A Zoom With A View: Jessica Straker & Lucy Pardee on Casting ROCKS

By Madeleine Finlay-Hudson

If you haven’t already heard, a little film called Rocks is finally hitting cinemas on September 18. And we are thrilled. It’s an incredible exploration of resilience, girlhood and inner-city London life. At its core, it’s a film that centres around its cast and their performances. The six young girls may not be faces you’ve seen before — but we can assure you that once you’ve seen the film, you’ll want to see them again.

Rocks follows teenager Rocks (Bukky Bakray) who fears that she and her little brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) will be forced apart if anyone finds out they are living alone. With the help of her friends, Sumaya (Kosar Ali), Yawa (Afi Okaidja), Sabina (Anastasia Dymitrow), Agnes (Ruby Stokes) and Khadijah (Tawheda Begum), she evades the authorities and navigates the most defining days of her life.

When it came to casting Rocks, it required finding a cast that understood the story. A cast who were able to offer a realistic and representative portrayal of a group of young, teenage girls living in London. And who better to play them than a group of young women living in London. Which is where the process began, screening over two thousand young girls from schools across London to find the ultimate girl squad.

And just how did they do this? Well, according to Casting Associate, Jessica Straker, it involved a lot of auditions and some really handy spreadsheets.

We chatted to Jessica and Casting Director, Lucy Pardee ahead of the release of Rocks to get an insight into the casting industry and how they built the world we see on screen.

Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, Afi Okaidja, Anastasia Dymitrow, Ruby Stokes & Tawheda Begum in ROCKS

Firstly, thank you so much for chatting to us. Rocks is such an incredible film and the girls performances are just fantastic. Congratulations! So, tell us, how did you get involved with Rocks?

LP: I met Sarah and Faye very early on in the process, before the script was even written. I often work with filmmakers during the development of their projects, so Sarah and I embarked on months of research, sitting in the back of classrooms and youth projects. When it came to the actual casting of the project, I met thousands of young people in schools, but soon realized that I needed help wrangling everyone.

JS: I came on board a year later after the research stage was completed.

LP: Jessica came into the project like a shining beacon and stayed for the duration.

Sounds like a dream team. What was the casting process like for ROCKS? Can you tell us a bit about your first impressions?

JS: It was very inclusive, we gave everyone interested the opportunity to audition and experience that process because a lot of the young people who came forward had never done something like this before. For them to have the experience might be pivotal in feeling confident to go up for something else in the future. It was also new for a lot of the parents involved, some of whom were immigrants. It meant there were a lot of after-hours WhatsApp chats and phone calls required but I was happy to do it because I knew that these extra lengths were the barriers that often hinder people from underrepresented communities. I think since I was going into it new, I could translate what was on offer to people on a level. The plus side was that I got put in the loop with a lot of auntie memes — which is never a bad thing.

LP: I don’t know if I had first impressions about the casting process because it was such an ongoing journey that more or less took over our lives for years. And we were given so much space to define it. Some of the more experienced actors were commenting that it felt different to other castings they had been part of. I think it’s in part because Jessica and I are super anxious people who worry about things being ok for people. Coming forward for castings takes courage, so we want people to feel respected and valued in the room, always, whether they are first timers or seasoned professionals.

Given the unconventional approach throughout the research stages of the film, did the casting process differ at all from how you usually work?

LP: This is really the way I’ve always worked, so it wasn’t a diversion from the traditional route, as I’ve never really done things that way. But as Jessica said earlier, I guess it just takes a lot longer. The motivation for casting this way has always been about redressing the balance — to make our industry and the people on our screens look and sound like the world around us.

JS: I’ve worked on more traditionally cast projects since Rocks and at times it’s a completely different beast. There are a lot of barriers and it can feel very insular when all the talent is coming from the same few routes. The most striking difference I found is that whereas we see an interesting face or personality and then test if they can translate that spark to screen — the proven ability is already expected in traditional casting to even get a look in and that is often judged by the drama school you attended and the legitimacy of the agency that represents you. Of course there are valid reasons for things being the way they are, choosing from a pool of talent from respected agents that have been trained to a professional industry standard ensures a level of quality and that things on set will run smoothly. So I understand it, but I feel much more at home working in the more community focused way we do. Traditional casting is always in our arsenal and we can reach for it when needed but as long as the entries into the industry are systematically biased, the talent pool will lack diversity.

LP: Totally. There is this myth in the industry that casting would be more inclusive but there just isn’t anyone out there. It’s rubbish. There are so many people out there, but because of the industry imposed boundaries, it remains exclusive. We’re about opening the doors and pulling up chairs.

JS: And that isn’t to say that amazing diverse actors aren’t emerging from traditional institutions — but until those routes have reckoned with their deep-rooted racism then those who manage to navigate through those avenues are unprotected and they are often molded into a certain acceptable image and tokenized.

Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu, Afi Okaidja, Anastasia Dymitrow, Ruby Stokes & Tawheda Begum in ROCKS

The six girls we see in Rocks are the ultimate girl gang. How did you come to select them from the thousands who auditioned?

