When rising star (and recently minted breakthrough star) Vivian Oparah was nominated for her first BAFTA, in the stacked Best Actress in a Leading Role category, she did what any young, hip, and stunned star might: she took her feelings to Instagram. Upon learning she was nominated for her charming work in Raine Allen-Miller’s rom-com “Rye Lane” — her first leading film role — alongside such heavy-hitters as Fantasia Barrino, Sandra Huller, Carey Mulligan, Margot Robbie, and Emma Stone, Oparah shared a picture of the nominees and simply wrote: “I’ve run out of words. what insane company like wtaf.”

“I wish I could have been more articulate in that moment,” Oparah told IndieWire during a recent interview. “But I literally was like, ‘What the hell?’”

Oparah still remembers when she got the script: it was early days with COVID, and she’d gone on a day trip to the Seven Sisters (“just white cliffs, huge white cliffs”) to get out of her house. “I was like, ‘If I don’t go outside, I’m going to kill something,’” she said. “So I went hiking, and then I was on the train back, and I read the script, and I was just laughing so much. I thought it was so funny.”

She self-taped her audition, the team liked it, but production briefly paused due to rising COVID cases. She waited it out. When it was time to actually audition in-person, she laughed at the memory. “Kharmel Cochrane, the casting director, was just like, ‘Just be cool,’ and I was like, ‘I’ve literally been in my house with the same three people for a year. I don’t know what that means,’” she said. “But it worked out!”

A romantic comedy wasn’t always a natural fit for Oparah. Much like filmmaker Allen-Miller, the genre didn’t necessarily seem like an obvious stop for her. She’s certainly seen the modern classics (“all the Richard Curtis ones”) and the “classic Black ones” (like “Love & Basketball”), but her own interests ran more toward sci-fi, fantasy, and “Star Wars.”

“I think, especially as a young Black kid, worlds of fantasy were easier to see myself in,” Oparah said. “I used to read a lot, and it was easier to imagine myself in a world of aliens. When I would read a romance novel, it’s like, ‘And she had long blonde hair and crystal blue eyes,’ and I was like, ‘Well, that ain’t me.’ I just divorced myself from it because I felt like I didn’t fit, not because I didn’t like it. … I think everyone who made this [film] has a very unique perspective on how they related to rom-coms.”

The film, which debuted at Sundance in January 2023 to acclaim, winningly mashes up everything from “Before Sunrise” to “Notting Hill” as it follows the sweet Dom (David Jonsson) and the effervescent Yas (Oparah) as they walk and talk their way through South London after a meet-cute in a public bathroom.

Oparah really vibed to how funny and “aloof” parts of the story were, and how much time Nathan Byron and Tom Melia’s script spent on “the awkwardness of falling in love.” The actress added, “Who you turn into when you’re first trying to woo a person, that is an inherently funny situation. I’m always like to my friends, ‘If you could see me when I’m first getting to know a guy, it would probably be the funniest thing in the world.’ … That hasn’t quite been captured in favor of, I don’t know, the grand gestures and showing all the grandiose versions of love. The awkwardness of love is way more relatable and funnier, and hopefully it’s what we captured.”

RYE LANE, from left: David Jonsson, Vivian Oparah, 2023. ph: Chris Harris /© Searchlight Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
“Rye Lane”©Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

While her first chemistry read was “with someone else, and so, naturally, I spent more time with that guy and was rooting for him a little bit,” when she first got face-to-face with Jonsson, it was over. “I was like, ‘My God, you’re so good at this,’” she said. “He literally was just so, so perfect for Dom, for how I’d been envisioning Dom, and the world that he’d created for Dom really complemented the world that I’d created for Yas. I was being real crazy in that audition because I was just like, ‘Yas is a wild woman,’ and they asked us to improvise, and I was throwing insane stuff out, and he was just volleying it back.”

During their rehearsal period, the pair would go on walk-and-talks — just like Yas and Dom! — to get to know each other. “We have a lot of similar interests from when we were growing up,” Oparah said. “He’s just the best, man. That’s my brother. I love him so much. We just formed this very natural friendship alongside the film. When we weren’t filming, we were always laughing about something incredibly stupid. We both have the same stupid sense of humor, which helps on long shooting days.”

What sets “Rye Lane” apart from some of its genre brethren is how real it’s willing to get, in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) the journey Yas and Dom go on together. Dom is reeling from a broken heart when the pair first meet, and it takes awhile before Yas reveals she’s in a similar boat, even if they take different paths to healing. Yas, for instance, eventually breaks into her ex’s apartment. That’s not really Dom’s style — or Oparah’s.

“Upon first reading the script, I was like, ‘Why are you doing that?,’ it’s like, ‘Why are you breaking into someone’s home?’ I’m a Capricorn. My emotions run very flat,” she said. “I felt like my friend was telling me about her night out and I was like, ‘Why did you do that? You’re insane.’ But I had to understand the motivations behind this endless desire for escapism, and when I identified that and identified why she’s endlessly curious about the world around her and constantly avoiding herself, that allowed me to understand the importance of the mission that she’s on to do everything but face herself.”

