Lashana Lynch is cocooned in a full-length padded coat and beanie, looking inconspicuous as a friend checks her into the well-known London members’ club we have arranged to meet in, then leaves. Lynch sees me and grins, yet I can’t help but picture the 36-year-old actor axe-kicking me in the face. That was more her speed with a history-making turn as M16 agent Nomi, the spy who takes over the 007 code number in Daniel Craig’s 2021 swansong Bond film No Time to Die. Today, though, she’s unassuming. So much so that no one besides the reception manager has recognised her. No big deal – except now there are no club members in our party and so we’re flouting house rules.
Lynch goes back and forth with a server after trying to order some peppermint tea without a membership card (“Um, do you have a name?” we’re asked). Her friend calls to share the details we need. But you can’t use a phone here, so she can’t answer. Finally, after a manager is consulted and we agree to “settle the tab straight away”, the tea is on its way. That was awkward. “This feels like … Are we back in the 1960s?” Lynch says, the subtext being that we are two young Black women feeling a little like intruders. “It just feels slightly oppressive. It’s fine, though. I just won’t do this again.”
Maybe Lynch just looks too regular outside the context (and costume) of her star-making action roles. She took on single-mother fighter pilot Maria Rambeau in Captain Marvel, her 2019 breakout. There was Bond, of course, culminating in Lynch’s Bafta rising star win in early 2022. Then, months later, as barefoot warrior Izogie in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical epic The Woman King, she swung her machete through pummelling fight-scene choreography with grit and fluidity (in an ensemble cast led by Viola Davis). She capped the year off as Miss Honey in Matilda the Musical, showing off her sweet singing voice, and briefly returned to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2023 for a shocking post-credits cameo in The Marvels.
Next up, Lynch will play reggae matriarch and singer Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s wife, in the forthcoming biopic Bob Marley: One Love. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green with Kingsley Ben-Adir in the title role, the film focuses on a few years in the 1970s to tell the lesser-known stories of the man who became a legend in the decades after his death, aged 36, in 1981. It was shot in Jamaica, from which country Lynch’s family originate.
Lynch grew up in the London areas of Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush, and has said that her class identity inspired her work ethic. She realised there were differences between her and some of her friends at primary school: they had au pairs (“I didn’t know what an au pair was!”) and their families went on the sort of regular weekend excursions she thought were reserved for proper holidays. “Back then, it was the size of friends’ houses and the very casual way I might be told, ‘Oh, you like that thing? Take it. You want a teddy? I can buy that for you.’” Lynch is magnetic to talk to: wide-eyed and husky-voiced. As an adult, her tendency to strive sometimes made her push herself too far. “You want to just keep going. I especially do, being from a working-class background. You want to just” – she clicks her fingers – “go-go-go. You don’t wanna miss out on anything, you don’t wanna let anyone down.”
She is a grafter. Early on in her career, while appearing in Fast Girls, a 2012 film about rival track athletes, and a 2015 stage production of Educating Rita, she worked day jobs to pay her rent. While temping as an NHS receptionist, she was cast as Rosaline Capulet in Still Star-Crossed, executive-producer Shonda Rhimes’s 2016 period drama about what happened next to the families of Romeo and Juliet. Without the safety net of a wealthy background, Lynch had to be strategic.
“I got the pilot. Shot the pilot. Came back home, still couldn’t afford my rent or to pay off my credit card, was in the minus in my overdraft,” she says. In the months-long gap between the pilot and shooting the rest of the series, “I took my per diems from the show,” as in the living-expenses allowance paid to cast and crew on location. “I was shooting so much that I hadn’t been able to spend them, and I brought them back to London, exchanged them into pounds, then bought groceries and things. Yeah, it was bad.” She laughs drily. “You’ve gotta decide: am I buying eggs, or putting money on my Oyster card? And I had to make that decision many a time.”
This month, actor Peter Capaldi spoke out about the lack of opportunities for working-class actors these days, saying “there’s less and less of my lot in the arts”, and blaming “gatekeepers” who have left the industry full of “tedious” actors who “are not the real thing”. The share of working-class actors, musicians and writers has halved since 1970, according to social mobility research from 2022. Meanwhile, a 2021 study found that actors from middle-class backgrounds were often found to self-identify as working class in order to build up a kind of mythology about their origins.
But, for Lynch, growing up in a loving home that wasn’t wealthy is no fiction. “Class is always important to discuss, as the rise in an artist’s career can make it appear as though they came from said level and just moved across – when that’s absolutely not my experience. My working-class background has always kept me prepped with tools that have protected me in the industry,” she says, tools such as resilience, drive and an ability to push forward after being told no. Until things change, says Lynch, “in true working-class fashion, [rejection can] drive so much hunger that I’ve seen projects from people that have come out of the many nos they were told. That sometimes sends out a louder message to the decision-makers.”
