Three Little Birds star Rochelle Neil discusses her role in Lenny Henry’s ITV drama, how it resonated with her own family history and building a career that has led her to appear in international dramas such as Das Boot and The Nevers.
With acting credits stretching back more than a decade – Law & Order: UK, Episodes and Guilt stand among them – it might sound strange to suggest Rochelle Neil is now having a breakout moment as one of the leads in ITV drama Three Little Birds.
But the actor agrees. “It was a step for me. It was my first time leading, number one on the call sheet, but it’s weird considering how long I’ve been in the industry and how much I have worked to feel like I’m having a breakthrough,” she tells DQ.
“When I define success for myself, I’ve always thought of it in terms of longevity. I guess I’m having a bit of a moment, trying not to overthink it and hoping it leads to the next fun, cool thing. Three Little Birds, I hope, is helpful.”
One notable early role came in the second season of German wartime submarine drama Das Boot, in which Neil played Cassandra Lloyd, a jazz singer who becomes involved with American businessman Sam Greenwood (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) and German U-boat captain Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon). Neil was living in LA at the time and was given a straight offer for the role.
“That was a great job,” she recalls. “Sometimes you get a role where you’re like, ‘I am so qualified for this job.’ I think they’d seen me in a play years ago, and with the music, I worked very closely with the band and arranging those songs, getting it all together. And I love Vincent Kartheiser; he’s a gent and I’m a huge Mad Men fan. It is probably one of my favourite jobs I’ve done.”
Then came a role in HBO sci-fi drama The Nevers, playing Annie Carbey, a criminal with the ability to generate balls of fire in a story set in a Victorian London populated by people with unusual abilities. Neil recalls the “buzz” around the series as it was being made, and people told her it would be her big break.
“Then The Nevers did what The Nevers did,” she notes, which is to say, not much. The show debuted in April 2021 to disappointing reviews, and HBO pulled the series before the second batch of six episodes could air.
“After that, I remember thinking, ‘OK, nothing is a sure thing,’ and now Three Little Birds has almost been the opposite, where I didn’t feel like anyone really knew about it. I felt like it was a very niche show, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, maybe some people will watch,’” Neil says. “I really love the story. It’s very connected to me, my family and my heritage – and then it had the opposite effect [to The Nevers], where I feel like everyone’s talking about it and it’s got such a buzz. So I’ve stopped even trying to figure it out and I’m just doing what I enjoy, because I know people will connect however they connect.”
LA was where Neil “cut my teeth” during the two years she spent on the US west coast, learning to live a supercharged life of auditions at the heart of Hollywood after she was initially flown out by US broadcast network Fox for a screen test.
Now based in Stockholm – her husband is Swedish – she travels back and forth to the UK, but less so since the pandemic changed the face of the acting business in terms of auditioning by self-tapes and online script reads.
“With Three Little Birds, I did it all remotely,” Neil says. “I was here [in Sweden] and then they flew me over for a chemistry read with different versions of every [other] character. I’ve noticed that’s the thing when I’m doing it remotely – the very last round will be like, ‘OK, let’s fly in,’ and I’ll meet a gazillion people, which I prefer. Once you’re in, you kind of know you’ve got it.”
In the six-part ITV drama, which debuted in October, Neil takes centre stage alongside Yazmin Belo (What Just Happened) and Saffron Coomber (Tracey Beaker Returns) in a story described as a triumphant celebration of immigration, community and the strength of black womanhood inspired by stories of writer and executive producer Lenny Henry’s mother and all those who travelled to make Britain their home.
Set in 1957 – post-Windrush and during the booming decade set alight by promise, the rhythm of rock ‘n’ roll, swing, Hollywood starlets and fabulous fashion – Three Little Birds sees gregarious sisters Leah (Neil), Chantrelle (Coomber) and their virtuous, bible-loving acquaintance Hosanna (Belo) board a cruise ship from Jamaica bound for a new life in the UK.
