As Wayward Pines has become a “guilty pleasure” for me as of late, I have truly attempted to make a careful scrutiny of as many actors as possible who are featured in the various episodes. Quite by chance (or so it would seem), I happened upon the name of the actress who plays one of the most bizarre roles this season–Margaret, the Female Abby. Recently, I was able to ask Rochelle Okoye, the actress who breathes life into this “aberration,” some questions about her extraordinary career, and in so doing, I discovered that not only is she a gifted actress, but she is also a stunt woman of the highest order.
RH: From what I’ve read, you began as a gymnast. Please tell us about that part of your life and how you transitioned from that to stunt work?
RO: I grew up as a gymnast in England. I started when I was two years old because I was always rolling around and climbing on things in my house. So my parents thought it was a good idea to put me in an environment where I could continue to be my monkey playful self, but in the right surroundings. I became Great Britain’s National Champion when I was eleven in 1996, and held that title for three consecutive years. I was a 2000 Olympics hopeful. However, they changed the rules that year, requiring that a gymnast had to be sixteen years old in order to compete, which led me to be one-year shy. I was no longer eligible for Olympic trials and was told I had to wait until 2004. I didn’t really enjoy gymnastics, to be honest. It was more of my parents’ dream and goal for me. I was too good to quit, according to them and my coaches. So when I was no longer eligible, it was sort of a blessing in disguise for me. I saw it as an opportunity to retire from gymnastics, finish high school and carry on with the next chapter of my life. And that’s exactly what I did.
My family and myself moved back to Canada (I was born here), and I retired from gymnastics. I graduated high school a year early, and then graduated university a year early. I went to work in my field of psychology, working with children with developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and behavioural problems. It was extremely rewarding, but I missed being a professional athlete. So I returned to the world of sports. I started training in martial arts and became a professional boxer, and I also trained and competed in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. From there, I fell into my stunt career (no pun intended), and everything took off from there. My ring announcer for my last pro boxing fight was actually a good friend of mine, Paul Lazenby. He introduced me to a stunt coordinator for an indie film at the time who is now one of my good friends, James Bamford. I auditioned for a role, and I booked it. Unfortunately, the project never took off due to funding. But my stunt career took off from there.
Good question. My most memorable experience would be my trip to Cuba. I was stunt doubling for Katrina Kaif in Ek Tha Tiger. We shot part of it in Cuba for one month. I think it was most memorable for me because of the stunt team I went with and the stunts and fear I had to conquer and overcome. That trip was epic. It was hard, rewarding and I learnt so much. I was faced with a few of the hardest stunts I’ve had to do in my career to date. It required skill, mental awareness, body awareness and all around courage. And I had to complete the stunt successfully with no rehearsal. It was one of those stunts, and thankfully, I haven’t had to do too many of those, where you question, “Do I really have to do this?” As a life-long athlete, I know when you start to question yourself and your capabilities, you can spiral down a very negative path and not perform to the best of your ability like you should. Not only was I faced with a stunt I wasn’t able to rehearse that has a lot of risk involved, but my good friend was passing away at home from cancer, and I never had an opportunity to say bye, amongst other personal issues taking place back at home. Oh, and not to mention, I was deathly ill the week before my flight and on the actual flight and the first few days in Cuba. Anyways, I had just really doubted myself and it seemed like everything was going against me, but despite that, I kept pushing through and conquering every obstacle I was faced with. I overcame a lot of adversity on that trip and really proved so much to myself. I proved I am stronger then I ever thought I was. That I am braver and more courageous than I had ever thought I was and that I can conquer ANY obstacle put in my way, undoubtedly. It was different to any other experience I had prior to this that attempted to teach the same lesson. And it may have been because there was serious fear for my life. (laughs) So it makes it that much more meaningful. And just the support and the love I got from our entire stunt team on that trip. I swear to God it wouldn’t have been as memorable and as epic as it had been if any one of those people were different or not there. It was perfect and the bond we formed from that trip can never be broken. We all have that experience to share.
