Meet Lucie Bourdeu and Jonathan Ajayi, the stars of the powerful post-Brexit love story.

The Drifters film still beach

The Drifters

The Drifters film still beach
The Drifters

What do we think about when we think about love? Grand sweeping gestures? Public displays of affection? The burning early throes of passion? Rarely documented is the most important part: the cogs turning as we begin to understand the hums and thrums of a person’s being. What makes up the fibres of them. It is about seeing another person clearly, and – past the veneer of beauty, social constructs and life experience – loving them regardless.

“My life is a matter of life and death. Yours is a matter of pleasure and pain.” About halfway through Benjamin Bond’s sun-soaked directorial debut The Drifters, these words are uttered by Koffee (Jonathan Ajayi), an undocumented Senegalese migrant, to his new lover Fanny (Lucie Bourdeu), a French waitress. Read on paper, it is a sentence that potentially could be loaded with resentment; after all, the ends that Koffee has to resort to as an immigrant trying to survive in a post-Brexit London are gut-wrenching. But here, it is a gentle observation made in order to let Fanny into his world. To remind her that their lives, although they are intertwined, are not the same. The opportunities available to them differ, the stakes are uneven, their freedoms are not the same – yet in that in difference, he still loves her.

After the pair meet at an English class in London, Koffee sweeps Fanny away on a romantic getaway trip to the seaside. But what he doesn’t tell Fanny is that he is also fleeing for his life after a robbery – in exchange for an Irish passport – gone wrong. Languid and imbued with the idyllic scenes of an eternal summer, The Drifters is a film that marries together the colourful cool of French Wave Cinema with a blaring indignation when it comes to topics such as migration and racism.

We caught up with its stars Lucie Bourdeu and Jonathan Ajayi and talked love in a post-Brexit world and the resilience of humanity…

Lucie Bourdeu

Lucie Bourdeu in The Drifters

Lucie Bourdeu in The Drifters

Lucie Bourdeu in The Drifters
Lucie Bourdeu in The Drifters

Hi Lucie, how have you been?
Hello! I’m pretty fine considering it’s a rough time. Actually everything changed, especially in Paris. The hardest thing is every cultural institution is closed and I miss them so much. I miss cinema, theatres, museums, I can’t wait for everything to open again. A lot of things have changed with work, a lot of projects are cancelled and now we have to do audition by Zoom… I hate it.

Congratulations on The Drifters – will you tell us how you first heard about and got involved with the film?
Thank you very much! I’m happy to be part of The Drifters. One year before the shooting, I was in Paris and my agent called me to do some test on Zoom. I passed the test on and waited for the answer and a year later they call me and say I have to come to London to meet the director Ben. When I read the script I was so excited about the project, about the storyline itself and about the character Fanny.

What drew you to the character of Fanny? She’s daring, spontaneous and has such a thirst for life – could you relate to her?
I totally felt in love with Fanny, she was exactly how you describe it and I loved it. I think we have a lot in common but I think she is a little bit more self-destructive than I am, but I loved playing that. I think we have the same love of the cinema.

With Fanny and Koffee, I loved that we see two people trying to make lives for themselves in different ways – both ways that could potentially be seen as shameful to their families, but the film instead highlights their ingenuity and drive to make things work – did you love that about your character? 
That is exactly what I loved about the relationship they had. They are pretty alone at the end, even when they are together and the fact that we are totally into their fantasy is the thing I loved, as even if they are homeless and trying to make things better and everything works because they are in a mood. They see what they want to see. And the fact that the countryside is so beautiful, so sunny, this adds something to their fantasy.

It’s so interesting the obsession that Fanny has with Tarantino – what do you think this means for her?
I think the obsession of Fanny for Tarantino is an escape and Tarantino’s films made her dream and escape. She wants to live strong things and I think Tarantino is a filmmaker with a lot of emotions and actions and I think that’s what she’s looking for. I think she loves Tarantino’s films because of the female characters too, they are strong, beautiful and violent women.