RYE LANE, from left: Vivian Oparah, David Jonsson, 2023. ph: Chris Harris /© Searchlight Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
“Rye Lane”©Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Once she understood Yas’ mission — not just to break into her ex’s flat to get back a precious record he’s been withholding from her since their breakup, but to actually come to terms with the breakup itself and her own part in it — Oparah was good to go. She still did the “boring, actor-y stuff,” like imagining what music Yas likes or how her previous relationship played out before its end, but she’s mission-based. With that locked in, she had Yas. 

“You know that meme of ‘your unemployed friend at 2:00PM on random Friday,’ and they’re like in Bali on top of an elephant? Yas, I feel like she’s that friend who will send you a picture at 3:00PM, and she’s with the royal family, and it’s like, ‘How did you get there, girl? Are you safe?,’” Oparah said with a laugh. “But it is just Yas. It was really fun and cathartic to play someone like that, because even though we’re not all brave enough to live like that, it’s awe-inspiring. Some people just take life by the horns, and it’s really good to be around. It invigorates you.”

Allen-Miller’s film also doesn’t skimp on the com part of the rom-com. Yas and Dom first meet at a mutual friend’s art show. His subject: giant, juicy photographs of mouths. (Later, he will expand out into…well, butts.)

“That was the first day on set, and it really set the tone for where we were,” Oparah said of the sequence, which sees both stars trying to navigate their way through large-scale photos of massive mouths. “Also, as a proprietor of a giant mouth, I felt very seen. I was like, ‘I’m welcome here.’ The bums at the end though, that’s crazy. I wasn’t there so I didn’t have to endure it. That was insane. I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s probably something that you would see in Peckham.’”

RYE LANE, director Raine Allen Miller, on set, 2023. ph: Chris Harris / © Searchlight Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection
Raine Allen-Miller on the set of “Rye Lane”©Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Later, Yas and Dom solidify their bond when she crashes a deeply uncomfortable dinner, in which Dom is forced to eat alongside his ex and her new boyfriend (incidentally, Dom’s ex-best friend, ouch). Yas, all verve and vigor, shows up, pretends to be Dom’s new girlfriend, saving him in the process, and ensuring their chemistry is on full display for everyone, in the movie and just watching it. It was Oparah’s favorite scene to film.

“I don’t know how they edited that together, because we had all just started improvising,” she said. “You know how a delusion takes over at a sleepover or something, where it’s far too late and everyone’s overtired and you’re just hysterical? We were in that room for so long, and that definitely started to happen. I don’t know how much of the actual script made it in. We lost the plot. It was so fun. It’s also my favorite scene to watch, because of how much I know we were all enjoying ourselves.”

In November, Oparah was nominated for her first two British Independent Film Awards: the Breakthrough Award (which she won, putting her in the company of previous winners like Jessie Buckley, Naomi Ackie, Dev Patel, Ben Whishaw) and Best Joint Lead Performance, which she and Jonsson lost out on to Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay for the upcoming “Femme”).

“I put Breakthrough out of my mind, and I was like, ‘Best Joint, they must give it to me and David.’ I just wanted us to have it, because my performance is nothing without him,” she said. “That balance, that banter, it informed what each other was doing so much. I think it’s a really important category, and I feel like other awarding bodies should take note and follow suit.” 

Oparah thinks other versions of such an award — like the Screen Actors Guild’s ensemble awards, are excellent — but wishes there were more dedicated to smaller groups, of two or even three (she pointed to “The Holdovers” as an example of a worthy film, a true three-hander).

RYE LANE, from left: David Jonsson, Vivian Oparah, 2023. ph: Chris Harris /© Searchlight Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
“Rye Lane”©Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Post-“Rye Lane,” she is keeping her options open (she is, after all, a performer skilled at the big and small screen, theater, and music), but it sounds like her heart is in film. “I love film, and I love indie film, she said. “I feel like low budget [films], [where you have] huge creative control, you can make brilliant idiosyncratic films, I’d love to do more of those. I have picked back up writing. Writing was actually my first creative outlet when I was a kid, so returning to it feels really good. Yeah, just following in the footsteps of the great British polymaths such as Michaela Coel and Phoebe Waller-Bridge!”

That’s about as big-talking as Oprarah will get when it comes to her future. At the bottom of her BAFTA nomination Instagram post, Oparah added something else, a sentiment she shares a lot, both in-person and online: “this journey is so blessed and it’s just getting started for us all.” Mostly, it seems like Oparah has a remarkably level head on her shoulders. That’s its own reward. 

“I can’t really look this too firmly in the eye because I’ll lose my mind, and I need to also keep my eyes steadily on my goals and where I know I’m yet to get to,” she said of her recent accolades. “To be recognized at this level already is such a blessing, and I feel really lucky, but I’m at the beginning of my career, and so it feels mad to even be talking about these type of accolades at this stage. I’m just keeping my eye on the prize, man. Awards are great, and people giving you these accolades are great, but don’t lose sight of wherever you feel like you need to get to and whatever your goals are in your own heart.”

Or where you can see yourself next.

“Rye Lane” is now streaming on Hulu.

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