While they all have very different reasons for leaving their family and friends behind, they soon discover things in the UK aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, but they remain determined to succeed and overcome the many obstacles of integration and build a new life in Britain.
Neil says her role in Three Little Birds, produced by Tiger Aspect in association with Douglas Road and distributed by Banijay Rights, marks the first time she has appeared in a series that speaks to her own heritage.
“My dad’s from Jamaica, mum from Grenada. It’s our story. It’s insane how close it is,” she says. “When I first read the scripts, it was like Lenny Henry had been following us around, but it’s a lot of people’s story. We speak about race and things like that, and I was a bit nervous thinking, ‘Is the UK ready for this show?’ When it was first announced, some of the comments on my Twitter went into a dark place, but it’s been the complete opposite and the feedback I’m getting has been really positive.”
This year marked the 75th anniversary of the Windrush voyage that saw more than 1,000 people come to the UK from the Caribbean after the end of the Second World War, with numerous documentaries commissioned to acknowledge the experiences of those who helped to rebuild the country following the conflict.
But with a drama on the subject, Neil believes Three Little Birds can humanise a group of people about whom little is known. “They remain voiceless within history, other than documentaries, but it’s really about humanising the messy, the silly, the fun and the joy,” she says. “Shows around the black experience, especially in a period setting, are way down in trauma – we have a lot of slavery pieces – so it’s nice with Three Little Birds to show the joy and wholesomeness of the Caribbean community. We really get to see that in the show, and that’s really what people are latching on to. It’s not just this grim show where we’re all being bashed over the head with, ‘It was terrible. Everyone was racist.’ We’re Brits and this is our shared history.”
Leah’s motivations for moving to the UK are shown early in the series, when it is revealed she came to earn money to support her children, having got out of an abusive relationship not long before leaving Jamaica.
In fact, the character was inspired by Henry’s mother, and Neil says the writer – who also has an on-screen role in the drama – empowered her to make the part her own.
“You can’t build a character if you’re already playing a character, so I had to really level with him, with no heirs and graces,” she explains. “I remember when I first met him, it was over Zoom and it was very chill. I was like, ‘You’re Sir Lenny Henry, but I have to humanise you a bit and just chill with you. Otherwise I’m never going to be able to do this.’
“His message to me was, ‘Go for it, this is your show. Just really grab it and run with it,’ which was great. He was very open to my ideas and suggestions. After a while, you have a character in your head – and even though he’s written her, I’m the one that has to play her, and if I don’t believe it, I can’t sell it. Taking on the show, I had to feel like it was mine.”
Filming the series – which will debut on BritBox in the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa and the Nordics in 2024 – was complicated by the fact Neil had recently given birth, adding another parallel between herself and Leah. “She’s a mother, and her a big mission in life is to make sure her children have an amazing life,” Neil says of her character. “So it all made sense. It was intense. I wouldn’t say more so than any other job, but it’s always hard at work, whether I’m doing theatre or anything but I love it and Leah was great. I miss her. I hope we get a season two.”
Filming took place in an old Ikea building in Coventry, with some filming also on location around the Midlands city. Cast and crew also travelled to the Dominican Republic for a fortnight, where scenes were shot on the ship that carried the characters to the UK.
Other ship scenes were also shot in North Wales, where “it was freezing and we’re in these summer dresses and it’s the wind and the rain,” Neil says. “They were like, ‘Could you rub your arms so that the goose pimples go away?’ so we look like we’re in Jamaica. But then we did get to go to the Dominican Republic and that’s where I shot all the stuff where she leaves her children and scenes where she is in Jamaica.”
As she plans her next move on screen, Neil says she imagines she will return to the US at some point, while she is also looking forward to a future as a director. “I feel like I have that in me. I feel like I have a very clear point of view,” she notes. “That is definitely something that will happen for me career-wise. But right now, I’m hoping to just keep riding this ‘number one on the call sheet’ streak. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time earning my stripes and I want to keep doing that.”