‘I want to break down stereotypes and smooth out the grey areas’ — meet a new breed of quietly radical UK actors disrupting the film industry from withinrag & bone ss17
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From elite femme alphas in TV’s Clique to tales of twisted identities in the forthcoming big-screen tearjerker Our Little Haven — 2017 is an electric time for TV and film.
With raw on-screen appeal and point-blank opinions, we close in on the UK’s next generation of film firebrands igniting screens right now, and pressing the reset button on the acting industry.
“Butterfly Kisses and Clique are stories of friendship and the darkness that just happens to be part of life,” says Ella-Rae Smith of her latest projects, spotlighting the shame and forbidden desires of thorny adolescence. “I think as artists it’s our responsibility to make work that reflects the time we’re in.” In the upcoming Butterfly Kisses, the sparky Bristol-born actress and model stars as one of a group of teens navigating various degrees of sex and porn obsession (with one major taboo centring the chilling drama). And in recent series Clique, the 19-year-old fronts an elite alpha-girl crew with co-star Sophia Brown, shattering the confidence of two freshers with their whip-smart intellect and hedonistic lifestyle. “I think female relationships can be really, really intense and this story definitely explores that,” she muses of the show’s deft portrayal of female companionship and aspiration. “I think it’s great that we’re sharing a story that is relevant and hasn’t really been shown before.” Though not yet out of her teens, Smith only has eyes for switched-on parts that subvert female stereotypes: her upcoming role opposite Liam Neeson in The Commuter is just one of the blows she plans to deal to Hollywood’s reductive portrayals of young women this year. “Enough with the vapid chick flicks!”
“You know when your reality’s really small and it becomes even more heightened? How, the narrower something gets, the more possibilities there are within it?” says George MacKay. “This family really only have themselves, and that kind of intimacy.” The 25-year-old is discussing upcoming psycho-thriller Marrowbone – a lyrical study of family bonds starring fellow outsider film favourites Mia Goth, Anya Taylor-Joy and Charlie Heaton. MacKay stars as one of four siblings marked by tragedy, desperately seeking refuge from the past. It’s a role that channels his taste for tender, quietly radical narratives, most palpable in LGBT drama Pride and the forthcoming Where Hands Touch, Amma Asante’s nuanced meditation on love and identity in Nazi Germany co-starring Amandla Stenberg. “Obviously, you hope to define yourself by who you are inside and how you govern yourself,” says MacKay, unpicking his role in the latter film as an SS Officer. “But if your context is telling you what to be, how much control do you actually have?” It’s a question with bitter resonance in 2017, but the Londoner is keen to emphasise the positive. “What’s exciting is that these times, however volatile, are an inspiration for making stories about history and about the future – they’re keeping us aware.”
“I see characters aesthetically at first, through body language,” says 22-year-old Anders Hayward, his forceful hand gestures serving every word. “You can say so much with just your body, and that’s what helps me, I think, to really be a character.” The south Londoner’s total body literacy, he maintains, is down to years of character-based work at a contemporary dance school. Balancing a string of modelling jobs with choreography projects, Hayward quickly found a knack for scripted roles, making his debut in recent comedy drama series Gap Year. “The perfect way to describe (his Gap Year character) Dylan is that he’s the type of person who’d watch David Lynch and think, ‘What a great film, that was… Woah, yeah, really got to me, powerful!’” he laughs. “But actually on the inside he would much rather watch Transformers or X-Men!” As for his next move, Hayward reveals a series of independent projects, the first being a hypnotic, emotionally charged dance short made with his close friends and funded by his work on Gap Year. “It was something I found so liberating, that I could do whatever I wanted to do. It was one of those moments where you sit down and think, ‘We just made something that was ours,”’ he enthuses. “I can’t wait for the next one.”
“I think as a black actress I have a responsibility to portray women who aren’t showcased,” declares Sophia Brown, her bright smile betraying an unmistakable confidence. “I want to do my best to be a mouthpiece, and break down stereotypes so that we can smooth out these grey areas.” The 25-year-old’s screen parts sync seamlessly with her bold mission – this year, she’ll star alongside Rachel Weisz in tense drama Disobedience, fresh from her turn in Clique and Disney’s live-action reboot of Beauty and the Beast. “I was playing an African princess and I felt so much pride, even down to the detail of my hair,” she says of her role in the latter film. “It wasn’t straightened, they had woven my natural hair and made it big.” Practically in the same breath, Brown gushes about Guerrilla, a new six-part political drama on Sky Atlantic, which she cites as the “closest thing to my heart”. In the series, the Midlands native plays a black rights activist in the charged racial landscape of 1970s Britain, alongside co-stars Freida Pinto and Idris Elba. “I’ve been trying to educate myself on my history,” she reveals. “It was such a beautiful thing to work on because it was something that I wanted to say as a person, let alone (as) an actress.”
“My character is the youngest of the family, the most free-spirited, and the one who breaks the vow of silence,” says 19-year-old Sorcha Groundsell of her role in Sunday Tide, this year’s enigmatic drama orbiting six Floridian sisters who pledge a mute existence after their mother’s death. “She’s very in-tune with the rest of the world, even though she’s hardly seen it.” Earning her stripes opposite Oscar nominee Ruth Negga in 2016’s trippy drama Iona, the Isle of Lewis native has her crosshairs firmly set on “complex, interesting, and fully drawn-out female characters”. That said, Groundsell is set on steering new narratives independently, flexing her directing chops with a short film written by her flatmate. It’s a decision sparked by a quest for authorship, autonomy and experimentation in an often corporate, male-dominated film industry. “It’s not like I’ve been doing this for 15 years or something… but I’m getting a bit sick of not having any creative control,” she maintains. “I don’t wanna sound like a mouthpiece for every other debate that’s been going on, but the industry is still run by older, white men. No one is going to say to us, ‘Do you fancy directing a movie and writing it?’ If you want to do it, you just do it.”
“I love characters that are quite insular but strong,” says Hampshire-native Pip Phillips. “They have that moment of weakness, but then they power through it – that really attracts me.” The 23-year-old is discussing her role in fantasy epic King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Phillips’ big-screen Hollywood debut that unearths the well-trodden tale’s dark beginnings. The actress credits her secluded, small-town roots with nurturing a certain drive to break into the industry. “I think that, if you’re brought up in London, you (have the confidence) to be like, ‘I can do this, I can do that!’” she explains. “But when you’re on the outskirts and you really want something, you (have to) really fight and go and get it.” Jetting from local youth-theatre productions to blockbuster scripts and, most recently, Our Little Haven – an indie tale of intertwining identities and shared trauma due for release in December – Phillips is excited about the steady crop of new stories spotlighting female strength and complexity. “There’s been this slight insurrection of women coming through (to be) a lot stronger, which I like,” she quips. “I love having the freedom to express myself. I’m not just stuck in one streak.”
Hair Naoki Komiya at Julian Watson Agency, make-up Celia Burton using M.A.C, set design Amy Stickland, photographic assistant Sebastian Nieśpiałowski, styling assistant Kieran Fenney, hair assistant Cayla Kim, make-up assistant India Excell