‘Love is like crack’: Rye Lane star Vivian Oparah on romcoms, Emma Stone and her zany new comedy

<span>‘I still feel normal’ … Vivian Oparah’s ascent from quiet computer nerd to Bafta-gilded glitz.</span><span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
‘I still feel normal’ … Vivian Oparah’s ascent from quiet computer nerd to Bafta-gilded glitz.Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

How does it feel when, at 27 years old, with minimal acting training and only one feature film under your belt, you find yourself up against Emma Stone and Margot Robbie for best leading actress at the Baftas?

“It’s insane, I feel mad,” says Vivian Oparah, the nominated star of last year’s hit indie romcom Rye Lane. “But I also still feel incredibly normal.”

Oparah is slightly sleep-deprived when we meet in a cafe, in between her first time on Woman’s Hour and heading home to north London, where she has always lived. Ordering a coffee within seconds of sitting down, she perks up and feels warmly familiar, taking the time to chat about holidays, dating and Netflix’s One Day, which she is too scared to watch, because Normal People destroyed her and “love is like crack – it’s not a normal experience to be dealing with that level of emotion all the time”.

It’s surprising to hear this reaction to romance. Although we’re here to talk about her freakishly fun new TV series, Dead Hot, there’s a lot to reflect on first – it’s been a colossal 12 months, thanks to a film that’s all about love.

Chances are, Rye Lane won your heart in 2023. Oparah and David Jonsson breathed new life into romcoms as newly single Yas and Dom, who meet and spend a day together in south London, and may or may not get together. It debuted at Sundance film festival, where a US audience was “jumping out of their seats having the most visceral reactions. It was crazy.” Its homecoming premiere was at Peckhamplex. “I went to Rye Lane market the other day and I honestly felt like a football player,” Oparah laughs. “People kept saying thank you for capturing south London how it is.”

The critics fell hard, too. Oparah was named a Bafta rising star, then picked up the Bifa breakthrough performance award. Perhaps the biggest deal to her, though, was Daniel Kaluuya selecting her as the 59% Gen Now award-winner – and inviting her to a party packed with her idols. “Letitia Wright said, ‘If you need anything – anything – message me. It’s a minefield out here sometimes.’ That really meant a lot.”

The Bafta nomination was the icing on the cake. “I got on the red carpet and was like, this is so funny,” she says. “It was so absurd I just needed to roll with it. I was pretty chill.” There was only one person to take as a guest: “My mum was a little girl from rural Nigeria – you know what I mean? But she was so poised, telling people she loved their outfits. She met my friend Daryl McCormack and said, ‘I recognise that guy!’ And she loves Emma Stone.”

Oparah’s journey to this point is one rarely heard in Hollywood. She, somewhat surprisingly, given the assured confidence she speaks with today, says she has always been shy. Life growing up was quiet, spent reading, writing and being nerdy on computers (“My dad called me Microsoft!”). She applied to study neuroscience at university, but deferred a year when she saw an opportunity to scratch the acting itch she’d always had.

She did a two-week course at the National Youth Theatre, which her oldest brother paid for (she is the youngest of four). “It was like £400 and I had no money, and neither did my parents,” she says. Her family were stunned when they first watched her in a play, because they’d never heard her speak so much. It led her to land her first agent and TV role, in Doctor Who’s 2016 spin-off Class, then a small but significant part in Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (“I also saw her at Daniel Kaluuya’s party! She’s so brilliant”).

But what would have happened without that brother’s money, given that the number of working-class people in the arts in the UK has shrunk by half since the 1970s? “I can’t really see an ‘in’ in other ways,” Oparah says, remembering how she would endlessly trawl Instagram for up-and-coming directors to get in touch with about self-tapes. “I was being stupidly, insanely proactive, trying to find any opportunity early on,” she says. “But it shouldn’t have to be like this.” Still, she says: “I’ve since paid him back.”

After her big-screen break, Oparah returned to TV in Sky Max’s thriller Then You Run. She played vivacious Stink, one of a group of friends that gets into heaps of trouble as they travel across Europe to escape a drug boss. It was filmed before Rye Lane, during the pandemic: “We were trapped in Berlin for eight months; we’re best friends now.” But although the show was a hoot, the response was middling. Her wild new project, though, is sure to catch a lot of people’s attention.

Created by Charlotte Coben (daughter of Harlan), Dead Hot is, on the face of it, a murder mystery, but it unravels into something way more surreal, funny and sinister. Oparah plays Jess, whose brother Peter (Big Boys’ Olisa Odele) dated her best friend, Elliot (Extraordinary’s Bilal Hasna). One day, Peter went missing, leaving only his severed finger behind. Five years on, Elliot is trying to move on with his life, while Jess still believes her brother is alive. Then another finger turns up …

“She is so zany and so wacky and so fun,” Oparah says of Coben. “She has distilled her life’s essence in this script.” She insists, though, that there is meaning in it all. “[It’s about] the insanity of grief taking over,” she says. “The loss of love and what that does to the brain and where that takes you. It’s wacky but has heart and is grounded by the relationship of these two people, and if they can still work as a trio with the loss of that third person.”

Weird, says Oparah, is “very much my vibe” in all aspects of her work. She writes her own rap music and screenplays, but talking about this with any specifics is when her shyness finally kicks in, not giving too much away. “If someone’s not slightly frightened, I haven’t done my job,” she offers, after picking out every single raisin from the pain au raisin she is eating.

The future looks exciting. Oparah is determined to keep stretching herself and have a “Daniel Day-Lewis/Balenciaga dress/Phantom Thread” moment. She’d also love to play a really bad villain. After signing with agents in the US, she is open to giving this a shot, even if the thought of leaving England feels like a betrayal: “I love the UK film industry.”

Related: Dead Hot review – it’s Skins meets Queer As Folk … but way weirder

Right now, the rising star is taking a few moments. She recently went on a solo trip to Lisbon, where she did all the touristy things, went to a club on her own and made friends. Next up, it’s a trip to Greece. What is it, exactly, that she’s looking for?

“I’m relaxing into ‘this’ type of life a bit too much,” she says, hard to hear in a room full of media people schmoozing over eggs and coffee. “So I need a shock to the system to remove all comfort. I think I’ll keep doing that.”

  • Dead Hot is on Prime Video now