"I've never known a world without him. He's an icon. A legend. A really good man. I feel very very lucky that he plucked me out of obscurity and gave me a dream role."
Actor Rochelle Neil, who at the start of the year I included as my 23 TV Stars of Tomorrow for 2023, trained at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts and has already starred in a number of TV shows including Doctors, Episodes, Das Boot and Guilt and is best known for playing Annie Carbey in The Nevers, a Touched woman whose turn allows her to create and manipulate fire.
This week she stars alongside Saffron Coomber and Yazmin Belo in the new ITV1 drama Three Little Birds which is inspired by Sir Lenny Henry’s mother’s journey to Britain in the late 1950s.
It follows Rochelle's character Leah Whittaker, who tussles with her conscience about what she has left behind in Jamaica. Running out on her abusive husband, Leah packs her three children off to live with her mother whilst she travels to Britain determined to make a new life for herself and to bring her children over once she has settled there.
Leah travels to England with her younger starstruck, glamourous sister Chantrelle, played by Saffron Coomber. The two chaperone their pious and Christian friend Hosanna, played by Yazmin Belo, who they have chosen as a potential bride for their brother Aston.
Leah is a pioneer who wants to build a better future for her kids but every step of her journey is dogged by guilt, fear and fresh challenges in the hostile mother country. Spurred on by her determination to be reunited with her children, it is her journey of building a new home for all of them that’s truly transformative for Leah. In her new community in the West Midlands, Leah finds friendship, love, joy and the woman she was always destined to become.
I caught up with Rochelle earlier this week to find out more about her dream role, working with Sir Lenny Henry and so much more. Here's what she had to say...
How are you feeling now that Three Little Birds is finally coming out?
Oh gosh, great. I'm feeling excited, overwhelmed, all the feelings really.
We shot it at the start of the year and most of last year, so I've had a bit of time to have it digest and I've had a bit of time to have a bit of distance between the work I did on the day and obviously now what I'm seeing, because I've seen some of the episodes. And it feels good.
The show was cooked with a lot of love and it's amazing for us now going into press, to have someone like Sir Lenny Henry as your guide. How lucky are we?
So I feel good. As good as one can feel when they have a TV show going out in a really great slot.
How would you describe Three Little Birds?
I would describe it as a dynamic story of sisterhood, friendship, immigration and a show that showcases Brits. It's a very, very British tale.
It's inspired by Sir Lenny Henry's family coming over, post-Windrush, I always really want to highlight that, because it's 1957, so we're a little bit after the boat. And these three women come over in search of a new life, a better life for themselves.
Talk to me about Leah. How do you see her?
I always see her as a big softie, but she doesn't come across like that at all. But I always say that because I think it's the strongest people that are actually hiding a depth of vulnerability.
But she's a woman of action, not a woman of words. She's very very pragmatic and tough and I think that's because she's had to learn how to survive. Her marriage didn't turn out as planned. She ends up in a very tricky domestic situation and moving to the UK really is like a last resort for her and it's an escape.
Throughout the season we really get to see her blossom. When you meet her in the first two episodes, she's... trying to find the words... Lenny calls it my thousand-yard stare because this woman is just deeply, deeply, deeply in a state of, I think, trauma. She's always consciously assessing the situation and is a person who's going to get you out of a tricky situation.
Are you similar to Leah in any way?
I'd say our biggest similarity is that we're both mothers and I think there's a primal thing that happens with motherhood. A strength, a power, but also a huge sense of fear. When we started filming, my daughter was only about six or seven months old.
So I was really in that headspace. I was oozing motherhood. So it was no surprise that I booked a role where the woman's deepest mission was to create a better life for her children. I'd say that's our closest link. I understand a lot of the moves and sacrifice and focus that she had, due to motherhood.
Did you feel an extra weight of responsibility in telling this story as Leah is based on Lenny’s mother?
I did. Yes, I, I don't so much anymore and I think it's a testament to Lenny. He was very, very gracious with me. Really, really encouraging and empowering and gave me a lot of freedom to sort of run with it and put a lot of my own family history into it, which was very, very similar to his really.
