Chances are, you know Bukky Bakray as the breakout star of coming-of-age indie film Rocks. The low-budget, exceptionally moving story of rapidly-changing Hackney and the families and friends living within it, Rocks – directed by Sarah Gavron – became one of 2020’s biggest critical successes. For Bakray, it was truly life-changing.
Before, “acting always felt like one of those forgettable dreams that you have as a child for, like, five seconds,” she says. “I want to be a chef, an athlete, all these things. But what happens when it actually becomes real? I learned that on Rocks. Afterwards, I had to start dreaming, actively.”
“What happens when your dreams become real?”
Now 21, Bakray is deep into rehearsals for upcoming new play Sleepova. Written by Nigerian-British playwright Matilda Feyiṣayọ Ibini, the story dissects the shifting lives and identities of four teenage best mates as they process their journeys towards adulthood at their semi-regular sleepovers. These tight-knit personal bonds become a tool for searching out and exploring much larger questions. When we meet one evening at the Bush Theatre in west London, after a productive day of honing the show, the main stage is a tangle of wires and moving stage sections ahead of opening night on February 24.
“It’s like stepping into a different country,” Bakray says, of moving into the world of theatre, after we’ve gingerly picked our way through the chaos. “I find it really hard and embarrassing… but I also think that’s when you make the best work.”
Growing up in Hackney, East London – where she still lives today – Bakray remembers constantly watching and rewatching the stacks of precious VHS tapes that filled her home. “We had all the classics: from Tupac’s [1992 thriller] Juice to The Godfather. I’ve watched Goodfellas about 100 times.” Out of everything, though, Bakray was most drawn to the Denzel Washington-starring 2001 crime thriller Training Days. “It’s funny…” she reflects. “How can I resonate with a cop mentor and his mentee? But films like that are so influential in hip-hop culture. They’ve built my character, my taste in music, my taste in food. I feel like I definitely ended up watching The Wire because I loved Training Day. I like that kind of American shape.”
At first glance, upcoming Netflix horror The Strays – Bakray’s biggest project yet – also feels distinctly American. Set in an unsettlingly shiny, far-too-perfect suburb, the directorial debut from I Hate Suzie and Small Axe: Mangrove’s Nathaniel Martello-White sets the scene with wide-open roads and quaint-yet-massive houses with pristine driveways and a gas-guzzling SUV. Out front, expensively-dressed inhabitants stand awkwardly like disgraced politicians waiting to make a statement to the press. It could be one of Stephen King’s classic haunted Midwestern towns – but we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Instead, this particular story takes place in the picture-postcard surroundings of Castle Combe. Besides housing Glastonbury Festival’s nearest train station, the Cotswolds village is also the sort of place that gets described as “quintessentially British”. Almost everybody who lives here is white – aside from local deputy headmistress Neve, and her two children Sebastian and Mary – but when two strangers suddenly show up at the annual charity fete Neve has organised, her attempt to erase every trace of her past quickly unravels.
“The way that race is explored in The Strays, between the door cracks… I think that’s how it is in the UK,” says Bakray of the script, which is peppered with examples of subtle microaggressions. In one early scene, when Neve meets a neighbour to discuss her vision for the fundraiser, the unnamed white woman assures her that she’s “practically one of us” with an oblivious smile. Later, as daughter Mary begins exploring different hairstyles and braids her hair for the first time, Neve and her husband Ian attempt to gloss over their friend Barry casually remarking that the new style looks “ethnic”. Neve also adopts a similar mode of code-switching in order to fit in with her community; and when two “strays” show up for the first time, she labels them “dodgy, from out of town.” Bakray says she was initially attracted to the script because of the deft ways that The Strays explores colourism.
“Now I can look anyone in the eye”
“I was interested in the exploration of the mixed-race experience, of being of dual heritage,” she says, “and something exploring that beyond [focusing on] beauty standards. I mean, [Jade Lewis] the director of Sleepova, she said something the other day… being mixed-race is very different, all around the world, and the discourse always leads down to beauty standards and roles in society, and how certain aspects are ‘easier’. No one talks about the complexities that people have from the beginning, when you’re of dual heritage. It’s as complex as any other type of experience in the world.”
Bakray previously told Vanity Fair that “acting is just you heightening parts of yourself”, and when it came to embodying a character as complex and multi-layered as Abigail – one of the mysterious new arrivals – she tried to look past the more frightening, horror-trope elements of the role. “Seeing the trailer has been very funny because everyone’s describing it as this full-on horror… but when we were actually making it and trying to connect to the characters, we were just talking about the humanity,” she says. “I thought: at what point in my life have I been misunderstood?”
