TBB Talks to Laya Lewis, Lead Actress in new short film ‘Beverley’

Having enjoyed the short film Beverley after being invited to a screening which took place after the film’s premiere in January, we at TBB were delighted to be given the chance to interview two of the cast members.

A brief overview – Short Film Beverley is written by Alexander Thomas, highlighting the identity problems young people of mixed nationality in urban areas face on a day-to-day basis in Britain before multi-culturalism. Set against the backdrop of Britain’s 2-Tone music era of 1980. Laya Lewis plays the title role and is already something of a household name, despite being at the very beginning of her career. She was born on an estate in South Wimbledon, but grew up in Bristol.

Anyone who has seen her work – Liv Malone in seasons 5 and 6 of Skins (E4, 2011-12), the video to Emeli Sandé’s My Kind of Love (2012), The Girl in short film The Line (2013) and Cuckoo (BBC 3, 2014), knows that she is a talented young actress. But this latest role shows that she has the potential to be quite great. I find this interesting, because she really didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to do with her life…

I didn’t go to drama school… I was one of those people who was quite stuck with that. When everyone else was applying for university, I did apply, but I wasn’t too bothered about it, because I knew that I didn’t want to go at that time. I think my plan was to save and travel and do some volunteer work. I knew I wanted to eventually do a degree in media and cultural studies, which is what I’m doing now. But at the time I was just thinking of maybe travelling for a year and sort of deciding over that period what I really wanted to do.

I read that you got the part in Skins from a Bristol open audition. How did you get to the audition?

My sixth form was part performing arts, which was quite big on drama, so I did do drama at A level. One day, my drama teacher just said, “Oh, by the way Skins is coming back into town!” Two years before that I knew about (the previous Skins audition), but decided not to audition, because I was just turning 16 and I didn’t think I’d be very good. didn’t have the confidence then. But, this time, I thought, “Well this is probably the last opportunity I’ll get to audition for it,” because two years later, I’d be too old.

The personalities of Liv Malone and Beverley Thompson are different, aren’t they… or did you find any similarities?

Maybe in the sense of the fearlessness they tried to give off. They are two characters who are strong, but who also put up a front of being very strong while being quite vulnerable underneath… I think that’s something I give off myself, because those are the roles that seem to suit me best. I think Liv was more immature – quite a bit more selfish than Beverley. Beverley is caught in a time where she just wants to have some friends, wants her family to be OK. Liv wasn’t living through a particular hardship, you know. There were no issues of race, she had a group of friends. She was more of an anxious teen looking to cause trouble.

I met Beverley Thompson and we had a really nice chat. She’s amazing…

Yes, she is. She’s just so cool. She emanates coolness – she’s lovely.

Did you read the script first and then meet her…?

I got a call from my agent and she said, “Oh, can you read this script?” I asked her when the audition was and she said, “Read it, first and we’ll talk about it.” For some reason, I just didn’t get to it straight away. So, eventually she came back and said, “Oh well, they’ve already decided they want you so, you’re reading it to decide if you want to go for it!” I was like, “Oh!” because it never really works like that!  I was really chuffed. Then, eventually I got around to reading it, and I thought it was wicked! I loved everything about it. I really loved the era.

I really loved that it was about a mixed race young girl. You know, you get a lot of movies, different narratives that kind of circulate around the 80s, Margaret Thatcher, etc. But to be of mixed race, that’s often not covered and to be a mixed-race girl it’s kind of like you don’t know where you stand in society. You’re still a teenager as well as dealing with all those other troubles anyway… I just thought it would be really great to live through that, and being mixed race myself, I faced issues like bullying and stuff when I was in school – about the colour of my skin. So, I thought it would be interesting to share that story and try to become part of it. Laya Lewis as Beverley in film short ‘Beverley’ (2014)

Beverley was positive, saying that everything in that movie is still so relevant, so current. It still resonates today…

Absolutely! I met Beverley after reading the script and I thought she was just awesome – really, cool. I just loved everything about her! She’s got this confidence, she’s articulate. She’s very expressive. I really tried to show that and add a little bit of myself in there… I think you managed it really well. She was really pleased with your performance, which I think is probably the most important thing! Yes, I was so chuffed! When she came up to me just before we went into the (premiere) screening, she held my shoulders and she said, “Honestly, I’ve seen it so many times and your performance blows me away…” I just felt this huge weight lift off my shoulders. I was so happy, because it matters to me what everyone thought. But, that especially meant a lot.

The film got a really positive response from the audience at the screening I attended, and Cass (Pennant) has been switched on to the social media…

Yes, he’s really going for it. It’s the best way to plug a film like this – through Twitter, Facebook… I mean, it was through the internet that they raised the money anyway, so it’s good that he’s so on it with that.

Yes, the feeling we got at the very cosy Roxy Bar and Cinema it was just this really nice atmosphere, and you got to meet Neville Staples from The Specials! The music is just fantastic…

Yes, the music is great, brilliant.

