Monday 23 September 2019

Meet the other member of the Rocha creative dynasty

Ambitious screen producer Zoe Rocha has had a tumultuous few years, dealing with the breakdown of her marriage and the backlash over an ill-fated casting choice. Here she chats to our reporter about overcoming setbacks, and always taking the advice of her dad, fashion designer John Rocha

Zoe Rocha for Weekend Magazine. Picture: Fran Veale
Zoe Rocha for Weekend Magazine. Picture: Fran Veale
Zoe Rocha. Photo: Fran Veale.
Zoe Rocha photographed in Kelly's Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Fran Veale.
Zoe Rocha with her business partner Ralf Little
The cast of mockumentary series Borderline

Meadhbh McGrath

For a woman who gets by on just four hours' sleep a night, Zoe Rocha is surprisingly fresh and very glamorous.

The daughter of renowned designer John Rocha and Eily Doolan grew up around all the glitz of her father's fashion studio and her stepdad Colm Henry's photoshoots for Hot Press, with music legends like Christy Moore regularly dropping into her childhood home to be snapped.

These days, she's based in London, where she's a serious player in the film and TV industry, working with everyone from Stephen Fry to Carrie Fisher to Chris O'Dowd (on the beloved sitcom Moone Boy), and enjoying dinners out with the likes of Grease star Stockard Channing.

Zoe is recalling her enviable childhood when we are interrupted, mid-sentence, by a pigeon relieving itself on her luggage bag, filled with John Rocha clothes. I'm mortified, until Zoe bursts out laughing and waves her hand: "No airs and graces here!"

Zoe Rocha with her business partner Ralf Little
Zoe Rocha with her business partner Ralf Little

And thus, the ice is broken. After a quick clean with a napkin, we migrate to a sheltered lounge area where Zoe (34) can continue telling me about growing up in Ireland. "My stepdad had a dark room to develop all his prints and a studio in the house," she explains. "Before we moved to Bray, we had a little mews house in Dún Laoghaire, and it was so normal to have everyone from Christy Dignam to Twink popping in to do a photoshoot. It was a really cool, bohemian childhood, because I'd do that and then I'd go to my dad's house and go off to the studio with him, so I've been totally immersed in culture and arts since I was tiny."

Zoe is great company - warm, bubbly and engaged, and she talks freely about her very modern family. Her parents split up when she was just a year old, and she has two siblings on her mum's side, visual merchandiser Zenya and college student Dylan, and another two, chef Max and the celebrated fashion designer Simone, by her dad and his second wife Odette.

"I've always had two different families. I'd go backwards and forwards between both of them, and I had really well-balanced relationships with them," she says.

With the arts so prominent in her family, it was almost inevitable Zoe would pursue a creative career, but it wasn't fashion, music or photography that captivated her.

"I was really into acting, so I did a lot of drama classes and summer courses. I thought it was really glamorous, but then I'd go to castings and never get anything," she says. It didn't bother her too much though - after a brief stint at Trinity College Dublin, she transferred to Bangor University in Wales.

"I'd gone to Trinity and I liked it, but I wasn't living on campus and I still had the same friends from school. I wasn't loving the course and I couldn't see where it would take me eventually so I didn't engage as much," she explains.

Zoe Rocha photographed in Kelly's Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Fran Veale.
Zoe Rocha photographed in Kelly's Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Fran Veale.

"I wanted to go away somewhere, spend three years studying and be involved in societies, and honestly Bangor was the nearest university that wasn't in Ireland that I could go to."

It was at Bangor that she studied film and English, and became president of the student drama society.

"I fell in love with theatre first of all, and I wanted to get work experience in the summers, so my dad introduced me to Michael Garland who ran Grand Pictures," she says. "In the summer I worked as a props assistant on a comedy series in the art department. Then I saw what producers did and thought, 'I want to do that'."

For many of us, the role of a producer is a bit of a mystery - we've seen the title in the credits of films and TV shows, but it's not quite as clear-cut as writing, directing or the other behind-the-camera jobs. Zoe explains that her job involves overseeing a project from the first inkling of an idea right down to the finished product.

"You have to do a little bit of everything. The route to being a producer is different for everyone - some people come through financing, some people come through development, some people learn from being on set. Basically you're the project manager of the whole thing," she explains. "When I have an idea, I'll start developing that idea, meet with agents about writers, and they'll send in samples of their work and I'll read through them and see which is the right one for us. Then I'll try and sell it to a channel to turn it into something. You take it the whole way through the process."