Lynch is the youngest of three children, and the only daughter. “I want to say I naturally grew up as a tomboy, but, of course, with the influence of two older brothers, nurture had to have played its part,” she says. “I was outspoken in different ways, not so much in others. Being the younger sister, I felt protected. But I didn’t feel like my brothers needed to protect me.” Her mother worked in housing and her dad in social care. Lynch spent a lot of time with her maternal grandmother, too, and credits the strong women around her for shaping her personality. She tosses out casual assessments of self-belief as we chat – “I deal with my stuff instantly” or “I know I can always find a solution to a problem very quickly”. And so her early years seem a good place to start to figure out how she got this grounded.
Would she barrel into the first day of school, or hang back? “Oh, it was anxiety-y-y. For the first day of anything,” she chuckles. “I always feel like I’m at the first day of school when I enter new environments. I’m like, ‘This is what it felt like when I was four, at nursery, and they weren’t listening to me.’” Lynch had eczema, and special provisions needed to be made to avoid flare-ups. “Like soy milk instead of cow’s milk, when soy milk wasn’t so great in the 90s.” This meant she had to describe the skin condition to sceptical adults. “I learned how to use my voice to protect myself early on, though I wasn’t the outspoken, confident person I am today. Definitely not.”
Her own Miss Honey, a supportive former deputy headteacher whom she still calls Miss Amable, reminded Lynch of how that has changed. “I met up with her off the back of Matilda and she said, ‘You really wanted to sing, and you really wanted to be on stage but you were so shy! And we had to access that through different ways.’” Amable brought Lynch out of her shell.
On the Matilda set, Lynch had to be Amable-like herself. As fearsome headteacher Miss Trunchbull, Emma Thompson stomped around so convincingly that Lynch felt she needed to protect the child actors. “There were hundreds of children just watching Emma walk around with prosthetics and these teeth and these massive boots, and she was so unbelievably mean as this character,” Lynch told the Wrap in 2022. She tells me her co-star was actually “so warm and motherly towards the children after we cut. Working with so many children in one space, it’s important that they know when we’re playing dress up, so to speak, and when we’re ourselves.”
When I ask her whether the big-name actors she has co-starred with, from Daniel Craig to Viola Davis, have taught her anything, she says: “They have always given me the space to learn and just be in my own way. If there’s anything I have learned from them, it’s that no matter how experienced you are, you’re always having a first-time experience. The first-day-of-school vibes are real for everybody.” She says she was encouraged to hear that they suffered from nerves. “Many of them aren’t too shy to tell you their fears, or the fact that they don’t know something.”
Lynch’s family was happy for her to explore singing and acting when she was a child without necessarily lining up a plan-B career. She attended Sylvia Young theatre school at weekends and later the Arts Educational Schools in Chiswick. She noticed then that being of Jamaican descent shaped her sense of home in particular ways. “A lovely, plush kitchen with a Dutch pot in it,” she says chuckling, or a bowl filled with plantain on the counter at all times.
And, of course, Bob Marley’s music was present; his global success personally significant.
Lynch’s earliest memories of the Marleys are of her doing chores while listening to Bob Marley and the Wailers on full blast. “Which is why I like cleaning now. Literally,” she says, laughing. “Cleaning is not a chore to me. Because on the weekends, playing their music – along with many other reggae legends, of course – was a spiritual experience.”
How does it feel to have taken on Rita Marley, such a well-known public figure from Jamaica? Daunting? “Mad, mad, mad, mad. So mad. And I’ll probably say that for ever.” A pause. “A lot of people ask you, ‘Are there any roles you’d love to play? What’s your dream role? What’s your dream genre?’ And there are certain things I don’t think about, that I don’t consider.” One of which was the Marley family. “I never imagined, ever, ever, ever imagined, playing Rita. I just … as you can tell, I’m still trying to put my finger on how I feel, beyond honoured and grateful.”
Rita and two of her children with Bob, Cedella and Ziggy, and Ziggy’s wife, Orly, are among the film’s producers. As soon as Lynch got the part, she says: “My first question was: where is Rita and when can I fly to her? I had to make that happen.” Rita welcomed Lynch into her home, twice, joined at points by Cedella, and Rita’s daughter Sharon (Bob was her adoptive father), who brokered the meeting. “And when I came in, it was like – I don’t know, this is very dramatic but – a version of heaven,” she laughs, “where there’s a god-like, queen-like ethereal figure sitting way in the distance, with their back to you.” Lynch put down her things, and went to freshen up before going to greet Rita, “and Sharon said, ‘Mum said she can already see that you have the energy. She’s so glad that you’re here.’” Lynch puts her hand to her throat, and recreates her stage-whispered, wide-eyed “Thank you” in response.