I particularly wanted to talk to you and Winston Ellis because I really enjoyed the scene with Travis and Carl – Carl finds all the money in his dad’s bag and his dad catches him. I found it a very sympathetic portrayal of a Jamaican father. Apparently, there’s a particularly wonderful scene that you did together that, unfortunately, didn’t make this cut, but will hopefully be aired in some future form of Beverley

Yes, they really wanted to keep that scene in. But they literally cut this film to within an inch of its life. They have so much good stuff I think, but at the end of the day, this version is a short film and it’s nice that there’s so much material. But, yes, the opening scene was originally a great scene between me and Winston. I think that scene really paints a picture and lays a backdrop for the rest of the film. So, I was shocked that they took it out. But I guess in terms of the narrative, it’s probably the bit that they could afford to lose. It’s quite a powerful scene at the beginning – they have a little tiff outside the house. Bev gets shouted at by her dad…

At Louise Anderson’s house in Alderney Road with (left to right): Louise’s friend Sarah Barden, Beverley star Laya Lewis, Louise, director Alexander Thomas and Cass Pennant (image by Topham-Brown Photography).

Apart from being impressed that Alex the director is white, I felt that he handled telling the ethnic story so beautifully, rather than telling a white, or a filtered version which doesn’t speak to anybody and just might misinform and make things worse, … Also, it was nice to hear the cast and crew saying that whilst he was very precise, he allowed the actors to bring little elements in, which is probably why I got the feeling of empathy. Although you were portraying a real person, you were also Laya plying your craft…

His direction was great. He did let us take the reins somewhat, but just to steer, in a way. He was always there to talk me into a scene… I’m just so pleased. Any feedback I hear just blows me away, because the whole project was funded by the people and it was a crazy shoot. Trying to get in as much as we could, because of the budget, things went wrong. For it to get made and look as good as it does – that for me was enough. But to have all this great feedback is just amazing. I couldn’t have asked for more, and I’m so happy for the guys – for Alex and Cass particularly, because they worked so hard on it. For something to come out the other end and be doing so well is just great.

Was there anything that you struggled with?

Well, there was the scene when Carl comes home all bloodied up and, just working myself into that kind of state – quite agitated and nervous was interesting. You see, a lot of it wasn’t filmed in order, so that was always going to be a challenge. I wanted to make it as powerful as possible and it was all just improv… it was just us shouting at each other. It wasn’t so much a struggle as it was a challenge. But it was really cool to do. I mean, all of it was a challenge, because I was trying to keep the accent up as well. We had just so little time to work in, so there was quite a lot of pressure. But, I think my favourite bit was the scene where I got to shout at the neighbour on the grass… that wasn’t a struggle at all. I’d been looking forward to shooting that the whole time!

That scene with Carl was not just ‘shouting at each other’! It was a study in crisis calm (underlined with pure panic) when terrible violence comes into your life unexpectedly. Of course, of course you had a Leicester accent. It was a really good one – I spoke to Bev and you do have a similar quality! (But, it only just then dawned on me that she speaks with a well-spoken London accent!) What was it like working with Vicky McClure – a BAFTA-winning actress…

It was nuts! When I found out that she was attached to the project, my heart was in my mouth. I was really scared. I’m a student at the moment, and I work part-time in a bar. She came in there a couple of years ago, and I would just never serve her whenever she came in. I just didn’t know what to say to her. She is one of my favourite actresses. She’s so inspiring! So, to hear she was going to be playing my mum, it was just like an absolute dream – to watch her act, to bounce off her – it was brilliant. It was such a pleasure to work with such a great cast and crew. It’s coming up to a year now since we first started filming and I’m still in contact with almost everyone – seeing them regularly. That doesn’t happen often… but it was just that kind of shoot. People just wanted it to be the very best it could be.

Cass was saying that people in Leicester just opened their homes, buses, cabs…

Yes, it was crazy! It was crazy! Even without knowing that it was a project funded by the people, anyone we met was so willing to help with whatever we were doing. It was nice, really nice.

What’s next for you, do you want to stick with film, do more TV, try some theatre…?

It’s all about the role for me more than what medium it’s in. I think theatre is something I’d really like to do. But, because I’m studying, it’s quite difficult to commit to a run. I’d quite like to do everything – I’ve been writing – working on a little screenplay – and I find that enjoyable.

Are you finding your media and cultural studies opening your mind to the inner workings of film making?

In a way, I find it’s quite separate from acting – not separate from the industry, but from acting itself. The two can mesh, but now it’s like two separate things, which is nice, because it breaks things up. At this age, you’re getting jobs in dribs and drabs, at other times you’re working non-stop. So, it’s nice to have something separate to work on in my own time. I’m just enjoying learning as well. A lot of it is theory-based and to with different cultures, so it’s nice to be doing that well.

We talk a little about Laya’s life outside of acting and she suddenly remembers something she thinks she has forgotten…

Oh! Thank you for the review as well. It was lovely to read! Thanks for a great chat as well.

Thank you, thank you. But, that’s partly what we’re (TBB) here for. We don’t want you to have to be taking stereotypical roles for the rest of your life and never get a chance to spread you wings and show the arts what you can do. We’re trying to get black British actors noticed so that they can be considered as British actors…

Absolutely, that’s so important! It can be so frustrating, especially when you go through periods of not getting much work!

Despite her youth, I was incredibly impressed with Miss Lewis, because she was so accommodating and good-natured, despite having a severe cold. Even through the congestion and the coughing, I was still able to get a sense that she understands the business of film and the art of acting, though she will always be open to learning more.

I think we’ll be treated to a lot more of this artist’s work in years to come. Great stuff!

For more information on Beverley the film visit: www.beverleyfilm.com

Or follow these accounts via Twitter:  @LayaAieshaLewis | @BeverleyFilm | @Cass_Pennant | @UrbanEdgeFilms

Read our review of Beverley here.


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