How the critically-acclaimed 'Rocks' found its talented non-actor cast in London schools

A still from Sarah Gavron's Rocks. (Altitude)
A still from Sarah Gavron's Rocks. (Altitude)

This week sees the release of Sarah Gavron’s new film Rocks into UK cinemas. It was hailed as one of the best films to come out of the Toronto Film Festival in 2019 and was originally slated for release before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. The new film from the director of Suffragette and Brick Lane is a witty, realist and heart-warming tale of growing up in inner city London and the impact of girl friendships.

Written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, the film explores the resilience, joy and spirit of girlhood through a group of inner city teenage girls. Uniquely, most of the girls including the lead Bukky Bakray are non trained actors whose first role is this film. The production team scouted hundreds of girls across schools in London and began an intense workshop process with them to explore character and story ideas, finally producing the core group: Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, Afi Okaidja, Tawheda Begum, Anastasia Dymitrow and Ruby Stokes.

Read more: Autumn’s most exciting new movies

The quietly revolutionary production was 75% female and was a deeply collaborative project from inside out between everyone involved. Yahoo spoke to Rocks’ casting team, headed up by Lucy Pardee and Jessica Straker, about how they cast the film using total unknowns.

What is Rocks?

Rocks is a film about sisterhood, and that’s what it has been like behind the camera, too. It is an example of how film should be made going forward. It has genuinely been a life-changing experience for us. And has changed the way we view collaborations. We’ve found collaborators for life in this community of women and girls.

What were you looking for in the cast?

A still from Rocks. (Altitude)
A still from Rocks. (Altitude)

The search for the main cast was very open, which gave way to joyful chaos in the early stages. We didn’t have set ideas about who our cast was when we started looking for them, because we wanted to allow space for people to rise to the occasion. We wanted to escape the tropes that can see some films about young people get stuck.

Read more: Rocks: The most authentic film about British teens in years

As the process went on, we realised the roles would suit people who who also reflected the energy that was starting to percolate behind the scenes. So that meant a progressive energy. The ability to grow through the process. The ability to be accountable. To trust.

How did you find the cast?

We found the cast in schools, mainly, with some youth clubs. For the girls, other than age, there was no casting brief. We spoke to whole year groups and inviting everyone who wanted to come forward. We found D’Angelou not once, but twice! First through a social media push and then, by chance, in his primary school, when he looked up and smiled, ‘I know you!’ We had a more specific guiding principle for Emmanuel, looking for someone with a really active imagination, which D had.

Read more: New look at Johnny Flynn as David Bowie

He shared what he’s learned and observed about the world, leading us in a mini-meditation session in the middle of his audition. He told us to close our eyes and breathe, which was greatly appreciated considering we had seen nearly 200 boys that weekend.

What did the auditions consist of, and how do you know what you were looking for?

We met around 1,500 girls in castings, which were these epic weekends of the two of us seeing over 200 girls a day, who all came in their existing friendship groups. Sometimes they’d be groups of three and other times twenty five. It genuinely felt like a tornado of teenage energy at times, but we loved it.

The poster for Rocks featuring the original release date. (Altitude)
The poster for Rocks featuring the original release date. (Altitude)

Most of the girls in the film, down the extras, came through those casting weekends. It was all talking about their friendships and improvisations. We remember really clearly every one of the lead girls’ auditions. Kosar and Tawheda were cracking jokes with their mates. Ruby and Sheneigha were in a room full of people they didn’t know, but still brought it. We knew Bukky, Afi and Anastasia from the research, but had never seen them properly in action when it came to acting. The look on Bukky’s face when she walked in the room, you could see that she had made the decision to go for it. And go for it, she did. They all did, and in different ways, which is why they work so beautifully together as a group. They all made their presences known in their own ways.

How did the workshop process work?

The workshopping was about giving the girls the space to grow into the process – and to grow towards each other. They didn’t know each other before the workshops, so one of the things we were interested in was seeing who forged connections and how they translated into chemistry on screen. We still weren’t motivated by the desire to find people who fit a brief. We wanted to fit around them, and not the other way around.

A still from Rocks. (Altitude)
A still from Rocks. (Altitude)

In addition to working with the creative team, we were lucky enough to work with other incredible professionals during the workshops, too - Dionne Reed, an artist, expert facilitator and educator; Axa Hynes, a youth work and participation expert (now head of widening participation at Rada); Tanika Yearwood, an incredible actor and; Nanette Marcelline, also an educator.

Their contributions were beyond significant. It was all about making space, and showing the girls reflections of themselves in the people who came to work with them, so that this experience wasn’t just about one single route into the industry. Regardless of the outcome, we wanted to model a multitude of ways to continue making work and telling stories.

What advice do you have for young actors looking to make it through the audition process?

A still from Rocks. (Altitude)
A still from Rocks. (Altitude)

The advice we’d give young people looking to make it through the audition process is to turn up and give it your all. There are some young people who won’t show up because they think they might not fit some "industry standard". The industry is changing.

If you are nervous, push through it, because even if you mess it up, the right eyes will see through that. And know that the people seeing you are probably just as nervous. But nerves mean you are about to do something that matters to you, so just go for it. And keep going.

Working as an actor is a journey, not a destination.

Rocks is released in cinemas on 18 September in the UK and Ireland.