So yeah, I was very, very intimidated at first. But then I spent a bit of time humanising him and then ultimately you have to do the work and I can't do the work if I'm standing in my own way, feeding intimidated, you know.
How much research did you do for this role?
I was very lucky. My grandmother wrote a memoir, so I have a first-hand account of her life in Jamaica, meeting my granddad. How they made the decision to come back to the UK because my granddad had spent some time here during the war. My nan had never been. Making the decision to leave the children at home, as Lenny's mum did, and send for them once they were settled.
My dad was born in Jamaica, so I have a lot of very, very close-to-me resource which is the reason why I even exist. So that was helpful. And then, I knew about her before, but I'm in love with Miss Lou. She's a Jamaican poet and her poems are just the best.
They're just the best. She explains the culture, the diaspora, the feels, so so well. So they were my two really strong reference points. I wouldn't go on set without reciting one of Miss Lou's poems. It just got me into where I needed to be.
Leah comes over to the UK with her younger sister Chantrelle. What the dynamic like between them?
Very very playful. I think as sisters go... it's funny because I don't want to give too much away, because there were some scenes that I don't think have made it in, where there was a little bit of a rivalry between the two. It's an extra little avenue that probably wasn't necessary for the story.
But she loves her sister. She loves her family. She's deeply, deeply, deeply protective of her.
And what was it like working with Saffron Coomber who plays her?
She is so lovable. She's a powerhouse, a firecracker. She's like a warm hug. A warm embrace.
We also have to talk about Yazmin Belo who plays Hosanna and this is her first major TV acting job. Did she come to you for any advice during filming?
A lot of my scenes were with Yaz, actually. I always say that she gave me such a gift in that, when you're working with someone who hasn't maybe done a lot of on-screen work, it requires you to also be on your toes because there'll be a lot of things that they're not aware of. So it gave me the gift of keeping everything really really fresh.
I think sometimes when you're working with actors - not all the time, but you know, we've done it all for a while and people can get a bit complacent about what's happening - whereas when I was with Yaz, I always felt really fresh because there were questions and there were moments where she was like "Genuinely, what's happening? Where is the camera? What do I need to do at this moment?" It was great.
Leah's home life is less than ideal, how did you approach some of those difficult scenes?
We had an intimacy coach on set that day, actually. People always think of intimacy as in, physical intimacy, but I think with scenes like that, there is an emotional intimacy that is very much at play.
And then I was very lucky - we were very lucky - because Leemore (Marrett Jr., who plays Leah's husband Ephraim) and I have known each other for a long, long time. We've worked together before, so when you know someone so well and you feel so comfortable with them, you have that intimacy coach available when you're maybe pushing a bit too hard or going a bit too deep, to just drag your ass back out.
I felt so safe. I think he felt so safe so we were able to just go to where I needed to, where we needed to go.
There is violence, there are a lot of shocking scenes, but there's also heart and warmth and joy. Was the humour of Three Little Birds part of its appeal to you?
It was part of its appeal but also it's more that it felt authentic to the Jamaican community. The Caribbean community in general, we're a joyous people.
Even though we've overcome quite a lot and the complex history between the Caribbean and the UK, for example, I do think that we're always joking, we're always joking even in the toughest of situations. I think that's also a very British thing, like banter as well. But yeah, it felt authentic. It felt right.
You can't tell a story that's too dire, everyone will switch off. And it's Lenny, there's got to be a joke in there.
Let's talk about Javone Prince. He plays Leah's brother, Aston. He's so good in this. What was it like working with him and had you worked together before?
We hadn't, but our dynamic is very much brother and sister. He's literally like the big brother I never had. He is one of probably my all-time favourite people on this planet now. I love everyone! And I feel like I should have gushed about the girls as well, I do love everyone, but he was very insightful.
He's hilarious and gave me so much advice, so much industry knowledge. He's done it before. He's done so much before. So he was a really lovely ally and friend and mentor and all the things. I would do every job with that man. He's as wonderful as you would hope. And he's trained. He went to LAMDA. He elevates every scene he's in.