Offering up an example, she reaches back to her love of hip-hop growing up – specifically DMX. When Bakray became the youngest-ever winner of the BAFTA Rising Star Award in 2021 – which counts John Boyega, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright and Tom Holland as previous victors – she paid tribute to the late American rapper in her acceptance speech. And today, she doubles down on that praise.
“In secondary school, I used to listen to DMX all the time,” she says. “I resonate with how his rage in music was misinterpreted. He was abrupt, hardcore, very fierce and fiery. But when you listen to Nina Simone… she has a similar rage, but it’s translated into passion. I see DMX’s rage as passion, because that’s how my rage was then. DMX spoke my language.”
Around the same time, 14-year-old Bakray landed the lead role in Rocks. In place of dependable stars and bankable big names, the film – which follows Olushola ‘Rocks’ Omotoso (Bakray) and her younger brother Emmanuel as they go on the run and attempt to evade social services after being abandoned by their mum – picked an unknown cast of Hackney teenagers. “They [the film’s casting team, and director Sarah Gavron] were at east London schools for over two years, at the back of drama classes,” she says. When the film first started shooting, Bakray struggled to make eye contact. “Now I can look anyone in the eye, and that’s how you act,” she says.
Bakray still has Rocks’ denim jacket, which she took as a souvenir from the set, and stays in touch with all of her castmates. The immediate, joyful chemistry between Rocks and her friends in the film, Bakray explains, was never faked or exaggerated. “We were all friends. None of the chemistry was faked,” says Bakray. “When me and Kosar [Ali, who played Rocks’ BFF Sumaya] hugged, it was real. When we laughed, it was real.”
“I met my heroes on ‘Rocks'”
After screening at a handful of festivals in 2019, Rocks’ full UK release was delayed until 2020 due to the pandemic. Arriving amid multiple lockdowns, it was mostly watched at home by film fans with a Netflix subscription. This arguably did it a favour – and by 2021 word-of-mouth had made Rocks a leading contender at the BAFTAs. When Bakray – beaming into the empty ceremony hall over video link amid strict filming restrictions – first learned she had won the Rising Star Award, she looked genuinely shocked as countless family and friends cheered her on from off-screen.
On the way to rehearsals in Shepherd’s Bush, Bakray walks past a gigantic poster of her Rocks castmate Ruby Stokes (who played Rocks’ well-meaning friend Agnes) and it’s a daily reminder of just how much the film has changed their lives. Since Rocks’ release, Stokes has gone onto land parts in hit shows Lockwood & Co and Bridgerton. Fellow newcomer Shaneigha-Monik Greyson – who played Roshé in Rocks – has since starred in the acclaimed 2021 indie film Navy, while another member of the group, Afi Okaidja, has signed up for the RADA Youth Company. “Sarah [Gavron]’s cooking her next project,” Bakray says, “which everyone is waiting for. Everyone is still actively doing things, and that reminds me of why I’m doing this, and how I did this. I’m not just watching them, I’m supporting them.”
Since starring in Rocks, Bakray has continued her acting training, attending performing arts academies RADA Youth Company and Theatre Peckham; and she’s also started studying for an arts undergraduate degree. It’s at RADA, though, that she began sharing her own writing for the first time during classes. She ended up writing a play called The Bookshop for the Royal Court, during their regular night of creative takeovers Living Newspaper – and dipped her toe into theatre when she joined the cast for the one-night-only showing. Initially, Theresa Ikoko – a playwright, and the co-writer of Rocks – had been asked to head up the project, but decided to pass along the opportunity to her Rocks collaborator. On-screen, Bukky is about to star alongside Eva Green in Apple’s tense cyber-crime thriller Liaison, also out this week.
The huge, and richly-deserved critical recognition that she found in Rocks has no doubt paved the way to the complex roles and new challenges Bakray is taking on now, and she now counts many of her heroes as peers. Are there any meetings, or pieces of advice, that particularly stand out?
“One person I really look up to is Wunmi Mosaku,” she says. Mosaku previously featured in Marvel‘s Loki, Black Mirror, and The End of the F***ing World, and won her second BAFTA in 2021 for her leading role in acclaimed horror His House. “The way she bigs me up… it’s like, how are you saying this to me?! I also look up to Kosar. Her journey in the industry will always be different to mine, but she just continues to kill it. It’s inspirational.”
“I met my heroes on Rocks,” Bakray adds. “I say this, not meaning to be cringe or corny, but those people legit saved my life. I wouldn’t have been as courageous, otherwise. All of this happened because these people believed in me [when] I didn’t believe in myself.”
‘The Strays’ is streaming now on Netflix
Featured image credit: Craig Gibson/Netflix