Amarah-Jae St Aubyn makes her screen debut starring, alongside Top Boy’s Micheal Ward, as the leads in Lover’s Rock, part of Steve McQueen’s London-set BBC anthology series, Small Axe. In our exclusive interview, the 26-year-old Londoner shares how she got started in acting, working with Steve McQueen and much more.
Lover’s Rock tells the fictional story of young love set during the course of one night at a house party in 1980, all against the backdrop of the romantic reggae genre called “Lovers Rock”.
Amarah-Jae St Aubyn makes her screen debut as Martha, and has already been named one of this year’s Screen International’s ‘Stars of Tomorrow’ following her strong performance in Lovers Rock.
A few days before the film’s release, we caught up with Amarah-Jae St Aubyn via Zoom and learned that the music of Lover’s Rock has always been a big part of her life growing up.
“The music I have grown up around has always been the reggae or Lover’s Rock… especially on my mum’s side… I have grown up in that kind of community…. I have always been surrounded by love.”
Read our interview with Amarah-Jae St Aubyn…
How did you get started in the acting world?
From a young age, about five or six, I was just always creative. In primary school at the end of the week there would be a talent show and I was always so excited for it. When my dad, who was a reggae artist back in the day, [he still has his music-based charity now], used to write little raps with me and I would perform them at the talent show.
From little I used to go to Italia Conti [a performing arts school] and there are still videos of me and my little cousin on stage and loving it.
I did GCSE drama in secondary school and one of the best teachers; Miss Healey, who guided me, and I applied to the Brit School. Brit School was where I had some of the most fun times of my life. It is the only place that I have been able to play a rabbi or Santa Claus or King Edward in Henry VI Part three. I remember a teacher saying to me at that time ‘Enjoy this because you are not going to be cast for these kinds of things when you go out into the industry’. After that I applied for drama schools and didn’t get in and started National Youth Theatre’s two-week intake course. I subsequently joined the Foundation Course at Drama Centre.
What was your experience like at Drama Centre?
It was strange for me because I went from somewhere like NYT, which was all very lovely and welcoming and very diverse, to then going to the Foundation Course at Drama Centre where I had quite a difficult time being the only Black person out of 27 people and being constantly reminded of that fact with little things. If I was speaking, people are making jokes that I am rapping! The teachers really loved me there though and saw I worked hard and that I am good at what I do and they cast me twice for things.
I had an incredible screen acting teacher there who, when I was finding it hard and trying to audition for drama schools at the time just said to me ‘If you focus on other people’s journey you’re going to trip on your own. Focus on yourself and work hard’ and that has always stayed with me.
If I was speaking, people are making jokes that I am rapping!
Tell us about your audition for the role of Martha in Lover’s Rock?
I was sent a draft copy of the scripts and asked to prepare a scene. I decided to pick two scenes to show the character of Martha in different ways as the scenes are short. Afterward, I remember speaking on the phone to my dad on the way to the station and was telling him, ‘You don’t hear back from these things for ages, I am just going to let it go and let the universe do its thing’. By the time I got home I got a call from my agent at the time to say that I had another audition with Steve and other people auditioning for the following week.
The next week I prepared myself, I didn’t need to know it [the script] because it was going to be in front of me but my safety blanket is knowing things word for word so I can look up and engage with other actors. I really prepared myself for it and it was just lovely to hear the script come to life during the audition. There were times where Steve had his eyes closed just listening to the dialogue. This is something he has been working on for years so to hear it come to life must have been really exciting for him. Me and Micheal hit it off, we had really good chemistry and the scenes just flowed and after that it was just a couple of weeks later that we were told we had got it.
Me and Micheal hit it off, we had really good chemistry and the scenes just flowed…
What was it like working for Steve McQueen?
It was incredible. I was lucky that my first screen job was as a lead because it meant I got to be around the director a lot and I learnt so much from him. Also coming from something like Harry Potter [Amarah-Jae’s previous role] where you needed to be very much on your mark, on the fifth count, of the fifth bar at this exact moment, to then go on to work with someone who says, ‘Don’t be afraid to play, see what happens’, to be a trusted part of the cast was great. You would see the cinematographer come and give Steve his ideas and say ‘Maybe if we film here’ and Steve is like ‘Yeah, I am all for it’. As long as the foundation of his vision is still there, he is so open to ideas. We only shot for two weeks but I learnt a lot from him in such a short amount of time.