What about the scenes in the car? Were they fun to film?
That car. Bless him. To drive... because they're all real vintage cars... it's a bit like working with animals or children on set. We had the car. Either we get to where we're going or we don't. It was really fun. The car was like a fourth character, I guess.
What were some of your favourite scenes to film?
It's tricky. I don't want to give too much away. It's hard without spoilers. But our last week of filming was in the Dominican Republic, in lieu of Jamaica, so all of the stuff that we shot on the boat, felt big. It felt big. Maybe because it was our last week of filming as well.
My daughter turned one that week, so there was just a lot happening. I had a lot of pinch-me moments that week. Like gosh, we've really done this thing.
Hair, makeup and costume are so important to Three Little Birds, how did it compare to other roles you've played before?
It was great. This was the first job I've ever done where our heads of department on hair and makeup were Black women.
So there was a sense of safety and a sense of ease when I would be in the truck because I wouldn't ever have to explain, say my hair texture or, you know, having the right shade for my specific shade of Black, because we all come in very different shades as White people and other races do as well.
Having that ease, I felt I could relax and I would often fall asleep in the chair in the morning and wake up like a little old lady. And it was fine. It was one of the first jobs I did where I didn't really have to monitor it.
And that's not to say that there aren't others who can do that also, I've worked with some amazing hair and makeup people over the years. But this was a new experience and I enjoyed it.
And that's very much Sir Lenny's influence, isn't it? He's always been a champion for diversity in the industry, hasn't he?
It was! It really was. And it was a diverse set in that it wasn't just all Black people or all White people or Asian people, it was really a diverse set from multiple cultures and multiple generations. Like when you're in London and you feel like it's its own country, that reflects the whole world. That's kind of how our set felt.
Speaking of the man himself. What was it like working with Sir Lenny Henry? How collaborative was he during this project?
He was wonderful. He still is. I was with him yesterday. I mean, he's Sir Lenny Henry. I've never known a world without him. He's an icon. A legend. A really good man. I feel very very lucky that he plucked me out of obscurity and gave me a dream role.
It's funny actually, in my hotel there was a picture on the wall of loads of British icons and he was in that! I was like, this is hilarious that he's just up on the wall in hotels with other icons and I can just WhatsApp him. He makes himself so available.
How proud are you then of this project and this character?
I feel like they all become your babies for a different reason, but one thing I'd say for this show is that it was the first show for me that I was ever number one on the call sheet. And I think with that came a responsibility not just to myself and my role, but to the show in general and the people in it.
I was invited to conversations and meetings and the edit that I had never been invited to before. When I think of the pride I have for this show, it's not really maybe to do with me, or even Leah really - I think she's great - but my focus was on the bigger thing. The tone. The energy. The professionalism. I felt a responsibility to really set the bar. And I feel proud of that.
I feel proud that there were no bad eggs. It was a very joyous and supportive environment. That's what I feel proud of. Proud that I was able to contribute in that way. In a way that before I was never high enough on a call sheet to. Usually I'd just do my job and go home. So yeah, that felt nice.
Did you get to keep anything from your costume, any props, or anything from the set?
Two chairs! Two really big chairs! There's an airport scene and the chairs were amazing. They're just chairs that they'd lined up to look like an airport and I loved them. And a vintage lamp actually.
They did a big sale and I went in because I loved the vintage furniture and I was just renovating my flat so I got two big armchairs and a lamp!
What would you like viewers to take away from Three Little Birds?
We are performers, we're not politicians and I really really hope that they're entertained. And then I hope that they're so entertained and inspired that they're proud to be British and proud of our shared heritage - everyone, whether your family have lived here for hundreds and hundreds of years or your family arrived on the Windrush.
A bonus would be if people fell down the rabbit hole that you sometimes fall down when you watch something and you're like "Oh, let me Google that." or "Let me go and have a chat with someone about that." And it starts a conversation or it starts a level of research, that's what I hope happens. But 100%, first and foremost, let's watch a really good British comedy-drama.
Three Little Birds airs Sundays at 8pm on ITV1