Lynn + Lucy writer/director Fayzal Boulifa and stars Nichola Burley and Roxanne Scrimshaw on street casting and keeping it real

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British cinema has a proud tradition of tough, uncompromising films, from the more domestic “kitchen sink dramas” as they became known, to those with criminal settings and everything in between.  It’s never gone away and, even though writer/director Fyzal Boulifa agrees it’s influenced his debut feature, Lynn + Lucy, it’s a film that also brings a fresh approach and a new voice to the genre.

The story of two lifelong friends whose paths start to diverge after tragic events was inspired by a newspaper story that he couldn’t shake out of his mind.  “It was about a woman who was accused of being involved in the death of her child and was acquitted but was sent back to her community where she was guilty by association, even though she was innocent by all accounts,” he recalls.  “This story stayed with me because it took place in an environment like the one I grew up in. I grew up on a council estate in Leicester which was very white, even though Leicester is a very multi-cultural city, it was definitely on the white side of town.  When I started to think about it a bit more, I had this realisation that she wouldn’t be the main character.  Her best friend would be the more interesting main character because by following her, you get to learn about the environment and that woman’s life and her world.”

His inspiration for the film’s style and its distinctive 4:3 ratio camerawork came from a number of sources, but primarily from Alan Clarke “who made Scum and Elephant  because I think he found that ambiguity in his characters and this was what I was looking for.  A lot of social realism now is clearer in the messaging and more political but I prefer films that put me in an uncomfortable space and this was what I was trying to do in Lynn + Lucy.”  But classical theatre shows its face as well, especially in the setting for the story.  “I really liked the idea that there were two ordinary women in a very ordinary place, a very confined space, but who were playing out big themes and that it was a double tragedy in the sense that there’s Lucy’s tragedy and there’s Lynn’s.  I was thinking about Medea a little bit and I was also aware that the salon was functioning a bit like a Greek chorus and having Lynn and Lucy live opposite each other in such a confined space had something theatrical about it.”

Boulifa’s determination to make the film feel authentic and populate it with characters we could believe in was his biggest challenge, especially when he decided to street cast the majority of the actors. “There aren’t a lot of working class actors in the UK – there’s a lot less than there probably were 30 years ago – and it’s hard to find somebody to act in that sort of a role without there being an inherent judgement in the performance.  I really wanted characters who could just “be”, who weren’t aware of themselves as being working class.  In the auditions, we found quite broad ideas about that in the performance, so it felt natural that non-professionals wouldn’t have that self-consciousness or sense of judgement.”

Roxanne Scrimshaw, who plays Lynn, was street cast after seeing an ad in her local paper.  A full time carer, she was looking for work, but had never considered acting. “People like me, we don’t act.  That’s for a whole different category of people. I sent them my pictures and I said ‘if you want me, just call me’ and they called me!  I went through the casting process, although I was oblivious that I was going for casting, because I’d imagined it was like what you see on TV – you go into a room where there’s loads of people and everyone takes turns and they pick the best one. For me, it was more like going on days out and people wanted to talk to me – it was so exciting!”

Nichola Burley, who plays Lucy, has been a professional actress since being street cast in Dominic Savage’s Love + Hate back in 2005 and, despite a career that’s seen her work with the likes of Andrea Arnold, she’s never forgotten those early days.  It also meant she understood how her newcomer co-star was approaching her role and the challenges she would face.  “To see it through fresh eyes is liberating.  So from Roxanne’s perspective there’s really nothing to lose.  You’re surrounding by people who like to show that they know what they’re doing – that’s not every actor – but you feel that you’re in control of the situation and know what you’re doing.  So to see somebody who really doesn’t care what that looks like from the outside and is just going head on for what they want to do and makes no apology for that is really exciting.  It takes what you do instantly to another level because the stakes are so much higher.”

The two are under no illusions that breaking into acting, and staying in the profession, is tough.  For Roxanne, street casting has given her a foot in the door, but she acknowledges that getting through the next door will be hard.  “Since completing the film, I’ve realised I’m in love with acting and I don’t want to do anything else.  If I want to pursue this, I’ve found that acting classes cost hundreds of pounds.  I found some that cost £400 for six weekends.  There is no way that I could afford that.  For somebody from a working class background, where are we going to get money like that from?  It’s a whole month’s income.  To get an agent, most actors have gone through drama school: the agents go to the final year talent showcase and that’s where they find them.  And because I was street cast, it’s hard for people to see me as me.  They think I was street cast because I’m like Lynn and I’m nothing like her at all.  It’s a huge challenge.  Unless you’ve got an army of people shoving you in front of people’s faces, it’s hard to get a foot in the door.”

While Burley agrees, she also believes it’s down to the individual, their talent and their determination. “I think it’s a really dated idea that you have to come from a privileged background and have parents with lots of money.  I can only say this from my own perspective, having started where Roxanne started, but I could work with people who come from great wealth and people who’ve come from nothing and I personally can’t see any difference in their type of acting. I know actors who’ve been to drama school – I won’t name names, but they’re well known – and they’ll say they went to drama school and was told they were illiterate, which pulled everything from them that they possessed and so I had to come out and find myself again.  And then you work with some actors who’ve gone to drama school who say that it gave them a great toolbag.  So I think it’s just about individuals.

“I think success will come, however you want it to come.  If you are determined, it will happen.  You’re right – it may be that bit harder if you have nothing but there’s other means of doing it.  For example, you look at Fayzal, our director.  He started by making short films, he was really passionate about it and pushed it and pushed it and he got recognised.  People saw what he was doing was incredible so he got this opportunity to shine and I think that’s where the idea of class has been marginalised and needs to be broken.”

Faizal Boulifa, Nichola Burley and Roxanne Scrimshaw were talking to Freda Cooper

Lynn + Lucy is released on the BFI Player on Thursday, 2 July 2020.

 Read our review of the film here