Zoe has a hand in every aspect of development, including the financial side. "There are sleepless nights, because you're also the person in charge of the money, so you have to make sure things come in on budget, and make sure everyone's happy.

The cast of mockumentary series Borderline
The cast of mockumentary series Borderline

"The key is learning how to delegate - if you hire a director, you have to trust your instincts that this is the right director and let them have space to let their vision come forward. It's my dream job. I love it," she beams.

Zoe speaks quickly, with the assured manner of someone who has commanded her fair share of boardrooms, and her love for the job is evident. She admits she's lucky to have enjoyed such a smooth career path.

Immediately out of college, she headed to London to work for famed casting director Ros Hubbard, and got her start on the Jason Bourne films. "When I'd been there two or three weeks, that's when it hit me that this was madness. I'd moved my whole life to London and I didn't know anyone in London. But it was the best thing I ever did, it was such a good proper start to working life for me," she says.

Next, she moved to Sprout Pictures, the film and TV production company run by Stephen Fry and Gina Carter, where she developed comedies like Moone Boy and more arty projects such as the Playhouse Presents series for Sky Arts. A few years ago, Fry offered this gushing praise to the Sunday Independent: "It is absolutely safe to say that we'd be a) bankrupt b) imprisoned c) on the dole or d) the laughing stock of the media world if it were not for the fantastic professionalism, charm, brilliance and flair of Zoe Rocha". But she remains modest.

"Stephen is fantastic," she says. "He has such a wonderful way with words and he's so prolific. Because of the background that I've had, I wasn't really starstruck around him. I'm so used to being in environments where I've been on shoots that Stephen was just another person.

"I don't mean to sound arrogant when I say that," she adds quickly. "Obviously he is such an intellect, so I wasn't thinking, 'He is a really famous person', it was 'Wow, I work with Stephen Fry, I have to really be able to articulate what I want to say properly', because you can't sit in a meeting with Stephen and not be able to express your points correctly."

The real driving force behind the company, she says, was Gina Carter, who set it up with Fry in 2004. "She taught me a lot - she imparted all her knowledge to me really freely and welcomingly, and I'm very lucky that I've had really great women mentors like her and Ros," she says.

It was a steep learning curve but five years later, she started to get itchy feet. "We'd achieved a lot of the things that we wanted to do. I couldn't see how my role could get any better. I'd already made some great shows, I'd already worked with some brilliant writers and really amazing talent, so I felt I wanted to go out and produce things to test myself a bit more. I needed another challenge and it felt like the right time to throw myself in at the deep end and see what I could do," she says.

Through her lawyer, Zoe was introduced to The Royle Family actor and writer Ralf Little, with whom she now runs the London-based production company LittleRock Pictures.

"He always says it was like an arranged marriage," she laughs. "We had the same lawyer, and she felt that we might get on quite well, so we had one meeting and hit it off quite quickly. We had the same aspirations of what we wanted to do with the company."

Just three months later, the pair went into business together, which Zoe acknowledges is a fairly unusual arrangement. "When I talk to people about it, they say it's absolute madness, how can you set up a company with someone you don't know? But he had a lot of energy and was at a similar point where he wanted to have more ownership of where his career was going to go, so it felt like it would work, and it did."

However, things got off to a rocky start - the pair hit a snag with their first project, the now-infamous short film about a rumoured road trip featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"It was the first thing that we were producing through the company, and I wanted to do something that would be beautiful and make a bit of a splash," she winces. "It did happen, different reason…"

She is referring to the furore surrounding the casting of white actor Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson. The King of Pop's appearance had radically changed by 2001 due to the skin pigmentation disorder vitiligo, but the tricky issue of race clouded over the production. When the casting was announced in January 2016, it provoked a huge backlash as critics slammed the film for "whitewashing" the black icon, with one columnist arguing "blackface is still blackface even when portraying a light-skinned African American".

When the trailer was later released in January of this year, it caught the attention of Paris Jackson, the superstar's 18-year-old daughter, who said she was "incredibly offended by it (…) it honestly makes me want to vomit". Sky, the channel due to air the 30-minute film as part of its Urban Myths series, decided to cancel the broadcast.

