This Sunday, tune in to ITV1 at 8pm to watch the first episode of Three Little Birds, the Windrush drama created by Lenny Henry. Telling the tale of three women who emigrate from Jamaica to the West Midlands, it is being described as a spirited and heartfelt series, transporting viewers back to the 1950s and inspired by real stories (read more about what to expect here). At the fore is Leah, played by Rochelle Neil, who flees her abusive husband to create a new life in the UK. We sat down with Rochelle to hear all about the series.
Interview: Rochelle Neil On Playing Leah In Three Little Birds
Hi Rochelle, how’s life going at the moment?
It’s going pretty well – I’m excited to have Three Little Birds airing soon, enjoying the calm before the storm, as they say.
You play Leah in Three Little Birds – how would you describe her?
Leah is a woman who we meet tussling with her conscience about what she has left behind in Jamaica. In an effort to escape her abusive husband, she sends her three children off to live with her mum, then travels to England determined to make a new life for herself with the hope of reuniting with her children once she’s settled. When we meet her, she’s extremely guarded. She had to suppress a lot of herself in order to survive. So she’s tough and pragmatic; the woman everyone turns to in a crisis but, over the six episodes, we get to see her drop the mask and start to blossom.
What was it like playing her?
I’ve always thought that roles find you in a time of life where they make the most sense. I’d recently become a mother, so it made complete sense that I was cast to play a woman who was fueled by the will to make the best life for her children. It was cathartic not only on that level but as a second generation Brit. My Grandparents came over from the Caribbean heeding the call from the ‘Motherland’ after WWII. Getting to deep dive into my own family history and unlock parts of myself that I hadn’t explored before was a joy.
How does it feel to be leading the series?
It was my first time being number one on the call sheet. and the responsibility that came with that, to help set the tone of the show both on and off camera, came at a time of my life where I felt ready. I came to work not only in service of myself but the people around me. I’m so used to being the baby on set, so it was encouraging to be asked questions and find that I knew both innately and technically how to elevate the moment.
How did you get into character/prepare for the role?
My Grandmother wrote a memoir, which I reread when prepping for the role and was a wonderful resource throughout. I had a first hand account of her life, the minutiae of growing up in Jamaica, meeting my Grandad and the decision they made to start a new life in England, including her experience settling upon arrival. That and the many poems by Miss Lou (Louise Bennett Coverley) were my inspiration throughout.Any funny stories from rehearsals or filming?
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but there was a week of filming where the food and rum punch were real. It happened to be our last week of the job (hats off to our first assistant director James Mountain for the impeccable scheduling), so we were able to fully lean into the camaraderie needed for the scenes.
Did you work closely with Lenny Henry?
We didn’t have many scenes together, but he was very present and available throughout. I’ve never known a world without the legendary Sir Lenny Henry so it took time to humanise him, but luckily he gave me a lot of freedom and encouragement to run with the role considering she was inspired by his mother.
What is the cast dynamic? Who was your fave person to work with?
It felt like Three Little Birds was all of our passion project. The cast and crew were all champions of the Windrush generation and fiercely devoted to the story, so it was easy to build a family dynamic. There was a lot of joy on set.
Are you still in touch with any of your co-stars?
Absolutely, we have a group chat. Though I’m terrible at responding in words. I love a heart emoji spree.
What has been your favourite project to date?
Tough question, but I’d say Chicago: The Musical as it was my first professional job out of drama school and I felt like that year was my final year of training. The people I met on that job taught me so much about the industry, and I got a real sense of my own integrity and how I wanted to tackle my career. Followed closely by Das Boot (Season 2), because it was the first time I had the opportunity to transfer my theatre skills to camera. The character (Cassandra Lloyd) was a blues singer in 1940s Harlem. It was a dream role for me.
Any roles in the pipeline that you’re excited about? (If you’re allowed to tell us!)
Yes, and I’m so excited to be working with the screenwriter again but unfortunately can’t say more. Sorry!
Who has been your favourite actor to work with in the past?
