The Saturday Interview

Lashana Lynch on ear for eye, Bond and why there’s still a long way to go for change

The actor who challenges Daniel Craig for the biggest role in ‘No Time to Die’ talks to Annabel Nugent about shooting 007, online abuse, the importance of her Jamaican heritage and her role in debbie tucker green’s searing new drama

Saturday 09 October 2021 06:45
<p>‘When do we give a woman the lead of her own franchise?’ asks the 33-year-old actor </p>

‘When do we give a woman the lead of her own franchise?’ asks the 33-year-old actor

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There was talk of tampons appearing in No Time to Die. Somewhere between Daniel Craig killing his billionth bad guy and guzzling his gazillionth martini, there it would be: the bright-coloured little wrapper of a feminine hygiene product. That’s not very James Bond, some would say. Of course, they’d likely say the same thing about the person who came up with the idea, Lashana Lynch, the first woman 007. “I didn’t want to pass a moment where we could really push the needle forward in a long-running franchise,” she says of the tampon appearance. The scene didn’t make the final edit, but Lynch need not worry; she’s shaken (and stirred) the franchise, nevertheless.

Lynch’s face is everywhere. Her cropped cut and soft cheekbones grace billboards, tabloids, posters on the tube and practically every screen in every theatre across the UK, if not the world. Today though, on Zoom, her camera is off. Instead, her voice rings out from a digital abyss. Lynch speaks in long and considered sentences with a directness similar to her No Time to Die character, Nomi. A black rectangle that affords the 33-year-old a respite from the camera for the first time in a long time. Following an 18-month delay, No Time to Die premiered last week and it has been pedal to the metal since. It’s not the actor’s first go on the publicity conveyor belt. Her role as Maria Rambeau, a US Air Force pilot and BFF to Brie Larson’s superhero, in 2019’s Captain Marvel gave her some inkling of what to expect, but the new 007 in a Bond film – the new Black female 007 – that’s the big time. The confetti has barely settled though, and Lynch’s next release is only days away.

In ear for eye by debbie tucker green, the Bafta-winning playwright of lower-case initials and capital letter ambitions, Lynch stars as a college student opposite Demetri Gorsitsas’s grossly patronising white male professor. It’s a role she has played before. In the 2018 stage production, Lynch was part of an (almost) all-Black cast performing vignettes about police racism in the US and the UK. It was momentous. And it remains so now in its film adaptation by the BFI and BBC. Not just for its contents but for its timing. ear for eye was shot in 2020, the year that saw a worldwide Black Lives Matter movement. Indeed, the ideas raised, in which Lynch’s character is verbally railroaded by an older white man who belittles, interrupts and gaslights her at every turn, feel like vital viewing. But Lynch is careful not to overhype the achievement. “Of course, I celebrate it,” she concedes. “But I refuse to be elated about one project with an all-Black cast. That’s not good enough for me or for my career.”

“The world is so used to giving Black people the scraps,” she says. “Saying congratulations, you’ve got your one and now we can move on. Most studios I’ve met with, most theatres I’ve sat in and worked in, have had their one Black play, their one Black film or their one Black lead and they feel really happy with themselves. And they shouldn’t and we should tell them they shouldn’t.” Change won’t be made with just “one a year”. Although I can’t confirm it, the actor’s eye-roll is almost audible.

Ironically, it’s this same criticism that was levelled at the Bond producers after Lynch’s casting was announced. Her big reveal as the new 007 and potential recipient of the Aston Martin keys drew both praise for attempts at progression, and criticism from some corners accusing the franchise of ticking a box, or two. Black, tick. Woman, tick. But through Lynch, Nomi is no ticked box. Sure, spy gadgets and a bulletproof vest help her look the part. Power polo necks and chic high waist slacks give the character her own take on the off-duty model look synonymous with James Bond. But Lynch lends Nomi something all her own, a grit and grace that even Italian tailoring can’t explain.

In Nomi, there is a guarded vulnerability that belies an icy veneer. This is an agent who has no doubt worked doubly hard to gain access to Ian Fleming’s very white, very male universe – all for her predecessor to stroll back in and threaten that newfound, hard-earned status. Lynch plays a character on the defensive, at least initially. The actor credits Barbara Broccoli, longtime producer of the James Bond films, with Nomi’s richness making it to screen. “One thing Barbara does very well is listen,” she says. “She’s the kind of white producer who will have a Black actor in the cast and actually have conversations about their Black experiences and what they think the character and the script should be like.”

Lynch believes it’s this willingness of “non-Black members of the world” to ask questions and listen that will create lasting change. “There are people weighed down by things that they don’t even know they’re doing wrong because they’re blind to it. I understand everyone has blind spots, but I think it boils down to listening.”

Sometimes though, listening is not advised. When reports emerged in July 2019 that Nomi had been assigned the vaunted 007 moniker, the rumour mill roared to life. Fans quibbled over whether she (a woman!) would be taking over the Bond mantle. Sadly but predictably, the trolls soon emerged. Being the target of noxious online abuse is a harrowing experience, one that Lynch describes as “a different version of what my ancestors went through”. Of course, she stipulates, “theirs looked very different and it was very, very different”. But in terms of “social media, the internet and the world, this was just another version of oppression”, says the actor.

Lynch on the set of ear for eye

Lynch hasn’t paid attention to the trolls for a long time, though. In fact, she now feels grateful for them. “I know that if I get stick for something or if someone doesn’t like what I’m doing, or they find me too frank or overbearing then I’m probably doing something right – or radical. In the case of Bond, I’m doing both.” She pauses and I think she’s finished on the subject, but she pushes on, “The less we pay attention to [the trolls], the more we can actually get things done.” She laughs. “And you don’t have to ask me again. You know, you can ask another amazing question that makes you feel good and makes me feel good.”