How was it doing all the dance scenes?
The dance scenes were the best. I love to dance and I love this dance especially, I learnt it when I was twelve years old I think? It was a part of the audition to show them how I dance and at one point we were in a scene, on the dock, and I say to Ben, this is a beautiful landscape, can I dance? And he said yes of course and he took the time to let me dance this dance on the dock. There is a big place for dancing and music in the film and I think it brings a lot to the scenes and the narrative.

What was the most challenging scene to film?
The sex scenes were pretty challenging actually, but there is one scene where Jonathan is talking to me near to the sea and I discover the fact that he was lying to me from the beginning and that was really challenging because of the emotion of the scene. It was all improvisation, so we really had to feel what was happening.

What was the most powerful scene to film?
One of the most powerful for me was the scene when I said to Koffee, I’m ready for my close-up and he’s holding my hand while I’m on the edge of a huge cliff and I love the dialogue and the scene and the fact that I’m holding his hand. It was a really powerful moment and I loved it in the film.

The film really explores the reality of immigrants and the desperation of trying to make a better life for themselves – what do you think the film is trying to say about Brexit?
I think Brexit is a context and I hope people will remember the love story most, even if it’s a really important context like Brexit. I hope it will make people think about discrimination. We are two kinds migrants and we live the same problems of Brexit.

How did the storyline impact you?
The story made me question myself about love, about immigration, about loneliness actually too. They are really two lonely people, meeting in a certain moment of their life and try to escape. The love story is not linear too, it’s really complicated and I loved it, like in life. The fact that Fanny is changing her mind and doesn’t really know what she wants. I love the fact the storyline is not linear and you don’t know what is going to happen and the fact is you’re always surprised. I loved it.

What do you hope the film brings to your viewers?
I hope the film will make people question themselves, like it did for me – about love, about immigration, about England! I hope people that have negative preconceived ideas about migrants, about young people too, will change their minds or even just question themselves. I hope people will question themselves about freedom and love too.

Jonathan Ajayi

Jonathan Ajayi in The Drifters

Jonathan Ajayi in The Drifters

Jonathan Ajayi in The Drifters
Jonathan Ajayi in The Drifters

Hi Jonathan, how are you?
I’m doing well thanks! Just taking things day by day and trying to stay grounded. It’s really easy to hide under the covers these days and forget that it’s still possible to engage with life despite the restrictions, so I’ve been trying to work out who I am during this season and slowly gearing my mind to whatever life has in store next. My faith is a massive part of my life so I’ve spent a lot of my time exploring it and living in the peace it offers me. Creative fulfilment is also very important to me so I pursue that daily be that in books, films or podcasts. These times have impacted me in the sense that I’m learning that my identity is not tied to my work, ideas of success or living life at a certain pace, but it’s in the substance of the things I carry in my heart. I’ve learnt to accept the change of pace in world and actually think I’m happier now than I have been in a long time. It’s a still a journey, but I’m glad I’m on it.

Congratulations on The Drifters – will you tell us how you first heard about and got involved with the film?
I was in the second term of my final year of drama school and my agent at the time sent me the audition through to read. I think it might have been like my 5th audition ever so I was very nervous (it was back in 2018 so I can’t really remember)  I remember reading the script, having a few conversations about it, then going in to audition for Isabella Odoffin, the casting director. After that initial meeting I had a chemistry read where I met Lucie and I guess the rest is history.

What drew you to the character of Koffee, someone who is really trying to make a better life for himself, but is a die-hard romantic – could you relate to him?
Yeah there’s a bit of a Romeo in me to be honest so I found that aspect of his character very exciting to explore and invest in, but as you say he is someone trying to make a better life for himself, and that was a journey that felt large and I knew that it would require a lot of me. I’m attracted to part that I know will grow me personally, challenge my humanity and produce in me greater empathy. The life of an undocumented immigrant wasn’t something I’d explored in detail before and being a man of African descent myself I had a personal affinity to a lot of the themes in the film. 

