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Vivian Oparah on storytelling, music and why she wants to play The Joker

After scoring her breakout role in the brilliant Rye Lane, Vivian Oparah is on the way to becoming a household name.

By Alastair James

Vivian Oparah (Picture: Press)

Vivian Oparah is the very definition of a rising star. After making her debut in 2016 in the Doctor Who spinoff Class, Oparah had turns in shows like The Rebel and I May Destroy You. Last year, she made a memorable splash in the romcom Rye Lane, before going on to appear in Then You Run and, most recently, in the comedy thriller Dead Hot, which is available to stream on Prime Video. Her performance as the effervescent Yas in Rye Lane earned Oparah a Leading Actress nomination at the 2024 BAFTA Film Awards, with her name included alongside actresses such as Emma Stone and Margot Robbie. As a member of the BAFTA Breakthrough class of 2023, and as a musician as well as a storyteller, Oparah is definitely about to become a household name. 

Where does your love of storytelling come from?

My love of storytelling definitely feels innate. I’m Nigerian, and Nigerians are natural storytellers. I watched how storytelling would animate my otherwise stoic dad. My mum would tell the most zany, grandiose, Tim Burton-esque stories when I was a kid, so I guess I’m mirroring that. 

What kinds of stories do you want to tell?

It sounds really cliched, but stories with complex characters who we don’t pity, and stories that are psychological. But always stories that are fun and innovative.

Do you think you’ll focus on intimate, real, human stories like Rye Lane, or can you imagine stepping into some fantastical world?

I can definitely see myself stepping into more fantastical worlds like the ones Yorgos Lanthimos creates. They still feel super grounded. I’d step into a Star Wars-like universe because I’m a sci-fi and fantasy geek at heart. But I also enjoy the intimacy of human-to-human connection and grounded, quiet stories. 

What do you make of the response to Rye Lane?

It’s been overwhelming. As an actor, you make something, and you immediately detach because you don’t know what’s going to happen to it in the edit. To have made something which seems to have captured a time in Peckham, which is important to the community that live there, that response in particular has been incredible. To have made a capsule of that awkward, slightly cringe-worthy, but ultimately heart-warming, getting-to-know-you stage of love feels lovely. It’s pretty funny because I’m not romantic at all. 

How did it feel to be nominated for Leading Actress at the BAFTAs?

Absolutely surreal. Fantasia Barrino, Emma Stone, Margot Robbie, Sandra Hüller and Carey Mulligan, those women are juggernauts when it comes to acting. To be even mentioned in the same sentence as them is insane. 

Who gave you the best reaction to that news? 

My mum. I told her I’d been nominated alongside Barbie. She was like, “But you are Barbie!” That’s my forever cheerleader. I FaceTimed one of my best friends who was with my two other best friends. They were all crying on the floor in the gym. I wondered what people must have thought they received a call about. 

You were also part of BAFTA Breakthrough 2023. How did that feel?

Incredible! You get a lot of opportunities and moments in your career, but you don’t quite know how to harness them. Having an institution like BAFTA to shepherd me through these changes feels super special. I feel really lucky to be part of a diverse cohort of talent. And I’m super excited to follow in the footsteps of such wonderful talent.

Who inspires you?

Worldbuilders. Virgil Abloh was a huge inspiration of mine. So was Maison Margiela. Björk, another incredible worldbuilder. The Paul Thomas Andersons of this world. Jordan Peele. Tyler, the Creator just did a capsule collection for Louis Vuitton. His ability to distil his personal essence into everything he does and down to the most minute detail is something that I want to be able to do.

What’s your all-time favourite performance ?

Oh, God! Jodie Comer in Killing Eve season one. Athletic acting, chameleonic — like, she did everything. She was so funny. The dramatic acting, there was so much whimsy, the accents. How much she’s in that show, holding it. Obsessed. 

Who else are you excited for people to know about? Who’s up and coming? 

One of my friends who I starred in Then You Run with. Her name is Isidora Fairhurst. I think she’s one of the most incredible actors I’ve ever met in my life. Also, an amazing singer.

Do you have any ambitions to step behind the camera? 

I do. I’ve been writing a lot. Stories were my first love. Maybe directing when I get a little bit older. I’m still a baby. 

You’ve mentioned wanting to play the Joker. Why?

I’m obsessed with Heath Ledger’s performance. But I feel like playing a heightened comic-book villain who somehow still feels normal, but has the weirdest physicality, would be a real challenge. I’m often described as ‘the Trickster’, like, that’s my archetype. So, I think I could slip into it really well. 

You released a song ‘FOUL’ last year. Do you have plans for more music as Vivian Forever?

Yes, I’m finding the time to make it. Music’s been more of an anchor for me the past year than something I’m working on career-wise. The dream is to write, star in and do the score for a film. We’ll see how that all pans out. 

You had plans to study neuroscience, but began acting instead. Do you ever think about what life would be like if you had gone ahead with that?

I feel like, somehow, I’m doing it. I feel like acting is an exploration of the mind in a more creative way. It would have been an exploration of the mind in a very clinical way. 

What’s the best career lesson you’ve learnt?

You cannot predict anything. You put your heart into it, and then you leave.Don’t try to control the outcome. And actually, the less you do, the better it gets.