Rochelle’s “Cuba” stunt
What is/was your typical training schedule when you’re doing stunt work?
My typical training schedule, regardless of if I’m stunting or acting, is the same. I’ve followed the same regimen for quite some time. Being a pro athlete your whole life tends to ingrain certain habits into you.
On a day off, I usually wake up around 7am or 8am, depending on how tired I feel. I typically go to the gym and work out for 1.5-2 hours, strength and conditioning. I also might do 30 – 45 min of pad work. And then I’ll try and do anything I want after that, or anything I need to work on depending what’s going on in life at that particular moment. It can be anything from weapons classes, film fighting classes, horse back riding, motorcycle riding, scuba training, driving training, everything and anything. And I also love my nature time. That’s very important to me, especially for relaxing and destressing. Nature is so healing in so many ways. I live next to the ocean and in the most beautiful place in the lower mainland, in my opinion, so that makes getting my nature fill super easy.
From stunt work, how did you transition to acting?
Well, I have always acted. When I started my career in the film industry I was pursuing both. I signed with an amazing agent, Natasha Trisko, at one of the top agencies in Vancouver, BC, Trisko Talent. I was taking acting classes with Shea Hampton consistently and booking small roles here and there in a short period of time, but my stunt career took the front stage of my career and paved the path for me, and I decided to roll with that and see where it took me. In doing so, it limited the time I could apply myself to pursuing and furthering my acting career. I no longer had time to audition and be seen by casting directors because I’m on set and traveling the world, focusing on my stunt career.
In 2013, I had a near-career-ending injury on a TV show. I had to do a stunt in heels and jump ten plus feet into a port a pit (large mat) floating on the ocean and land on my feet. Of course, that posed a serious risk for me, and I foresaw the outcome. Unfortunately, I got put in an uncomfortable situation and did my job and what was required of me, and in doing so, almost ended my entire career and everything I had worked so hard to accomplish. I snapped my foot in half on the landing, and tore all the ligaments, compressed my talus into my tibia and my joint locked up and I had zero ROM for a very long time. To make matters worse, the timing could not have been worse. I was a few days out from jumping on the plane to head to Montreal to double Halle Berry on Xmen: Days of Future Past. I actually had to call the stunt coordinator, Mike Scherer, from the hospital. It was devastating. I was wheel chair and crutch bound for six months and told by my surgeon I may never walk properly again and that my career is for sure over. I had a second opinion by another surgeon, who was a bit more optimistic that at least he could save same of my ankle in the hopes that I could return to doing what I love in some capacity. I had two years of rehab and surgery and me being persistent and stubborn and refusing to give up and accept the outcome of ending my career and not walking again. That was not happening as long as I’m living. So I fought and fought, went through depression, overcame many, many obstacles, faced intense amounts of pain daily and shattering news, hopelessness, it was a nightmare. It took me six months to learn to walk again, two years to run again, and 2.3 years to jump again. I made my comeback in 2015. I was never able to get back functional ROM and as such face chronic pain daily and no longer am able to do some of the things I could do before. But I have adapted and I have made my ankle work for me, and I got my career back. I was healed enough to book Xmen: Apocalypse as Storm’s stunt double, who was portrayed by Alexandra Ship. I also had an acting audition for the role of Plague, Apocalypse’s original horsemen. I ended up booking that role as well and off I went to Montreal for 4 months to complete both roles on Xmen: Apocalypse.