They ate home-cooked meals and talked for hours. “We laughed about young love and reminisced about memories that seemed to be incredibly vivid and visceral,” Lynch says. “There are obviously a lot of interviews with her. There’s her book, which I’ve read, but there’s nothing like feeling the connection with her.” Lynch wasn’t so much sitting down and taking notes on, say, the way Rita speaks or sits; she was looking for something a bit looser on which to build her interpretation. In the film, the Marley matriarch is the backbone of the story, Lynch tells me. “Against all odds, she was able to withstand while remaining graceful. Not an easy thing to do.”
Later, when shooting, Lynch used their time together to dig into her character; Ziggy and Cedella were also on hand to give her and the cast on-set advice. “I’m so glad that they were by our sides to answer all our questions. Things like, ‘What should her bangle look like?’ and, ‘Is the head-wrap OK?’ All of those things. But also whenever I questioned myself, I just tapped into Rita’s energy that I’d been able to sit with for hours at a time. Sometimes I don’t even know if I made the right decision, but I know that it felt like the right decision.”
A couple of weeks after wrapping One Love in early 2023, Lynch shaved her head. It felt like a positive way to shed the role, for which she had worn a wig. A head shave is one thing, but what else does she do to decompress after a tough gig? “Usually I don’t speak to anybody,” she says, deadpan. “Usually I just go quiet. Not ‘phone off’, but less phone time, and I give myself as much time as I think I need. When the stuff is out, and I can just sit in myself again.” Mostly, she’s just learning to give herself a break between jobs. “In my 20s, I didn’t believe I needed much time – maybe a few days? And now I’m like, ‘I need six months,’” she says, pursing her lips. “Give me six months, and I’ll be fine.”
It sounds as if she toggles between extremes: intense work, then powering down rather than blowing off steam. To get to this point, she had to figure out how to fight her own corner. Lynch remembers a ballet teacher who thought she had bad posture because of the curve of her back into her bum. “I was so aware of my Blackness, or my melanated-ness, because of how different my body was. Which a lot of older Caucasian women wouldn’t consider when just telling you to ‘stand up straight’. And I mean, look, I have very great posture,” she smiles, adjusting in her chair. Her teacher wasn’t impressed, and Lynch didn’t challenge her. “That was one example of me not learning early on how to utilise me, instead of being used. I was used, in that moment, because this white teacher didn’t understand, and took it out on me.” Lynch quit ballet not long after, when she was about seven, moving to track and field and netball.
Being an active child and teen primed Lynch for physically taxing roles. She did her own stunts in The Woman King. She flings her arms out while telling me about the move that most challenged her. “I had to run in a line – like, what’s the event? A long jumper or a high jumper, I guess – then jump on a man’s back like a bear, roll on my back with him still intact, land on my feet and then land with a strong pose at the end.” She pulls her arms into an angular X. “And I laughed my freaking head off. How … do you think it’s possible for me to jump, like a bear, on a man? And stay there!” But she did – and it made the opening scene of the film. “It’s actually mad. I’m reliving it now as I’m speaking to you,” and she chuckles to herself. “I mean, Gina [the director] is one of the most wonderful humans on this Earth, but I still won’t really forgive her for asking me to do that.” A proper cackle now.
Undergoing ninja training for No Time to Die, doing live stunts in The Woman King – they all initially sounded impossible. Lynch says directors seem to see her and think, “Go on – I bet you can do this.” When she was asked to skid along a balcony floor on her shoulder while being shot at, in No Time to Die, “my life flashed before my eyes. So it’s not a challenge in that I don’t believe I can do it. It was more, ‘How do you trust me to do it? It did not make any sense to me, it did not compute in any way. Until I did it. And I thought, ‘Wow, that was actually a much easier barrier to break than I’d anticipated.’ Really easy.”
Looking back on the girl she was, Lynch realises she dragged herself towards this confidence rather than seeing her introversion as an asset. “I’d taken it as: fight through the shyness, fight through the anxiety, so I can get to the point where I’m confident.”
She was told by the No Time to Die stunt team that she was the only person who didn’t get injured during training and filming. Her tendency to fight through both physical strain and niggling self-doubt seems to have paid off. “I utilise so much from my childhood now, because it’s literally in my bones to move in an athletic way,” she says, before returning to ballet. “Also, thank God for that teacher. She’s there probably doing the same thing, and I’m out here like, ‘Cheers for that.’” She raises her cup, an imaginary clink made. She smiles, pausing for a beat. “Cos now I get to kick people in the face on screen.”