There are few moments as humiliating as crying over an ex in a public toilet, especially when a stranger overhears your loud, snotty sobs. An earnest “Are you OK?” from the other side of the cubicle may mean well, but it will immediately make you want to press flush in the hope that you’ll be sucked into the sewers and disappear forever. All you can do is let out a feeble, entirely unconvincing “yeah” and pray that you never encounter that person again.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be so mortifying. In the new British romcom Rye Lane, in fact, this exact scenario is flipped into a meet-cute, a heartbroken-boy-meets-ballsy-girl that sparks a near instant connection. To be fair, Dom, played by David Jonsson, doesn’t realise that the girl who takes a shine to him at an art show is also the stranger who attempted to console him in the loos. Nor does he know she only decided to spark up a conversation after recognising his trainers, which she noticed poking out of the bathroom stall. All he knows is that Yas, brought to life by Vivian Oparah, has a seemingly magic ability to put his woes to bed. As the pair spend the day wandering the streets of Peckham, South London, her confidence and fuck-it attitude are infectious.
“I hadn’t really seen a character like this before,” says Oparah, Zooming in from Glasgow, the latest stop on Rye Lane’s press tour. “She’s so unapologetic, but she doesn’t need to have everything figured out.”
With characteristics that are rarely afforded to Black women on screen, Yas is unique in that she’s allowed to be messy, full of contradictions and complexities. The shining jewel in one of Britain’s first Black romcoms, following 2018’s Been So Long and 2021’s Boxing Day, she’s the kind of character you’d want as your mate, to guide you through heartbreaks and karaoke nights, maybe even at the same time.
“It’s an honour and a blessing [to be involved in this project],” says Oparah, with a modest laugh. “It just feels crazy.”
What’s more bonkers, though, is the fact that the 26-year-old very nearly didn’t pursue acting at all. In an alternate timeline, Oparah would have completed her degree in neuroscience at UCL, having passed on an audition for BBC Three’s Doctor Who spin-off Class during her gap year. Instead of performing on stage at the Old Vic and appearing in I May Destroy You, she would have spent her early twenties analysing scans of brains and stuff.
“I kept picking up acting and dropping it. At school, I did media because I was interested in filmmaking,” the Tottenham-raised actor says of her journey to stage and screen. “Then [during my gap year] I was like: ‘Maybe I still wanna do the acting thing.’”
Going to drama school felt out of reach, so Oparah decided to audition for the National Youth Theatre instead. After she made the cut, her older brother donated his wages to cover the fees.
“They send you castings and open calls, and I was checking them incessantly,” she says. “I got my first job [on Class] through that.”
Clearly, big bro’s sacrifice paid off. Now, Oparah’s eagerly awaiting Rye Lane’s release on Friday: “I’ve got the biggest group chat going. It’s like, ‘Guys, we’re all going to [Peckham cinema] Peckhamplex the day it comes out because it has to do well!’” she grins.
What a fitting way to celebrate a South London love story.
The first time I performed on stage was…
I don’t know what possessed me to do this, but it was the Year 6 play of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I played the Wicked Witch and got a standing ovation. Then I didn’t do acting again for two years, because I was like: “That was weird.” Then I did another performance for GCSE and everyone said: “Your performance made me cry!”
I overcame my shyness by…
I don’t know if I have! But I think my passion for storytelling overrides my shyness. When you’re creating a character, you can go into that world and leave yourself behind a little bit, so I don’t feel it.
The person that taught me the most about acting is…
Working with David has been super inspiring. He went to Rada and I was self-taught, so I was like: “Tell me all the things that you learnt!” On my last job, Then You Run [a Sky series coming out later this year], I worked with this incredible actress called Isidora Fairhurst – she’s half trained, but not through a big popping drama school – and talking to her about acting has been super enlightening. And on my first job [Class], I worked with Peter Capaldi [playing the Twelfth Doctor] in one scene. Seeing the way he took the script, chewed it up and made it his own with such precision and confidence… I was just like: “Wow, I hope that one day I can approach scripts like that.”
My first awards show experience was…
At this year’s Baftas. I didn’t meet them, but the mere sight of Viola Davis and Guillermo del Toro [had me] shaking in my seat because I love them both so much. It was surreal. Watching the speeches and presenters, I was so inspired. David and I were very much there to learn and be like the children of the industry. I was in incognito mode: I wore a black dress and a Burberry trench coat. The only [statement piece] was a big hat. I was trying to be inconspicuous!
The project that taught me the most about myself was…
Class taught me that the crazy imposter syndrome that I’d thought I’d shaken off was definitely still there. It’s crazy how inhibiting that can be. And Then You Run taught me that if you really do the work you can do anything. I was doing things I didn’t know I could do, using stamina that I didn’t know I had, going to emotional depths that I haven’t been to before. I was just really committed to the role.
My dream role is…
The Joker! I would love to do that. Would I go really Method? I think you have to!