So many to mention, but I’d have to say Arnold Schwarzenegger. No explanation needed really, but I had a small role in Terminator: Dark Fate that didn’t make it to the final cut due to the running time of the movie. But the encouragement and support I received from both Arnold and Tim Miller (director) during filming has been invaluable.
Also Vincent Kartheiser, who I worked with on Das Boot, was pretty cool. Skating over the fact that I’m a huge Mad Men fan, I’m an eternal student and love working with actors who don’t gate-keep. He was very generous with his process and industry insight. I learned a lot.
Which co-star did you learn the most from?
On Three Little Birds, I adored picking Javone Princes’ brain. He’s the twin I never knew I had. The best thing about his advice is it’s sugared in humour. He’s a natural comedian, with breath-taking insight. He was a very grounding and empowering ally throughout.
What’s your dream role?
I’m a huge history nerd. I’ve always been extremely curious as to the why, when and how, and have always been intrigued by how history is written by the winners. I wonder how many stories have been lost in that process. I’d love to bring the forgotten gems to light and help share those stories. Notwithstanding, I adore characters with irredeemable qualities. Us humans are so beautifully flawed. I’ve spent a lot of my career playing complex women from another time and I look forward to continuing in that endeavour.
What’s a genre you’d like to do more of?
Romance. I’m a hopeless romantic and feel like affairs of the heart drive so much of what we see in the world today.
Do you get to spend much time at home?
Yes and no. I pendulum between months away shooting and months home in between gigs. But have become pretty good at making most places feel or at least smell like home. Byredo TreeHouse room spray comes with me everywhere.
Do you live in the town or the country? Which do you prefer?
I live in the centre of Stockholm, so have the best of both worlds as it has an archipelago, which is my happy place. Growing up in London, I know innately I’m a city chick as cities allow for the spontaneity I crave, but it’s cosy to be able to leave the flat and go for a swim within walking distance.
What’s your interior design style?
Cosy minimalism. Scandinavian vibes. I love to be surrounded by books, a fireplace, plants and a massive corner sofa. So aesthetically, everything is kind of a warm monochrome with splashes of colour, mainly from the books.
How do you find balance in your personal and work lives?
I’ve just become a mother, so I’m in flux figuring that out. So far so good; better than before. I trained from a child at The Italia Conti Academy, and they would call theatre studies ‘vocational’ studies and that made a lot of sense to me. The life of an actor can be all consuming as we have no job security. It’s easy to put the rest of your life on hold in search of that dream creative experience. Since having my daughter, I’ve felt bolder in taking a healthier approach. What’s for me won’t go by me.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Being an actor was always Plan A, a writer was Plan B and Plan C was a hairdresser. All three were born of the same desire to make people feel good.
If you could give advice to your 15-year-old self, what would it be?
Stop being so hard on yourself. You don’t have to be perfect. You’re lovable just as you are and when being truly yourself, your tribe will find you.
How can we all live a little bit better?
Move with kindness. That’s the most badass route 100 percent of the time. Be kind to the people around you and to yourself and you’ll make great choices.
Anything fun in the pipeline – professionally or personally?
Well, I know what I’ll be doing on Sunday at 8pm for the next few weekends… Haha!
I’m currently watching… Beckham (Netflix)
What I’m reading… How To Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie.
The last thing I watched (and loved) was… The Idol (HBO)
What I’m most looking forward to seeing… Oppenheimer by Chris Nolan
Favourite film of all time… Gladiator by Ridley Scott and Vicky Christina Barcelona by Woody Allen
Favourite song of all time… ‘Kiss From A Rose’ by Seal
Band/singer I always have on repeat… Beyonce
My ultimate cultural recommendation… Dopamine Decor. Surround yourself with things that make you happy.
Cultural guilty pleasure… Selling Sunset (Netflix)
What’s next for me is… As an actor, you never know what’s around the corner, but the future looks bright.
Watch Rochelle Neil in Three Little Birds on Sunday at 8pm on ITV1. Catch up on ITVX.