"It was a pretty sad time, actually," Zoe reflects. "So many people had put so much effort and love into making that show, and it's just beautiful, it's a stunning piece to look at. It's a shame that people didn't get to see that.

"For all the people who were involved, they didn't find anything offensive about it. We didn't get a chance for people to see it and then have a conversation - if they don't agree with the casting of Joe Fiennes, fine, let's talk about it. But it's very difficult to have a conversation in isolation."

She pauses, then adds: "It's interesting, and maybe it's my own naïveté, but when me, Ralf, the writer, the director and Sky sat down and started talking about it, we never in our wildest dreams thought that we would have that sort of backlash against it. Now, people say it was a poisoned chalice - how could you have cast Michael Jackson, who has such love and admiration with his particular fans?

"It was the first project we had commissioned and we wanted to make something which was a fun, respectful, really nice celebration of these characters' lives. That's what the script was and that's what the actors brought to it, but people didn't get to see that or understand that, so it snowballed into something it didn't need to be, I think."

Zoe is a regular Twitter user, and says the wave of negativity online about the casting was hard to stomach.

"Sky was really great in sheltering us from that. I could see all the stuff on Twitter, and I got really upset by it. You see people's comments, and you see they are upset by it, and you want to explain, but you kind of can't. There was a point where my assistant took my phone off me, and said, 'you can't even look at this anymore'. It's not an experience I'd like to do again," she says quietly.

While she's disappointed the film never made it to air, it did give her the opportunity to work with Stockard Channing, who played Elizabeth Taylor, and the late Carrie Fisher, who made a cameo. She counts Channing as a "great mentor" to her - the actress is currently in London for a play and the pair have met up a few times. Of the Star Wars actress, she says: "She was just wonderful, she was one of those iconic characters that I don't know how many of them are going to be around in my lifetime.

"We didn't have much of a budget so we had small little trailers but she didn't need a separate area. We were at a diner out in Essex and she was sitting with her dog with all the extras and taking photos with everyone, it was absolutely wonderful. I'll always be able to say in my career that I got to work with Princess Leia."

Zoe is based in Farringdon, London, where she lives alone with new puppy Harley, a miniature dachshund. She's lived in the UK for 15 years now, but says she hasn't forgotten her roots.

"I still feel Irish, absolutely, that's very important to me. I do love London but it's a big world city and it's a machine that keeps going. You've got to keep true to who you are, so I try to keep a connection with what grounds me. As I'm getting older, I have to keep coming back to Ireland to find that essence of what I'm about," she explains.

Her siblings Max and Simone live in London. "I see them every now and then," she says. "We are close but everyone is so busy. Max is working as a chef and Simone is all over the place with her massive career so it's trying to find time to catch up. It's difficult in London to make arrangements to see anybody, because everyone's so busy."

In 2013, Zoe married her partner of four years, Matt, but the relationship didn't work out, and the pair are now divorced.

"It was really sad. I've never really talked about it, it just happened quite quickly. We sort of slightly fell out of love with each other very quickly and it wasn't what I thought was going to happen," she says with a small smile.

"We were such good friends, and you can try as much as you like when you separate with someone to say you'll be on good terms, but it's like losing a friend. When you come to the end and you can't retain the relationship, it's quite sad."

Life as a young divorcee isn't much different from the average thirtysomething singleton's life, she adds.

"It doesn't even register [that I'm divorced]. Now so many marriages do end that I never even really think about it," she says.

"But I don't really have time for dating. I don't use Tinder or do any online dating. I'm a real romantic in my head; I just think I'm going to walk down the street and randomly bump into somebody, so I'll probably be single forever," she laughs. "I think it is still possible to meet people [in person], you just have to be open and receptive. I've been on a couple of dates, but nobody particularly special yet. Now I've got Harley!"

Earlier this month, Zoe took on a new role as managing director of the new TV branch of the London-based film producer and financier Fyzz Facility. She explains that her focus will be on developing "high-end, international drama", and teases with a handful of upcoming projects featuring A-list talent.

While she is eager to expand her drama slate, citing The Night Manager as the type of show she'd love to make, Zoe is also producing a couple more Urban Myths comedy shorts for Sky at LittleRock, one about Marilyn Monroe on the set of Some Like It Hot and another set backstage at Live Aid.

The company's most notable output to date is Borderline, a mockumentary following the border control staff at a fictional regional airport, which aired in the UK last year and is now available on Netflix. It has drawn favourable comparisons to The Office (the British one), and a second season starts this Wednesday on Channel 5, before coming to Netflix early next year.

