The actor’s new role is a chilling villain in new Netflix horror, The Strays – here, she talks to Nick Chen about clowns, trauma, and the importance of staying as ‘open’ as possible
Bukky Bakray’s long-awaited follow-up to Rocks is such a left turn, it might make the Netflix algorithm explode. In the 2019 coming-of-ager directed by Sarah Gavron, Bakray made her BAFTA-nominated acting debut as the title character, Olushola “Rocks” Omotoso, an effortlessly funny, charming teenager who secretly looks after her younger brother when their mother leaves. Yet in a new Netflix horror, The Strays, Bakray defeats typecasting with Abigail, a menacing, dead-eyed villain who plots a Funny Games-esque home invasion on a middle-class family. When the end credits roll, Netflix’s “You Might Also Like…” function may indeed suggest Funny Games, not Rocks.
In 2017, Bakray, then 15 years old, was at school in Hackney when she was invited by two visitors, Gavron and Lucy Pardee (also the casting director of Aftersun), to audition for her first-ever onscreen project, Rocks. Now 20, Bakray is ready to resume her post-Rocks movie career. “I went up for loads of things, like playing a nurse in a care home, to a police officer, to a daughter slightly on the spectrum, like Abigail in The Strays,” says Bakray. “I told my team: put me up for everything. I want to explore life in so many different ways.”
I’m speaking to Bakray during a hectic period in mid-February. She’s just done a full day of rehearsals for a new play, Sleepova, which launches at the Bush Theatre during the same week as The Strays on Netflix, and her other, other new project, Liaison, an Eva Green-starring spy series, on Apple TV+. “I didn’t plot Rocks, I didn’t plot The Strays, I didn’t plot Liaison, I didn’t really plot this play,” she says “But I knew the overall shape of what I wanted to do. Everyone thinks you need specificity with your dreams, but being open is just as effective.”
The Strays marks the debut feature for actor-turned-writer-director Nathaniel Martello-White. After Cheryl (Ashley Madekwe), a Black mother, walks out on her abusive husband and two children, she reinvents herself as a posh teacher called Neve. Now with a white husband and two new children, all oblivious of their mother’s past, Cheryl deliberately hides her Blackness: her voice alters, a wig is adorned, and she lives as if she’s on Midsomer Murders.
First, Cheryl’s guilt haunts her in hallucinations and jump scares. Later, a very white party is hijacked by two Black adults in the form of Abigail and Marvin (Jorden Myrie), both revealed to be the children she abandoned. Cue a lengthy flashback: Abigail and Marvin (really, Dione and Carl) adopt disguises to befriend Cheryl’s children and infiltrate her home. In other words, act one is a little Get Out, act two is slightly Parasite, and then it all ramps up to a Funny Games finale. You can imagine the presentation, if not the actual sizzle reel.
However, Bakray expresses surprise that The Strays is being marketed as scary. “I’m quite shocked by the whole horror thing,” she says. “When I read the film, my character was always described as someone slightly on the spectrum. I’d always been thinking of arrested development, stunted growth, and how trauma manifests in a person.”
Cheryl’s daughter, Mary (Maria Almeida), doesn’t realise in act two that her new pal, Abigail, is really her half-sister. Abigail, though, seethes with contained rage when the pair braid hair and chat about prom. From scene to scene, Abigail continues to switch her physicality and facial expressions depending on the circumstances. When the ferocious finale unfolds, we thus understand – if not support – Abigail’s motives, having spent half the film with her.
“Abigail’s reactions are really hormonal,” Bakray explains. “They don’t match her body or age. She’s reacting to her mother leaving at a young age. When you don’t have parents to shape you, it disrupts your growth. When she sees her mum, it takes her back to the age that the trauma was birthed in. She behaves like a child would. We’ve seen babies go from crying to laughter within five seconds. An adult doing that can seem strange and scary. When adults don’t get to be a child, you become a child later on in life.”
In interviews, Martello-White’s catchy one-line sell for the film is that it’s about Black people navigating white Britain. Does she agree with that assessment? “That might have been other people’s journey in the film, but that wasn’t something my character’s mind was at,” says Bakray. “All she’s thinking is that she wants to celebrate her birthday with her mum by any means necessary.”
Bakray pauses. “It is Black people trying to navigate Britain. But sometimes as a Black protagonist, you’re so distracted that you forget your context. That’s what makes this vengeance even more insane to me: these two Black protagonists enter this white context and don’t care. Jorden’s character doesn’t care he could be arrested and put in prison because of what colour he is, and where he is. They have one objective, and that’s to see their mother, embarrass her, and make her feel how they’ve felt for many years.”
In the gap between Rocks and The Strays, Bakray didn’t go to drama school. Instead, she joined RADA Youth Company, went travelling, and took various classes, one of which was clowning. “Clowning reminds you of your inner child who believed they could be anything,” she says. “I like to look at myself as a very holistic learner. There are so many ways to develop your craft: academic, practically, spiritually, or by sitting and observing.” So she’s applied clowning to her life philosophy? “Yeah, man! The way children think and feel – I saw that in clowning – that’s where it’s at. Playing someone like Abigail who’s so connected to her feelings as a child was empowering. We ignore everything in real life. It was nice to feel things.”
While she couldn’t be more different from Rocks, Abigail still draws empathy from the viewer. Moreover, Martello-White’s screenplay lays out the background for Abigail’s mission and casts an actor in Bakray whom you can’t help but root for. Bakray agrees, saying, “Funny Games is an excellent film but I don’t know where [the home invaders] are coming from. With The Strays, we can explain their actions. It’s like a big domestic issue: instead of therapy or a big argument on Christmas Day, we see a series of events that explain this big family.”
So, we conclude, Abigail is and isn’t a villain. Regardless, I end the interview by bringing up a recent quote by Kumail Nanjiani that Hollywood studios are reluctant to cast actors of colour as baddies in case it’s interpreted as racist. “None of us had any issues with Denzel playing the bad cop in Training Day, because that was a fricking incredible film,” Bakray says. “If you’re going to do something, do it properly. Explore it truthfully, and there’ll be no issues. That’s where I stand on absolutely everything.”
The Strays is streaming on Netflix on February 22
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