There is a beautiful fluidity to Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock. The second entry in the Small Axe miniseries is definitely different in tone than the rest of the series, and breakout star Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn celebrates the films themes of love and determination. With her strong presence on screen, it’s astonishing to learn that this is St. Aubyn’s screen debut.
The characters in Lovers Rock need an escape, and that comes in the form of dancing, drink, and feeling closer to one another. St. Aubyn’s Martha sneaks out from her conservative parents because a house party is something that she needs to explore for herself. It’s an evening full of promise and excitement and it’s something that Martha needs to grow as a young woman.
St. Aubyn doesn’t even need to say anything to feel her magnetism as a performer. Formerly a swing in the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, she understands the intimacy between her and an audience, and she makes her mark in this film. Her performance is brimming with anticipation and the beating of an aching heart.
Awards Daily: This is your first film?
Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn: It is my first time on screen, yes.
AD: That blew my mind when I found that out. You’re so natural on screen!
AJSJ: Thank you.
AD: Did you have any apprehensions?
AJSJ: I have to admit that I was nervous because it was my first screen job and I’m the lead. As soon as we started rehearsals and filming, Steve [McQueen] made it such a safe space. I had to see it as this guy, this incredible director, trusts me, so I had to trust myself. It just grew and I started to trust myself more. He was allowing me to see myself what I could bring and I started to understand my worthiness. Steve really helped me.
AD: What did you value most from working with Steve?
AJSJ: Definitely. Sometimes there was a scene where I wasn’t due on camera and he was looking at the space and the set. You’d wonder what he was thinking about or what was going on in his head and he ends up creating this magical thing. I don’t want to speak on it too much, but certain moments, he was quite spontaneous. He just got a feeling. It inspired me to go with my gut because his brain doesn’t work like anyone else’s that I’ve seen. He’s a different species and I have so much love with him.
AD: I wanted to ask about the rehearsal process for this particular film because it is so loose and fluid. Can you talk to me about how the rehearsals translated to what we see in the film?
AJSJ: Yes, especially because the heart of it is the music and the dancing. We worked with a choreographer named Coral [Messam] to understand how the dance is different than how we dance now. The energy is held and grounded to the earth. The dancing isn’t just dancing, but these people are releasing their stresses from the week where they may experienced racism on Tuesday or disrespect on Wednesday. This was a time when the Black community came together to release together. There were certain moments where Michael [Ward] would add an extra word and Steve would tell him to keep it. He was very open as long as it was still in line with his vision.
AD: I read about how Coral was brought in and I found that to be such a detail that we may not expect. As an audience we may assume that Steve would just let the music play and tell everyone to dance. That has to establish more with your characters.
AJSJ: Definitely. It really did.
AD: There is something really joyous about Lovers Rock. I love how sensual and sexy it is. What conversations did you all have about that connection because some of the other films part of Small Axe there isn’t as much violence.
AJSJ: The key thing, especially about our episode, is the Black community is coming together because they aren’t allowed in the white nightclubs. It was the Black community moving on despite that with the food and the fashion and the music. The love in the Black community is so incredible. In terms of where Lovers Rock fits in with the rest of Small Axe, I believe it’s the house party that people need to escape. The other films are so hard hitting and will spark emotions and if you need somewhere to go from where those emotions take you, Lovers Rock can do so much for you. It’s also a way to show that we feel butterflies. We fall in love and we laugh all the while dealing with struggles. Speaking to my parents about their history, I feel that I’m speaking my mom’s truth. She came over from Jamaica from when she was nine. While our story isn’t a true story, there is such truth that people can relate to so much in our film.
AD: I read about how you saw a picture of your father on a mood board during rehearsal?
AJSJ: It was crazy. During the read through, there were these giant mood boards, and I was kind of far away. I recognized right away and my dad was there literally behind the sound system at a house party. It couldn’t be more a perfect screen job for me because it feels so close to home.
AD: That dance sequence is one of my favorite scenes I’ve seen all year. Everyone keeps singing when the music stops and it’s so intoxicating. Can you describe the energy in that room?
AJSJ: It’s beautiful isn’t it? And it happened quite by accident.
AD: I wanted to know that!
AJSJ: The cameras just kept rolling. Coral said that she needed to give the supporting actors the energy that they needed. She took them into a room with a massive speaker to pump that energy into them. That can’t be faked and it’s truly like nothing on the outside doesn’t matter. That goes to show how much everyone was in it. The music cut and everyone just kept singing.
AD: We don’t see Martha’s home life–we see her leave it and come back to it. There are some items in her house that suggest her faith, and I wanted to know about her relationship with her parents who might be more devout than her. She’s still young.
AJSJ: My mom used to take me to a church around the corner. When I was that age I thought that it was routine and we’d sing a hymn and I wanted to bring that into Martha when I was doing backstory. I believe Martha definitely had a relationship with God but I think it was more about her wanting to see the other side of things and that nightlife. Her parents were strict and she didn’t have that type of relationship with them that she could talk about it. She wanted to experience blues night when she was very young. More than anything, she has these beliefs but she needs that experience. Someone said to me that when they watched it, they thought that when Martha sees the man with the cross that she feels guilty that she snuck out.