By Claire Bueno
Airing on ITV1 22nd October is the outstanding Three Little Birds, a story of three Jamaican women voyaging to the UK in search of new opportunities. Written by Sir Lenny Henry, the series is inspired by his mother and the stories that she shared. For me this is all about the people, how the characters adapt, integrate, and overcome obstacles; and for this you need the acting acumen to authentically pull this off. One such actor is Rochelle Neil who plays the lead part of Leah Whittaker, a courageous, stoic, matriarchal figure, and very much the glue that keeps these characters together. Rochelle mesmerises us with her nuanced portrayal. It’s a big role, with big responsibility, so when I was given the opportunity to chat with her more about it, it was an opportunity that I was not going to miss.
Rochelle, Three Little Birds. I am four episodes in and I'm absolutely loving it. There is such a vibrance in the writing, and I wondered whether you thought the same when you first read the script?
Wow. So, when I first read the script, it hit me on so many levels because it's very, authentic to the Jamaican culture with Lenny Henry. So, the humour felt very much on point. And then the story itself was my actual heritage, to the point that I genuinely was like, has he been following my family around for the last 50 years? This is insane. But it's amazing because it's such a shared history, and it's so many black Caribbean Brits’ stories. So, yeah, I was blown away by the writing and the script straight away.
And you touched upon Sir Lenny Henry, I can't not mention him because he's a national institution and the show is based on stories of his family, isn't it?
Yes. It's inspired by his mother and family coming over. Yeah, he is an icon and a complete institution (laughs). It's funny because I can't remember life without Sir Lenny Henry. My life doesn't exist without him being a legend. So, working with him was like loads, and loads, and loads of pinch me moments; and really having to sit down, and give myself a talking to. Like, “You have to humanize this person in order to do your best.” And now I text him and I'm like, “Hey, Lenny,” just casually on What’s App like, “What’s Up”. Which he's really, really open to because he's Sir Lenny Henry, and that's why we love him. He's great.
Yeah, you definitely feel her inner conflict, she is so torn, isn't she? You spoke about being a mother yourself and that being a reference point for you. But as part of your preparation, how do you get into that mindset?
Ha. For me, it's about feeling safe. And so, as long as I feel safe, I then can trust myself, and then trust the people around me, trust another actor, lean into each other in that way. So, a lot of my prep work; obviously there's the technical side, and there's the deep diving into the research, and reading the books and stuff. But for me, often the biggest thing in any job really, is just making sure I'm getting out of my way. I'm feeling really grounded in my body, really grounded in the space, and connected to the person I'm playing with, or working with.
What's interesting for me is that I found the story relatable and accessible. This story might be about Jamaican people coming to the UK, but my father came from Spain to England, to the Midlands, and went straight into a factory. And so, I could relate to stories about what Dad said about the difficulties integrating and that transition, because it was such a culture shock. So, was it important for you that this isn't just a Jamaican story, but it's actually much bigger than that.
That felt important, but it also felt really true in the story that we're telling. I always think that when it comes to immigration everyone's lives are enriched. Whether you’re already in the country, or whether you moved to a certain country, and you're all exposed to new food and music, new ways of problem solving, new family dynamics. And I think we really show that in the show, but specifically for the Windrush generation, everyone's lives were enriched. I have friends of my parents who were already living in East London for example, when my parents and their families arrived, and they now cook better jerk chicken than we do, because they've grown up with it as well.
This is a historical piece in that, it's educational, but it's not a documentary, but it is a significant mark in history. How important is it for you to be a part of that storytelling, so that future generations know what your forefathers went through?
Gosh, I mean, these [questions] are hitting me right in my feelings (laughs). Gosh. Yeah. Well, I don't know whether it's a personality trait of mine, but I try not to think about it in such big terms, if I'm honest. I think it's amazing. I hope the generations to come, say even on a minute scale, like a young black actress would look at me and be like, “Hey, this is now possible, I've seen her do it.” The way I would look at Viola Davis, for example, and think, “I've seen her do it, so I know it's possible for me.” But yeah, it is really important. And I think that's art in itself, isn't it. Whether you're a writer, or a singer, or a dancer, musician, an actor, a storyteller of sorts, I think it's a wonderful privilege, responsibility; consequence of the job that we do.
You do stage acting. You've done film. What's the beauty of TV? I know TV writing at the moment is phenomenal, but is it nice because you get to spend more time with a character? You have the luxury of time in TV, which perhaps you don't with a 90-minute feature or a stage play.
Yeah, I think it's funny. The big difference I've noticed is that with movies there are rewrites, but it doesn't feel like my character’s arc and journey doesn't change as drastically. Whereas with TV, I feel because you're doing it episode by episode, you could be sent the first six episodes, but then by the time you get to episode three, for example, it's completely different to the one that you originally read. And so, I find with TV it often keeps me really fresh, on my feet because it's changing very quickly. And in some TV shows I've worked on they would give you the sides on the day. So, you're learning about your character and making decisions about this person and their life, and immediately. So that's been my experience in that. So, it's lovely you spend more time with them, but you spend time with them in a hotter way. I think movies you have days to shoot a film or shoot a scene. Whereas TV's like, okay, we're in this factory, we only have this location for today, and we have seven scenes to shoot. So, I make good choices. People make good choices.
And being a part of this show, what do you feel that you've you learned about yourself and your craft?
I feel like it was one of the first jobs where I asked, “Gosh, do you ever fully trust yourself?” But I gave myself permission to trust myself. And it’s the first show I've ever been number one on the call sheet and that came with a responsibility, not just to myself, or to my role, but to the show as a whole. And I was invited into conversations and the edit suite and things like that, whereas before I was never invited to contribute in that way. This job was the first time I was like, “Hey, maybe I do know some things. Maybe I had done this before, and maybe I can be a real help, and useful, and I have opinions, and I can clearly see a route if you need help with this endeavour, this show that we’re all making.” So, I think that's been a step for me, which was terrifying at first. I remember my first week thinking, “Oh okay, I've definitely made a step here.” But by the end felt it most natural, like, “Okay, I am capable.” And that's a nice to feel capable in giving yourself.
And it's as you said, when you are the lead, it starts with you; and how you come in, your attitude, your mood sets the atmosphere. It's a big responsibility, isn't it?
100%. 100% Yeah, really, I felt it. Not in an oppressive way, but I felt it was lovely because the show felt so close to me on a personal level as well. So, it was easy to just project that, I felt our set felt like a big old Jamaican family, but just projecting that energy of it's good food, it's good, good energy, good vibes, real talk, support and professionalism. Like, “Let's be on time, people. Let's nip this stereotype in the bud if we can.” (Laughs) But yeah it was good, it was a good time.
Very finally, I've started doing a counselling course to elevate the media coaching work I do, and part of that is learning about self-care. The entertainment industry is such a difficult industry and I want to help and inspire other people. So, can I ask you about what you do for your own self-care? What's an important way for you to look after yourself?
Oh, I think I've got a couple of things that I that I do. I always make sure I do something where I'm out and I'm moving my body. It doesn’t matter what you look like, put your coat on and get out the house, go for a walk. And then reading for me feels like a luxury. I think it's maybe because I'm always reading scripts, and I'm always learning lines, and I'm always using words in a different way. So, when I can, I sit with words, sit with books, and I can let myself naturally absorb it, I'm not trying to cram into my face, I'm not really trying to be like, “But why have they said this?” That feels like a luxury. So, it just it feels softer. So, walking and reading are my two.
THREE LITTLE BIRDS
ITV1 & ITVX 22nd October
Photographer: Johanna Lundqvist
With special thanks to Dane Punch PR