LP: They selected themselves, really. People tend to shrink or grow with each step of the process, and the girls all absolutely blossomed. The last selection process was about chemistry, seeing the bonds that had been made in real life as they were the ones that translated so beautifully on screen. But that was about the openness of the girls as people, rather than our specific process, I think. They are just really incredible people.

JS: Yeah, their friendships began to form organically and we actively left space for that to happen. It wasn’t completely hands off though — I really wanted to ensure that we checked our biases at every step so that the production did not sleepwalk into problematic tropes in terms of casting, especially because the decision makers were still very white. For me, I know at times that the white gaze can sometimes favour a lighter hue of blackness — so pushing and championing dark-skin representation and reiterating the reasons of its importance was definitely necessary for me so that everyone was being seen without stereotype or prejudice.

LP: For me, this was really important in terms of checking my own biases and recognising the blind spots in the industry. I was so grateful for those conversations with Jessica. It’s a really good example of why everyone needs to have a seat at the table.

You’ve both mentioned this process as being important and fulfilling. Can you tell us a bit about what you learnt throughout and the ways in which it will impact your career moving forward?

JS: I found my voice. I hadn’t used it in a long time and hadn’t had the best experience of using it working in advertising as the only black woman in an office of over 150 staff. Here, I found myself working on a project that was interacting with girls I saw myself in and I needed to speak up for them to ensure that this film could be the best it could be. Casting has some great black women killing it as casting directors in their own right which has been really helpful in envisioning a future for myself, but when I was working as an assistant I was often still the only person of colour in the room. It’s a very white middle-class industry. Our process on this Rocks emboldened me to speak up in those situations.

LP: For me, the biggest lesson I was about intention vs impact. It’s something Jessica and I talked about a lot. I think the industry often thinks it is enough to intend to do something inclusive, even if they end up not making that positive change. But unless you have the impact of changing things positively, the intention isn’t good enough.

JS: We had some really great discussions and continue to do so. It’s great.

LP: That ethos has given way to BRIDGE, which is something that we’ve put together with other people from Rocks to support the girls into the industry. If we intend to change the industry, we need to make that change happen.

We’re really excited to see what the girls do next, this is just the beginning for them. We’ve talked a lot about Rocks, so let’s talk about you — how did you both get into the casting industry?

LP: I got into casting more or less as soon as I entered the industry — I just didn’t know that was what I was doing. I just thought I was going around neighbourhoods we were filming in and getting local people involved. These days, the process is a bit more formal than going around and chatting to people’s mums over cups of tea, but only just.

JS: I completely side-stepped into it three years ago. Rocks was my first project. I’d met Anu, the associate director a few months before at a panel event and added her on Facebook on the way home. She posted that someone she was working with was looking for a little admin work for a few days, but when I walked in and met Lucy we bonded over excel spreadsheets and I ended up staying for the rest of the project.

LP: Spreadsheet bonds are some of the strongest you can find, it turns out. Excel4eva.

We’re calling it now, spreadsheets are the bread and butter of the film industry. Now, when it comes to the casting process, what is the most common misconception people have?

JS: Well, what we do is considered ‘street-casting’ so it’s a little different than more traditional casting processes.

LP: Yeah, and I guess the biggest misconception people might have about the kind of casting we do is that it isn’t “proper” casting, because we do it differently. We are community facing rather than industry facing, working in an inclusive and representative way.

JS: I think, for me, the biggest misconception is that we just walk up and down the street like those clipboard people — which I have done on occasion — but it’s much more about meeting people where they are and guiding them into projects and the industry at large. Relying on the current institutions and classical routes into the industry alone is not viable if we want to really be inclusive. Our way of doing things takes longer, but the results are always worth it.

LP: Jessica does have a lovely array of clipboards, though.

JS: I have four so far.

Kosar Ali in ROCKS

Haha. Okay, let’s do some quick fire questions.

What book, story or any form of creative content would you love to cast for it’s tv/film adaptation?

JS: Not sure, but I’d love to work on an adaptation or biopic and have the freedom to keep the actor selection as true and authentic to the original characters as possible.

LP: What she said.

What are your favourite films that centre around the theme of girlhood?

LP: Rocks.

JS: Obviously, or something from my own girlhood like Harriet the Spy.

If you had to pick 3 people, dead or alive, to attend your dinner party — who would they be?

LP: I don’t have dinner parties.

JS: I cry outside dinner parties I’m not invited to.

And lastly, for those reading this and dreaming of building a career in casting, what piece of advice would you offer?

LP: Just do it. Especially if you’ve grown up not seeing people who look or sound like you very often or at all. You have so much to bring to the industry. But also make your own networks. Casting can feel quite isolated sometimes, so finding your people in the industry, who share your values, can be key.

JS: Exactly! We need you here. Use your voice and perspective. Check yourself and those around you. Don’t let things slide — especially if it’s outside your remit — and be kind, always.

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Rocks is in cinemas from September 18. Show it some love and spread the word. Tell everyone you know — and we mean everyone. For more info head to rocks.film.

UK & IE Distribution arm of Altitude Film Entertainment. Coming soon: @rocksthefilm, @DavidALifeFilm, Calm With Horses & more!

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