Monday 18 December 2017

Zoe Rocha: Her next big production

Zoe Rocha – daughter of renowned Dublin designer John, but a serious player in her own right in film and TV – talks to Barry Egan about her impending marriage to actor Matt Tester

Rhett Butler: Did you ever think of marrying just for fun?

Scarlett O'Hara: Marriage, fun? Fiddle-dee-dee. Fun for men you mean.

Zoe Rocha has watched Gone With The Wind, her favourite film of all time, every Christmas since she was a child. "Usually on my own and marvelling at Scarlett's enigmatic persona and pure determination to succeed," the equally determined young film producer Zoe says. Now 29, she is getting married later this year to her beau Matt Tester, for mutual fun and love, in a big ceremony in London. "My father is making the dress," she says over lunch in a Spanish restaurant in London.

Her father is, of course, internationally feted designer John Rocha. She says she isn't sure yet whether her photographer step-father Colm Henry will be taking the pictures at the wedding.

Born on February 6, 1983 in Dublin, Zoe Rocha is an electric chatterbox overloaded with joie de vivre. She puts stuff up on her Twitter page such as quotes from George Bernard Shaw ("We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing" – "You have to agree with Bernard Shaw," she says) and a picture of a giant pink phone box with Love Life in it: "I'm going to be making all my phone calls from this place," Zoe tweets. The day after I met her in London, she goes to Vera Wang to try on dresses "for fun" with her pal Lucy Tate (they hung out in Hollywood last summer with Marilyn Manson – Zoe met him at the MTV Awards in Dublin when she was 15 – and had dinner with Lisa Marie Presley).

F Scott Fitzgerald said youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness. Zoe Rocha has that beautiful madness in spades. She is self-deprecating and very cool with it. "Realised I have to not eat, exercise like a mad woman for the next 11 months to look good in a wedding dress! Had a top day though" the wonderfully non-size-zero beauty tweets over the weekend.

It is not unduly surprising that Zoe's most cherished book is Wuthering Heights. "I don't think a more passionate love affair has ever been captured in literature," she says as she orders tapas and wine in the chic restaurant in Goodge Street. (She is, also, half an hour early. "It's good to be early," she giggles. "You can't be late!")

Zoe met Matt by accident one night at a Pete and The Pirates gig in Coco in Camden. She had lost her friend and he had lost his, and they bumped into each other. Zoe said that they should go for coffee sometime. "It sounds like a Woody Allen movie," she laughs. "Midnight In Camden." He texted her the next day, they went for the coffee and, says Zoe, "it went very nicely from there". Their first proper date was a long walk along the South Bank. "I had never been very good at dating," she adds. She had two long-term relationships before that, of two years each. "I met this very nice boy when I was in school in Dublin doing my sixth year. We stayed together while I went over to Wales. He was lovely if slightly intense."

How would he have described you?

"'She was lovely if slightly intense'," Zoe says with a laugh. "He was very helpful in getting me over to Wales," she says in reference to her move to university in Wales when she was 20. "Actually, if it hadn't been for him, I don't know if I'd have been as brave. He would come over and see me every weekend."

And presumably she broke his heart?

"I did. I haven't spoken to him since."

Her second and final long-term relationship before meeting her fiance was an Irish guy she met in third year at uni in Wales. He was the president of the drama society before Zoe took over: "He was an actor. The relationship fizzled out when I moved to London and he moved to Australia."

"Matt and I just connected," she adds. "He just got me. I remember the boyfriend who moved to Australia saying to me when we broke up – 'You will never be happy because you will always want more'. And I will always want more. Matt understands me and understands it as a positive thing. Matt is an incredible guy.

"We're together four years now and we are completely mad about each other," Zoe says. They got engaged in Venice just before Christmas. Matt does music supervising and composing for films. They live together in a small, open-plan flat in Clerkenwell; she has photographs taken by her stepdad of Tom Waits, Bono and The Edge and Rory Gallagher on the walls. She grew up in the dark room of her stepdad, in Dun Laoghaire in Co Dublin. (Colm and her mother, designer Eily Doolan, got together after Eily and John had split up.)

As a young child, she'd sit on the floor in the near-pitch blackness as he developed photographs of his famous clients like U2 and Christy Moore. She can remember the latter calling in one afternoon when she was six for a shoot. Zoe also spent lots of days going out on shoots with him. "I've known Colm since I was two or three," she recalls.

I ask her if it was from Colm that she inherited the desire to go into film producing. "I think it is a combination of everything," she says, "because I have only ever had creative people in my life. My dad was a fashion designer. Colm was a photographer. My mother was a fashion designer," adding that Eily is now a yoga teacher. "So I grew up with all that being normal. I think having those creativities around was inspiring. It made me want to do something.

"I think there has to be an element of me growing up and having these beautiful images by Colm all around the house," she continues. "Colm is not like a 'shoot and take' photographer. He spends so much time thinking about the pictures. It is very much a process for him. I think I took a lot of that from him.

"And also my dad is such a fantastic businessman," she says referring to John, "that I managed to take elements of that and push it."

Asked what she inherited from her mother, she says: "An attention to detail and organisation. My mum is the most organised person I know. And, actually, as a producer, it is the best skill to have."