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Onto feel-good things then, or at least bittersweet ones. Lynch’s arrival into the Bond franchise dovetailed with Craig’s swansong. Anyone who’s seen the film can confirm it is an affecting exit to say the least. On set that day, emotions ran high. Lynch brought her mum along to witness the era-ending moment. “We got the cast and crew a jerk pan with jerk chicken on site and patties,” she recalls. Her mum made sorrel: a Jamaican drink made from hibiscus flower. “We wanted to bring that Jamaican vibe we had at the beginning of the shoot [parts of No Time to Die take place in Jamaica, where Ian Fleming also wrote the Bond novels] to the very last day,” she explains.

The sun had set by the time Craig gave his goodbye speech, a humble 20-second affair that Lynch considers herself lucky to have witnessed. All the more lucky to have witnessed it with her mum. “As an actor you want to keep it about you, but really it’s about who you come from,” she says.

Who and where Lynch comes from is never far from her mind. At the premiere of No Time to Die last week, the actor wore a glorious canary-yellow Vivienne Westwood gown. Embroidered on the back was a doctor bird, the national bird of Jamaica. “It’s everything that I am,” replies Lynch when I ask about the connection to her heritage. Though she was born in Shepherd’s Bush, a second-generation Jamaican child of a Windrush family, it was only outside the walls of their west London home that Lynch actually felt British. “It’s not so much a question about staying connected to my Jamaican culture,” she says. “It’s more about teaching people that my culture is what comes first. I guess I have to remind myself that the world doesn’t necessarily know [where I’m from].”

Lynch made headlines when it was announced her character had been given the vaunted 007 moniker

Lynch was one of three siblings growing up in a home with a “creative buzz”. Her grandfather owned a record shop and her godbrother is a choreographer. Although there are no actors in the family, she can count multiple DJs. “I never had to have any awkward conversation convincing my parents that I want to sing or act, which is an honour and a privilege really,” she says. Lynch was a singer before turning her attention full-time to acting. That being said, she’ll put her voice to use as Miss Honey in next year’s film adaptation of Matilda the Musical.

Lynch’s big break seemed to have arrived with the 2012 athletics drama Fast Girls, but that came and went. Then there was her scene-stealing role opposite Lenny Henry in a 2015 production of Educating Rita, but that too seemed to dissipate like a deflated balloon. As did her lead role in the Shonda Rhimes-produced period drama Still Star-Crossed. Such let-downs take a toll on a person, even an ace secret agent. “I come from good stock but there is something that happens when you keep getting knocked back,” says Lynch. It had been heart-wrenching for her to see everything revert to square one. But now Lynch sees those moments for what they truly were, what her mum would call “setbacks for a set-up”. She delivers the adage with a mock-theatrical flair.

Casting a female Bond would not be doing right by our sex

What a set-up it turned out to be. Within two years, Lynch entered two of the world’s biggest franchises. And although we’ve said goodbye to Marvel’s Monica Rambeau, it would be silly – and frustrating – to see Nomi’s place in Bond relegated to be a token one-off. Equally though, it is hard to see producers handing over the reins to a woman. But maybe there is a different path for Lynch.

Since Amazon acquired MGM earlier this year, a Bond spin-off series feels increasingly likely and given the timing of No Time to Die (and its ending), all signs point to Nomi as a potential protagonist. So far, Broccoli has ruled out a move to TV for the franchise but… never say never (again). I put this all to Lynch, adding that I wish I could see her face for any subdermal twitch or knowing smile. “It’s straight. My face is very straight. It’s not doing anything at all,” she assures me with a throaty chuckle that makes it clear her face is anything but. “I love Nomi and it would be incredible to dive into her world more,” she ventures when I dig for details. “But I don’t know! I don’t know! I am grateful that fans have fallen for her, though.”

Lynch shoots ‘No Time to Die’ alongside Daniel Craig and director Cary Fukunaga

It’s time for the obvious question, the answer to which makes people either angry, hopeful, or increasingly apathetic about the whole perennial debate. Should the Bond mantle be passed on to a woman? The more important question, answers Lynch, is “when do we give a woman the lead of her own franchise?” The actor is thankful that conversations like this one are happening – that Jodie Whittaker stars in Doctor Who, for example. “But if we constantly say, ‘Woman, you are now taking over a man’s role’ instead of establishing our own rightful position in this space then we are not doing right by our sex.”

Lynch continues, “And we’re teaching our young girls that we can only be a replacement, that we are not good enough to have our own space, which is bizarre to me and also a real mind…” She stops in her tracks and laughs. It’s clear she’s a mum well-rehearsed in the art of cutting off a profanity. “It’s a mind-mess that I don’t want to teach my daughter, nor will I. I don’t know why we’re being so complacent in these conversations. I think it’s lazy for us to think a woman can just take over a role and feel like that’s good enough.”

Lynch is wary about the supposed progress of her industry and also society as a whole. “I’m very, very reluctant to use the word change because I actually don’t see any,” she says. “I see a lot of shifts. I see a lot of tit-for-tat responses to things, responses to the spike in the Black Lives Matter movement, conversations that happen around the headline but, then, splat! Nothing happens. That’s how I know real change isn’t happening everywhere.”

Regarding her roles in Bond, Marvel and even turner green’s arresting ear for eye, she is similarly cautious to celebrate. “There’s some really nice headlines that can come with what I’m doing in my career, which is nice… momentarily.” But – and this is a big but – as Lynch reminds me: there is still much, much more work to be done.

ear for eye will premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, BBC Two and BBC iPlayer on 16 October

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