I was lucky that my first screen job was as a lead because it meant I got to be around the director a lot and I learnt so much from him.
What would you say about the current state of representation of Black people in film and theatre?
I am happy things are happening now gradually. I just hope it is not just a trend and because of what has been happening this year I hope that when the trend of this fizzles out, I don’t know if that is how I would word it, but these things are still happening, and changes are still being made. Lover’s Rock shows the other side of things on the side of the discrimination and the racism we experience. It also shows that we also love and get butterflies, just like any teenage boy or girl would. We feel things that other people feel.
What’s been the most challenging aspects of your career so far?
I am really working on not getting in my own way and to definitely trust the process more. Coming back to why I wanted to do this and the love for it as opposed to allowing it to define me, if that makes sense.
I think a lot of the time if I really want a job or I am really yearning for this particular play it can defeat me because I am in my own way as opposed to just being relaxed and working on it and doing what I enjoy with the scripts. I work extra hard at wanting to appeal and impress, so I am really trying to work on that at the moment and just trust myself and know that I am good enough and I am worthy of this.
What are the best moments so far then in your career?
One would definitely be getting into the Brit School for me because at the time it was a bit hard to get in to especially where I have always been the weird one in my area growing up. Not in a bad way because I think weird is beautiful, but I haven’t just loved hip hop, I love rock music too, for example. I saw Brit School as this place where I am going to be welcomed as myself completely.
Another was getting into NYT. I had come from a difficult time in my life and something just clicked when I saw the application for it online. You see, I had gone for it a couple of years before, but I was not confident within myself back then. But this time, I looked at it and said ‘This is mine until someone tells me it isn’t. I went in for four rounds of auditions with that same mentality. I was going to bed at eight or nine at the latest and working on my words, my script and I just kept saying ‘This is mine until someone tells me it isn’t’. I am proud of myself that I got that.
Finally, landing this role as Martha in Lover’s Rock. I remember when I was still doing Harry Potter on a difficult day, being outside and one of the leads, one of the other actors came out to talk to me and he never does this, usually he just walks and waits. We had a mutual friend who was also an actor and he told me that this person was sitting and eating with Steve McQueen the other day. I remember after he went in, I looked into the sky and said: ‘I want to speak with Steve McQueen, I want to work with Steve McQueen’. I don’t know what I did that day but look what happened. I am so grateful that this of all jobs is the one opening the doors for me because it seems this is going to go down in history. I am so blessed, and I feel so grateful and privileged to have worked with Steve McQueen on something like this and these untold stories that need to be heard.
I am so blessed, and I feel so grateful and privileged to have worked with Steve McQueen on something like this…
Who are your acting role models?
I love Denzel Washington and his motivational quotes have got me through a lot. He is just amazing in everything he does but then also to see how spiritual he is. Something that he once said has stayed with; He said, ‘That fire that you have in you is the thing that is God’s gift to you to tell you it’s yours already, you need to claim it.’ I always keep that in my head and there are times when I have gone ‘I am done with acting.’ I have worked in the hospitality industry trying to forget about it and I feel this thing in me that I need to do. Denzel is definitely an inspiration. Another would be Viola Davis; she is a queen. Every episode of How to Get Away With Murder and every film she has ever done is a master class for me in terms of how I can work on my craft.
Finally, what do you hope for next, career-wise?
I just hope to be working with more inspirational people like Steve. To work with more incredible actors like Micheal Ward. To be constantly progressing. I would love to have a lead in something that is a bit different maybe to show more of the journey of the character. I would love to do more of that. Just to stay grounded, stay humble and keep reaching, there has never been an ‘option B’ for me. I am just putting it out to the universe what I want and I hope it receives it and gives it back.
We have no doubt that the universe is listening!
Catch Amarah-Jae St Aubyn in Lovers Rock, part of the BBC Small Axe anthology, coming to BBC One and iPlayer on Sunday 22 November and on Amazon on 27 November 2020.