Twenty-six-year-old Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn still holds down a waitressing job in London, balancing it alongside callbacks, self-tapes, and a starring role in Academy Award–winning director Steve McQueen’s new drama, Lovers Rock. The second in McQueen’s five-part Small Axe anthology, it’s St. Aubyn’s first time in front of the camera.

“I was sent a draft of the script and then asked to come in and choose a scene,” says St. Aubyn. “There’s not too much dialogue. So I said to myself, I’m going to do two.” It was a bold move that paid off. During the first read, St. Aubyn was seated next to her co-star, the 2020 BAFTA Rising Star winner Micheal Ward. “We had really good chemistry right from the start,” she says of working alongside Ward. “I think for Steve, you could see sometimes he was closing his eyes and he was listening because this was his work and it was being brought to life.”

Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn and Micheal Ward on location.

Taking its title from an African proverb (“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe”), McQueen’s film series explores five stories of Caribbean people living in London from the late 60s to the mid-80s. The material is unmistakably personal for the director, who was born in West London and is of Grenadian and Trinidadian descent. Lovers Rock sees St. Aubyn as Martha in a coming-of-age story set against the blues parties held in narrow hallways and living rooms, recalling a 1970s London when Blacks weren’t welcome inside nightclubs. “I was really learning from Micheal and watching Steve’s mind work,” says St. Aubyn. “He was just incredible.”

Shaniqua Okwok and St. Aubyn put the rock in Lovers Rock.

A performer since childhood, St. Aubyn attended the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, in East London, before gaining acceptance to the prestigious BRIT School—the U.K.’s version of the high school in Fame and the alma mater of Amy Winehouse, Adele, and Tom Holland. It wasn’t until after graduation that St. Aubyn, looking around at castings, too often realized she was not simply the only Black woman but the only Black person in the room, a fact that has made her involvement in McQueen’s project all the more important to her.

Meanwhile, the parts were more dripping than flowing. She was considering giving up when she landed a West End understudy role in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. “You needed to know the entire ensemble because you never knew who’s going to call in sick,” says St. Aubyn. It was that experience, onstage in front of thousands of people, that solidified her calling as an actor. “I hate roller coasters, things like that. So I think this is my adrenaline.”

Lovers Rock is out now on BBC One and Amazon

Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for Air Mail