During the filming of Xmen, playing my role of Plague, it awoke the acting bug in me again. And I realized how much I loved and missed acting. To be able to express myself artistically in such a fulfilling way fed my soul like nothing else before. And I thought maybe this is another reason why I injured myself so drastically. Maybe one of the reasons was to put me back on my acting path. So I reached out to my agent and told her my plans and goals. I want to focus more on acting when I’m back and really do this, apply myself to the best of my ability and see where it takes me. So that’s exactly what I did. I completed my job in Montreal, returned to Vancouver, started auditioning again, went back to acting classes with Karen Holness and got myself private coaches and everything started to align itself again. I had three agents from LA reach out to me to ask me for representation, which is a blessing. I now have LA representation with Alex Czuleger at the Green Room Management. I was being requested to be seen for lead roles, which was nerve-racking for me considering the limited experience with acting I had. But after getting my jitters out and putting in the work I became more and more confident with myself and my abilities again. And then came my audition for Margaret on Wayward Pines.
So how did you get the role of Margaret, the Female Abby in Wayward Pines?
This had to be the most interesting/unique audition I have ever had. The casting director was Maureen Webb, and she is just lovely. They weren’t too sure where or what they wanted to do with Margaret at the time of auditioning. So we didn’t get a lot to go on. They emailed us a few days before explaining they weren’t sure how they were going to do the audition process for this character. That maybe they would have a story read, and we would have to be reactive and express every range of emotion from sadness to happiness to empathy. And that she is the queen of the Abbies. That she possesses a lot more cognition than the rest of them, and she is highly intelligent. So I went and did my homework, and I studied season one of the Abbies. I looked at their movement, their body language, their all-around nature, and then I thought, “How can I be different? How can I move differently, appear different, more powerful, more intelligent, more together?” I had to make myself stand out from all the other Abbies and bring something powerful and unique that only I can bring to the table. I showed up at the audition and got invited into the room. Maureen asked to start with a slate and then explained that we were just going to go through a bunch of different scenarios so we can see how I react to each. And it was game on from there. We started with movement, and I instantly transformed into Margaret. It was an incredible audition. They wanted to see my movement. Then they gave me scenario after scenario that would elicit a different emotion and reaction out of me. My emotional range in that room that day went from curiosity, to figuring things out, to happiness, to sadness and tears, to aggression and rage all in a span of ten to fifteen minutes. It was intense to say the least. I had to be able to tell a story without speaking. To be able to tell a story, all through my facial expressions and emotions, is a really fun challenge and quite an interesting process. My audition went extremely well, I gave it my all and put everything I had on the table. I wanted that role so badly. I instantly fell in love with Margaret when they gave me the basis of her, and I knew I could take this character and relate on a level most might not be able to and do her justice. I had amazing feedback from Maureen that day, and I booked the role.
What is it like on the set of Wayward Pines? What is the atmosphere on set?
The set and atmosphere is awesome! Everyone is super nice on Wayward Pines. I am seriously so blessed to work with such an amazing crew and cast. Everyone is on their A-game all the time. First of all, the cast are some of the most amazing actors, and I am seriously one lucky lady to work side by side with them and contribute what I can bring to the show. I am so grateful and have learned something from everyone. And the crew are some of the hardest working and most talented people in the business. It takes a team to make anything amazing! Everyone is amazing–our writers, directors, producers, execs, show runner, cast, crew, can’t say enough good things.
How long does it take you to get into costume/make-up for that role?
Good Question! It takes me about four hours to get ready daily. I was lucky to have two of the top Makeup FX artists in the biz make me into Margaret everyday, Felix Fox and Harlow MacFarlene. Bill Terezaki was the Makeup FX designer who created/designed Margaret’s bad ass look.
So essentially it takes four hours in the days where I’m in the forest not clothed. It requires a chest prosthetic, a face prosthetic, shaving my head every morning, finger prosthetics, and then all the makeup plus the dirt and clay, blood if required. It’s quite the process,.
The days where I’m in the lab, are much easier and a shorter amount of time to get ready. Usually about three hours. I am clothed and clean, so not as much is required. Just the prosthetic and make up.
How do you get into character for such an unusual role?