The jokes about immigration and security blunders feel particularly apt post-Brexit, which Zoe describes as a happy coincidence. "We were so lucky, it was so topical. When we first started developing it, no one had any idea that things like Brexit were going to happen. By the time it was coming out, the whole political landscape had changed, and it's been very timely," she says.

"For series two, we're trying not to go too political with it, because everything's changing and you don't want it to be outdated - we've got someone coming through with a case of Ebola and a transgender character, so we're trying to touch on things that are in the zeitgeist."

Outside of the show, the Brexit result was a shock for Zoe, and she says there is a lot of murkiness about what the knock-on effects will be for her industry.

"When Brexit happened, it was a very odd experience in London. The next day, everything was very sombre. But everyone has the attitude that you've just got to get on with it and keep on moving," she shrugs.

As well as the day-to-day running of the company, Zoe's work has a social element, so she'll often head out to a screening, a play or a comedy gig after work to network. While she insists it's "still fun" and doesn't feel like work, she admits: "I am trying to spend a little more time at home and pull back a little bit, because I don't know if I can survive on four hours' sleep for the rest of my life."

Remarkably, she gets by on just that almost every night, despite having the bright white eyes, clear skin and lively demeanour of someone who's had a full eight hours.

"I wake up at 5am, then I go to the gym until 7am, come back, have a coffee and get into the office by about 8.30am," she says. "Normally I've got to go to something in the evening, part of my job is having to be social and networking, so I'll do that, get home and check my emails, or if I'm working on a project in America I'll have calls to do at that time. I go to bed relatively late. I just don't need much sleep - I'll get to bed at 12, fall asleep by one, but I'm always glued to my phone, I'm trying to be better at that."

She says she leads a "pretty clean" life and loves the discipline of her personal trainer at the gym, but also enjoys mindfulness, meditation and a bit of t'ai chi.

When we meet, she's fresh off a week at her mum's house in Waterford, going to the beach and horse-riding. "I love the complete contrast with my London life. I think that's what keeps me sane in London - I do love it, but it's such a fast-paced city and it's so hungry all the time that you've got to keep up and I just need to come back here, sit in the garden and read a book," she says.

She always makes time for regular chats with her father, though, and describes him as a great support to her. "My dad is brilliant. He was just a really good dad. Growing up, family was really important and so was his job, and he managed to balance both really well. He's such a good businessman, but he does everything from a really good place, and I've learnt from him that you have to have integrity - every decision you make, you have to do it for the right reasons," she says.

"Any big decisions that I have to make with regards to work, I'll ask him what he thinks and he always gives me the right steer."

She is very close to her mother too, a former designer and yoga instructor, now a dealer in vintage fashion and accessories. "My mum is the type of person I'll call when I'm emotional over anything. She's really straight-talking with me. Sometimes when I ask her for advice she'll tell me the thing I don't want to hear, but I think that's important," says Zoe.

As she gets ready to return to London and to the daily chaos of work, she has one eye on the future. She is enthusiastic about the rise of streaming television, and says she'd love to develop a show for Netflix and figure out how to structure a narrative to be binged.

"Because they work off algorithms and they know there are people who like a certain director or a certain genre, they know the show will be a hit for that demographic, so then they just let people go off and make it," she explains. "Whereas if you're doing shows for ITV, BBC and Channel 4, they have a lot of feedback. Both are nice ways to work - I love working with the BBC because you are really developing together and they know what their audiences want but I'd like to try the Netflix way next."

Zoe is excited to be developing her first feature film, a romantic comedy that would see her relocating to New York for filming. But she has a more permanent relocation in mind, too: Los Angeles.

"I have a real hankering to go to LA now. I'd never want to live there for the rest of my days, but I do like it and in terms of my job, I'd like to test myself there," she says.

"It's like when I was at Sprout and I wanted to throw myself in at the deep end. In the next couple of years, I need to throw myself into something harder and see how I measure up."

Photography: Fran Veale

Make-up: Annie Keogh

Hair: Sara Kelly, both from

The Make Up Bar, 13 Anglesea Street, Temple Bar, Dublin 2, (01) 561 7727,

Location: Kelly's Hotel, 36 South Great George's Street, Dublin 2, (01) 648 0010,

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