With Fanny and Koffee, I loved that we see two people trying to make lives for themselves in different ways – both ways that could potentially be seen as shameful to their families, but the film instead highlights their ingenuity and drive to make things work – did you love that about your character? 
Yeah I did, Koffee has this very admirable quality of being able to smile through the storm and dig deep enough inside of himself to produce whatever is needed to survive. That such a powerful quality and the result of intense suffering in his past, but to see such a man being gentle, thoughtful and falling in love was something that  I loved giving myself over to during the shooting of the film. 

I loved the line you say to Fanny which is “my life is a matter of life and death, and your life of pleasure and pain”, and it really illustrates the gulf that money and opportunity creates – do you think the character of Koffee resents Fanny in a way?
I loved that moment in the film too – that whole scene was improvised by Lucie and myself so I’m very happy that moment resonated with you.  I don’t think Koffee resents Fanny in a way, I think in that moment he is reminding her that their lives, though intertwined are not the same. The stakes are different, their freedoms are different, yet in that in difference, in that danger he loves her. I was really trying to make her see me clearly in that moment whilst illustrating that I love her. 

The end scene which sees two black men wrestling in the water (after you explaining the history behind the stereotype of black people being able to swim) is so powerful – how was it for you to portray it?
It was a pivotal moment for me as an actor. It was the usual prep, the headphones in the ears, the playlist on, the lines memorised, but with this other element that you don’t usually have to work with (untamed nature) I was very aware that for Koffee this moment was a reckoning of sorts.  He has spent the movie avoiding water because of the pain associated with it. The ocean to him is a graveyard, a place where people fail, but in this moment he has to conquer the grave and fight for the life that he has chosen to live. Love is the reason behind his strength in this scene, so I had to stay grounded to that root despite the violence of the scene. It was a very complex moment for me personally in ways that I can’t quite explain,  but it was an unforgettable scene to shoot and I feel very blessed to have been able to shoot a scene like that. 

What was the most challenging scene to film?
The scene where Koffee and Fanny meet. He’s been through so much in life and to find him in such a mundane setting (a classroom) I found it hard to play the lightness of a school exercise. I was thinking, but this guy has crossed oceans, scaled barriers, been all over the the world and here he is terrified to talk to this girl. It was strange. That’s what love does to people though isn’t it? You lose yourself in the face of this really powerful attraction. Well to me anyway! 

What was the most powerful day of filming?
The day where Koffee and Doog meet face to face in the ocean. Like I said before, it was a powerful, emotional moment in the film for the character and for me as an actor. It was really really unforgettable!

And it really observes a system that is designed to make immigrants fail – what do you think about this?
I think it observes the resilience of human will in spite of a failing system. Koffee like many of the undocumented migrants in this country have to make ends meat and find a way to stay a float. Hence the drifting. It’s one of the things I admire most about him as a character, and it was an honour to explore that reality. I hope I did it justice. 

How did the storyline impact you?
There is so much i could say, but the main thing that has stuck with me since shooting the film is the reasons why people make these perilous journeys to England and Europe. It’s not always running from war torn conflicts… sometimes it’s as simple as wanting to finish a degree or become a footballer. The term expat is only attributed to people of a certain demographic, people like Fanny, but the Koffee’s (Koffee) of the world are economic migrants, having to risk their lives for the same things. It showed me that dreams and reasons are no less simple than mine and their necessity to fulfil them are no important than mine. To achieve something in life is not unique to people in the west. 

I loved the twist at the end, where someone helps them who never previously saw their worth – what do you think the film is trying to say here?
Never to judge a book by its cover. That people are unpredictable at the best – and it’s possible for anyone to fight through their prejudices if they want to. I do wonder if there’s any guilt in that decision (I won’t spoil it, it when you watch it I’m sure you’ll know).

What do you hope the film brings to your viewers?
It’s been a really tough year in the world and there are so many things that this film can bring to the viewers for example conversations, awareness and enlightenment, but to be honest all I want is people to enjoy it, and be taken in by a film about love. 

THE DRIFTERS is released in virtual cinemas from 2 April and on demand 5 April 2021

Maybelle Morgan