in these parties, people would meet and fall in love and go off, get married and have babies.
Did you know many of the songs beforehand?
Yeah, I knew quite a few of them, just because of my upbringing. My mom loves that style of music. She’s still got the CDs in her car that she listens to and she sings her heart out on the way to and from work. And my dad was involved in music, he was a reggae artist. So whenever I went with daddy, it was either Lovers Rock style music or some really hardcore reggae or Tupac. So I knew it already.
Has he seen it? What did he think?
Yeah, I’d got to see it with him before a press conference, and he just he kept shaking his head and holding his chest, because it really took him back. This is what my dad had been talking about and for him to see it was incredible. He was like, this is what we lived, this is our truth. He got quite emotional about it.
That’s amazing. So was your dad able to confirm the authenticity? Did he say that Lovers Rock was exactly like how it was back then?
Yeah! The bits where the guys are banging on the walls, he was like, that’s how we used to be! And at the start when they’re setting up the sound system, my dad and his crew used have their van with the sound system in it all the time. It went with them everywhere.
How was working with Steve McQueen. It seems with Lovers Rock, perhaps more than anything else he’s made, that he’s really having fun.
He’s just so open. And he’s open to our truth, and us bringing our ideas to the table, as long as you’re sticking to the foundation of it. I’d come from this theater production that was very much: you need to be here on this queue on the fifth count of the fifth bar. It was very precise. So it was great to come to something where he’s open to hearing our thoughts on things. And he’s a genius. His mind is just insane.
So were you able to bring any of the experiences that your dad had told you?
What was really cool was that at a table reading while we were rehearsing, they had these massive mood boards on the wall, and I kept on looking at one of the pictures and it was my dad! It my dad in his hat and by a sound system from way back in the day. And they’d just found this picture – they didn’t know who it was.
But I also spoke to my mum, just as a female and with Martha being a young lady. My mum came here when she was nine, so I wanted to hear her take on things and her little experiences and things she’s told me throughout the years.
Have you had a chance to see any of the other films in the Small Axe series?
I haven’t, but from just watching the trailer I got goose bumps. Letitia Wright is such an inspiration for me and I’m so excited to see her work in this.
Sadly with the lockdown there’s no big launch event, but are you planning a special viewing party when it’s out?
Right now my plan is to have three or four of my friends and my parents and just get cosy in the living room and watch it.
What’s next for you? Having your first screen role in a Steve McQueen production with Amazon and the BBC isn’t a bad place to start. But where do you go from here?
What I keep saying is that I’m putting into the universe and just looking forward to sipping on a mojito opposite Jordan Peele or Quentin Tarantino, and they’re talking to me about the film that they have written, and I’m the lead. I’m putting that out there. That’s gonna happen. But I have no doubt this will open some really great doors.
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