Friday 17 July 2020

[Interview] - Rayna Campbell

Four years I ago I was offered the opportunity to interview British actress Rayna Campbell about her debut as a feature film director. That film was the award winning gritty drama 'Lapse of Honour'. Starring Tom Collins and rap artist Lady Leshurr, it tells the story of college students Tom and Eve, two Moss Side teenagers studying hard to get into university in an attempt to escape their abusive parents. When Eve discovers she's pregnant it changes the course of the couple's lives. 

'Lapse of Honour' is a story packed with drama and tragedy carried by stellar performances from its young cast, especially Lady Leshurr giving an award worth performance, ably supported by British veterans of the small and big screen Louis Emerick and Gary McDonald. Having screened at various festivals, including the BFI Film London event, critics praised the film with one writer concluding "Lapse of Honour never feels staid or tied to the inertia of its characters, as the bright lighting, lively performances and brisk storytelling propel the viewer along. The ride may not be a pleasant one, but Campbell ensures that it is a compelling one."

Born in Manchester of Jamaican origin, Rayna moved to London at the age of 18 to study her BA Honours in Retail Management. It was a trip to the theatre watching a performance of 'Fame The Musical' that inspired a change in career direction to become an actress.

Alongside her degree studies Rayna enrolled in part time acting classes and after gaining her retail management degree, ventured to the US to study at The American Dramatic Arts. After graduating, Rayna returned to London and began the gruelling audition process before landing roles various British television dramas and her first feature film 'Layla Fourie'. Rayna then formed her own production company 'J.Rocka Entertainment' and produced, wrote, and directed her first feature film. 

'Lapse of Honour' it seems, was Rayna's only film having then returned to acting appearing in various films including Disney's 'Maleficent; Mistress of Evil' and the Netflix thriller 'Extraction' starring Chris Hemsworth. In my interview I spoke with Rayna about her break in acting and taking the giant leap into her first feature film.

UK television audiences may be familiar with some of your roles in shows such as ‘The Bill, ‘Waterloo Road’ and ‘Scott and Bailey’ but your breakout role came in the thriller ‘Layla Fourie’

How did you get the role and what was your experience like on set?

I did the first audition in Soho, London which went very well. I got a call back the following week, then the director asked if I would be available after Christmas to do another audition. I said for sure. So just before Christmas I went to California to see friends and family and my agent called me and said you need to be in Berlin in two days time for a chemistry test with the lead actor. The role is between you and two other actresses. I had literally just landed in LA. Anyway I flew to Berlin via Paris then found out I had the wrong script. By the time I got to the audition I just thought all I can do is my best, the rest is in God's hands. I did the chemistry test and flew back to Los Angeles and a few days later the director called to say  you have the part. I was too shattered to scream with excitement.

The director then asked me to come out to Johannesburg four weeks before shooting the film to get used to the way everything was there. Johannesburg is an interesting city; it can also be very intimidating. During those four weeks I worked with a voice coach, learned how to use a polygraph and I had an amazing driver called Kedi who took me round the city and showed me all the sights like Soweto, and The Lion Park. Filming was gruelling because I am in almost every scene and we had a very tight schedule. On set it varied depending on where we were, sometimes the heat was so intense you thought you would pass out especially if the scene was quite physical and sometimes it was just filming me driving through the Draconsburg for miles on miles, which was fun. Every time I felt like I can't do this anymore I thought you have to do this for the audience. We filmed for six weeks in Johannesburg and Durban, then had a break and finished filming in Germany. 

Did it get you much notice?

It definitely raised my profile a little. We opened in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, which was just amazing. Tim Robbins was on the jury and asked to see me. I met him and he just wanted to personally say what a wonderful job I did and that he was routing for me all the way.  I travelled to other great festivals with the film too, Morocco, Los Angeles, Belgium and got to meet a lot of film makers, producers, directors, actors as well as the audiences. It also got me a lot of perks such as gifts and invitations to events, festivals and premiers and I have even sat on the jury of a couple of film festivals.

You’ve decided to get into film production and set up your own company ‘J.Rocka Entertainment’ and through it released ‘Lapse of Honour’ which you wrote, produced, and directed. What led to your decision to move from in front of the camera to behind it?
So initially I never intended to direct it. I originally wrote 'Lapse of Honour' for me to act in it but then I outgrew the role. I met the producer, Tara Cooke and she had read the script and encouraged me to direct it myself and that put the directing seed in my head. After that I bought a set of DVD's on how to make low budget films and that gave me a lot of confidence. I also read a lot of books on low budget film making and eventually felt courageous enough to make the move. The day before filming I was sitting in our production office and thought, I should just keep making films, its way more fun than waiting for your agent to ring.

The film feels like a personal project to you, how much of it is based on personal experience, people you’ve known and so on?

I would say 80 per cent. Almost all the characters are based on an amalgamation of people I've known or met. I've added fictitious story-lines or exaggerated some true events.
I love the film’s title, an excellent play on words and although I have an idea can you tell me what you feel it means? 

