Bukky Bakray was plucked from obscurity when, aged 15, she beat thousands of ambitious teens to land the lead role in last year’s brilliant coming-of-age drama, Rocks. Not bad for someone who had never acted before.
The East Londoner was thrust into the limelight following the film’s delayed release in September 2020 and the ensuing critical hosannas. But what should have been a dizzying whirlwind of parties, celebration and first-time red carpets was thwarted by the global pandemic.
“I think it was the best and worst year of my life,” reflects the now-19-year-old who’s still adjusting to the pressures of fame following her acting debut’s breakout success. “I remember at the start of the year, my agent said that we were going to get at least three jobs by the end of the year. Then quarantine came.”
Bakray was hit by waves of “distorted joy”, relieved by the film’s release and excited for her entry into a new heady career, but also apprehensive about the public’s response. “A lot of us felt the film didn’t get what it deserved. But for me, the people that needed to see it saw it, and that was warming.”
The awards and nominations that followed speak for themselves. Not only was Rocks up for 14 British Independent Film Awards at the start of the year, winning five, but Bakray has just been announced as one of Forbes’ prestigious 30 under 30.
This weekend she’s also in contention to win BAFTA’s EE Rising Star Award 2021. She’s up against tough competition: County Lines’ Conrad Khan, Moryfydd Clark, nominated for her spine-tingling performance in Saint Maud, His House’s Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Kingsley Ben-Adir for his role as Malcolm X in One Night in Miami (three of whom we’ve also profiled… sorry, Kingsley).
“I’m so honoured to be recognised by this big institution,” she says, clearly still shocked by her nomination. “Some people have been acting for years and they don’t even get acknowledgement. Ultimately I feel blessed, but I’m infatuated with getting the work done as opposed to the accolades.”
Bakray is her harshest critic. When she’s not devising her own ambitious screenplays or auditioning, she’s buckling down and focusing on her A‑Levels at college in Hackney. Right now she’s keeping her university options open and remaining level-headed about her career.
“Learning is the biggest thing for me. Like, I’m not the perfect actress, the best writer or evaluator. So for me, it’s all about developing that and becoming like the best version of myself I can be.”
Under the guidance of Rocks writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, who have set up a foundation called Bridge to help emerging actors break into the industry, Bakray is still smashing auditions. And she’s benefitting from crucial feedback and support along the way. “As I said in my BAFTA interview, the only reason I still have a career is because of Bridge. I send them my tapes and they helped me land this new role on BBC 1.”
That new role is Netflix x BBC court drama You Don’t Know Me, a four-part series adapted from Imran Mahmood’s 2017 novel. The story of a young man accused of murder, it’s evidence that Bakray is already embracing the challenge of even grittier roles.
But her drive and vision for success remain clear. “I don’t feel like a star and I don’t ever want to feel like a star,” she states firmly. “I still need to develop. I want to be great.”
The EE Rising Star 2021 Award is announced on the 11th April. Vote here for your winner!