I am so connected to Margaret that it’s actually not that difficult for me to get into character, surprisingly. My past circumstances in life and upbringing have allowed me to have experiences, that allow me to bring up and pull out the feelings and emotions that are required for my character in that particular scene. If there is anything that having a difficult upbringing has done is given me a wide range of emotion and experience in my actor’s tool belt. The adversity we all face and overcome is a beautiful blessing for many reasons, if you choose to perceive it and apply it as such.
What has been the fan response to your character?
I think I have the most amazing fans EVER!!! Seriously the response from the fans and the studio and my fellow cast and crew have been AMAZING! I am seriously so grateful and blessed for the feedback and responses I have been getting. So much positivity, love and support, its almost overwhelming at times. And it warms my heart and makes me so happy that I did my job so well that people are giving me the amazing responses I have gotten. It’s been an incredible ride, and I honestly can’t be more thankful for it. I am just really happy about it all. You never know what the response will be. Its not an easy thing to tell a story without speaking. And sometimes I found myself often wondering, “I get it, but do others get it? Are others getting what I’m feeling and portraying?” So it’s been very satisfying and gratifying to know that the fans get it and absolutely LOVE Margaret and my portrayal of her. I couldn’t ask for more as an actor. The fans get it, understand it, are captivated by Margaret and want more, which is so important to me. I only want to deliver excellent work, the best I can do. I am just so flattered and grateful for the massive outpouring of love and appreciation for my work. So thank you everyone, from the bottom of my heart!!
Do you have any other upcoming works you can mention?
I do! I have something brewing and in the works that I unfortunately am not at liberty to discuss. And while that’s brewing, you’ll be able to catch me on this season of Arrow, stunt doubling, Karen Holness. Also, there’s a new Netflix Original called, Travelers, coming out soon where I double my good friend, Nesta Cooper. Amongst other projects here and there and juggling auditioning and classes, focusing primarily on acting and crossing my fingers for a season three of Wayward Pines.
Do you have any aspirations to write and/or direct?
I do! I have both. I actually have written my first feature. Based on a true story of a major turning point in my life. I have also written a few shorts. And I am also in the works of writing my memoir of my entire life.
What is one of your “guilty pleasures”? Or what do you like to do in your free time?
I don’t know if they’re guilty pleasures, apart from one that I’m a bit embarrassed to admit to, but we all have one, right? Sometimes, I like to binge watch Keeping up with the Kardashians, if I have the time. I know, I know!!! Like I said we all have one (laughs)! Other than that, I love to be in nature as much as possible, even if that’s just sitting on a rock by the ocean or going for a barefoot mud walk. Yup, I’m a modern day hippie 🙂
Now, I always get intensely ecstatic when sharing an interview in general, but once in awhile, there is one that becomes more special to me than I would have ever dreamed. And with Rochelle, this is one of those meaningful interviews. At one point, I was so overwhelmed and captivated with her responses that I felt as though I wasn’t even worthy to share such an interview, as Rochelle has detailed some of the deepest parts of herself with us in her answers. Furthermore, the woman has so many remarkable skills that it just boggles my mind. Moreover, she lives in gratitude to those who have helped her along the way. She doesn’t look back at the jagged patches in her life as something to engender pity. On the contrary, Rochelle has become immeasurably stronger as a result of every hardship she has endured, and nothing has quenched her indomitable spirit. While she doesn’t live a charmed life (sometimes we think actors do), she is actively pursuing her dreams and witnessing them coming to fruition. Now that I have “met” this phenomenal woman, I see her as a true inspiration and a role model for other young girls and women, no matter the career path they ultimately choose. And her personal memoir–that is something I am so stoked to read that I can only hope that it will arrive on the scene sooner rather than later. In the meantime, be sure that you watch Rochelle on Wayward Pines on FOX every Wednesday night (the season is winding down), and check her out at the links below so that you may be equipped to see this woman’s consummate success (because Rochelle, I KNOW we’re gonna hear from you!).