[Laughs] Originally the film was called M15, then apparently there were some people in the local area that were not happy about that. So, Tom the lead actor and Jordan the first AD [Assistant Director] and I were trying to come up with a new title - now there is some dispute as to who actually came up with the final title but we all loved it immediately. To me it means Tom's lapse into the dangerous path he chooses and because he does that he loses his honour in those moments. Is that what you thought?

I thought it was along similar lines but that it also applied to Linda (Eve’s mum) Bruce (Tom’s Dad) and Marius. I was very impressed by the performances of everyone, especially the younger actors. Where did you find them? Are they all from Manchester?

We held auditions in Moss Side and put casting notices on the Internet, the local radio and in local takeaways and hair salons. Word spread very quickly. Prior to casting I had helped a friend of mine Simone Riley; conduct some drama workshops around Manchester that were funded by the local council. They were targeted at under privileged kids who wouldn't normally have the chance or the means to get into the acting industry. After the workshops we took their contact information and kept in touch. When we were auditioning we also invited some of them to the castings.

Gary McDonald and Louis Emerick were outstanding in this – what was it like working with them and did they offer you any insight from their years of experience?

Yes they were both brilliant. I was very excited to work with them and a little nervous at the start but they came with their skills, knew their stuff and were totally respectful towards me, especially as a first time female director. They both have great senses of humour so that was nice to have on set and when the pressure was on they were very calm and always reassured me that everything was going well and I had nothing to worry about. The fact that they loved the script was a good feeling.

Who are your film making/acting influences?

Film making it has to be Tyler Perry because he started from the bottom with no help and is a major Hollywood player now. He does it all; act, write, direct and produce and he has an amazing work ethic, he is constantly creating and putting out content across all platforms, that is really inspiring to me. Acting I have a few; Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Brad Pitt, Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor and I thought little Jacob Tremblay was awesome in 'Room'.

Given that you’re pretty much the creative force driving the film what challenges did it present to you?

Oh I wish I had had more money to spend on the film ha ha. I was very limited financially so a lot of thinking outside of the box had to be done to keep everyone happy. Then there was the challenge of negotiating locations for free, organising cast and crew and extras with limited funds and resources and as I hadn't made a film before there was a lot of thinking quickly on my feet for example if I had forgotten to sort out a location, we had to think of an alternative setting that was nearby and where we would be free to film without getting arrested. It was very exhausting also but you had to keep going first one up and last one to bed, stocking up on food on the days off, sending people on errands, answering a million questions all day everyday. Then post production was another big learning curve, I thought the editor put everything together and that was it, I didn't realise that the film needed sound editing, colouring, VFX most of which I hadn't budgeted for and then it was about finding good people who could do the job properly. Film making has certainly taught me patience, trust and the art of negotiation.

Does you acting experience help you as a filmmaker?

I would say so. I think it gives me certain empathy for the actors and I feel I can communicate what I want with them in a way they will clearly understand.

The film is currently doing the rounds at various festivals. Can you tell me a little more about them and generally how is it all going?
We first screened as part of Film London's London's screenings at The BFI in the Breakthrough section. I was so nervous I didn't eat or drink for 12 hours prior but we got an amazing response. Then we went to a lovely festival in Croatia called The Avvantura Film Festival in Zadar. I hadn't managed to get the film subtitled in time and so the film was screened in English and I was thinking they're going to walk out, this has a lot of slang in but they stayed and many audience members told me even though they didn't have a clue what anyone was saying they were very much moved by the story. We won the Special Mention Award there so that was a great honour. Then we opened the British Urban Film Festival in London, which was cool because lots of the cast and crew came up from Manchester to see the film in all its glory for the first time and I had friends and family come and support. We were sold out at the festival and there was a huge excitement about the film. 

Then we played at Dinard Film Festival in France which is a small 'A' list festival so there were lots of stars there which was exciting and I got a lot of support, encouragement and advice from them about my career and the audiences there were just magnificent, probably some of the biggest audiences the film has had. We did a small festival this January called British Film Week at The Grand Logis in Bruz. The festival screen popular British Films to local audiences and the students at nearby schools and Universities so that was great and they were screening films like The Suffragettes, Legend and 45 Years so it felt like a big honour to be screening alongside films of that calibre. Lastly we screened at The Keswick Film Festival in The Lake District, there was a heated q and a after which was excited because it meant the film had evoked different yet powerful emotions in the audience. It's just been an incredible experience overall. 

Do you still plan to carry on acting or are more spurred on by writing and directing?
Yes I plan to carry on acting, writing and directing. I love them all equally. The next challenge is to see if I can direct myself in something I've written.

What does the future hold for J.Rocka Entertainment? Any more projects in the pipeline?

I have a slate of five screenplays now - a mix of genres. I'm currently meeting with various producers, financiers and film organisations to get the next set of films made. The great thing is that once you've made one film the doors start opening up. I wish I could speed things up but everything happens in the right time, though with me you just never know what's around the corner!

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