Zoe, who chuckles that she wants to win a Bafta by the time she is 30 and an Oscar by 40, has executive produced everything from Down by the River with Hugh Laurie for ITV to Little Cracker with Alison Steadman for Sky Arts to Playhouse 2011 with Emma Thompson. She is currently working with, among many others, Kylie Minogue on a black comedy called Hey Diddly Dee for Sky.

Zoe lived with her mum and Colm in Dun Laoghaire until she was seven, when they moved to Delgany, and then Bray. By this time, Colm and Eily had added to their family with the arrival of Zenya – now 20 – and Dylan, now 17.

When Zoe was 19, living in her first flat in an old church in Portobello, she went to Trinity College to study classical civilisation and French literature. "I didn't know what I wanted to do, and I just always wanted to go to Trinity. I thought I'd go to university and I'd experience what that is like for a year. I realised classical civilisation wasn't my path really," she recalls. "I started doing work experience for RTE for the series Stew with Michael Garland, who is now co-producing Moone Boy with us, which is very exciting.

"So off the back of Stew, I fell in love with the production side of things and realised there was no point in me staying at Trinity to do this course. It was not going to take me ultimately where I wanted to go."

She transferred to university in Bangor in Wales where she did English literature and film studies. "My family would say that going to North Wales was the making of me," she enthuses. "It was going away from everything that I knew was comfortable and going to somewhere really remote."

The population of the town, Zoe explains, is about 35,000 when the students are there and about 10,000 when they're not. It separates into lower Bangor, where everyone speaks Welsh – if you walk into a bakery, she claims, and speak English, they will just ignore you. "In upper Bangor, there are student houses. It was really amazing. The house that I lived in, Danny Boyle had randomly moved in," she says of the director of Trainspotting.

Zoe is now head of production/executive producer at Sprout Pictures, Stephen Fry's independent film and television production company that she joined in January 2009, in Foley Street in London.

She is responsible for the company's overall business and production strategy across both film and television – overseeing all the company's business affairs including the drafting, negotiating and reviewing of all option and talent agreements.

She is quite the ambitious young go-getter; during our lunch, a document is delivered by her office to our table. Stephen Fry is evidently taken with his young protegee: "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, who has kept us solvent, optimistic and productive without ever playing the Financial Tyrant.

"She has always understood that a creative enterprise needs room to be creative, but within financial realities. She has never held those realities over our heads, however, but always sought to find the best solutions that keep us honest and professional and creative. We all adore her and salute her," the charismatic Mr Fry told me.

Before joining Sprout, Zoe worked as a business affairs executive at Hanway Films, closing finance on projects such as Becoming Jane and Brideshead Revised. Before that, she worked for Hubbard Casting, where she was involved in the production of Taggart and The Bourne Ultimatum. As an indication of her ambition and drive, Zoe, while working for Hubbard during the day, did a law course in the evenings in Waterloo two nights a week. "To be a good producer, having an understanding of legals is great and how to talk that language," she explains.

"Ros [Hubbard] really mentored me and taught me. She taught me that this industry is tough and London is tough," Zoe says. "And you have to be on your game all the time and work hard.

"Everyone tells me I work too hard. I'm a perfectionist. I think things just should be done properly. It's because of my parents. My mum and my dad – and Colm and Odette," Zoe says in reference to John's second wife, Odette Gleeson. "Everything they have all done ... I mean, you can't do something half-heartedly. It has made me strive to do more, because they have all done so much. I want to do as much as they did."

She has a support network of friends and family in London. "I have got my sister here – Simone – and Max, who is also based in London." Zoe is three years older than Simone and six years the senior of Max, the two grown-up children of John and Odette. "Simone moved over to London years ago to study at St Martins College of Art and Design. I've always known her. "

This is a testament to the way Zoe – and, of course, Simone – were brought up. "I would spend every second weekend in my dad's house in Ranelagh. Some people who have divorced parents talk about their 'step-sisters' or 'step-brothers' or 'half-sisters'. For me it was never like that. I saw them all as my sisters and brothers. There was never any divide. I would spend Christmas Day with my mum but I would go to my dad for St Stephen's Day. They managed it in a well balanced way."

I interviewed John Rocha in 2002 for the Sunday Independent. He was frank about the immediate aftermath of his marriage break-up with Eily Doolan in the early Eighties in Dublin, when Zoe was a baby.

"It's like everything else," he said then, "you know you're looking back and you're wishing it never happened, but it happened and you had to move on and you tried to cope with it the best you can. Also, you see, looking back, this was 20 years ago. Ireland was a very different country then.

"I know people who thought I was the worst in the world. They've done it themselves since then. They've left their wives. In fact, they didn't even look after their kids as well as I have done. But at the time I was the worst in the world because I was the first one who decided: 'Okay, it doesn't work'."

"It is so normal now," Zoe says, "even if back then it was unusual for people to be separated. But now it is unusual actually to have a nucleus of a family who stays together all the way through. It is normal in school to hear kids say: 'These are my two dads.' I remember when I was in school, my primary school, Aravon outside Bray, there were only three kids in my school who had divorced parents."

The following day she posts on her Facebook page: "Skipping jazz class at Pineapple Studios because I have to have my 'Wedding Interview' with the Rector.....what has my life come to!"

Irish Independent

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