Photography Trisha Ward Styling Steph Wilson Words Simone Konu Rae + Katy Lassen
Zawe Ashton is not afraid of pushing boundaries. Her performances, where she often adopts the role of the misfit, have been branded into our collective cultural conscience. And when she is not acting, she is busy writing, presenting and directing. ALSO caught up with Zawe to discuss empowerment, writing the unwritable, and her latest role in Wanderlust
Your role as Vod, in the Channel 4 TV series Fresh Meat has become somewhat of a cult phenomenon. The character feels very believable, whilst being defiant, bold and unashamed. How did you go about preparing for this role, and did you put a lot of yourself into the character?
There was no time to prepare anything! All I had was the script and my instinct. With Vod, it was like instantly recognising someone I’d never met. I had a lot of call backs where I had time to commit to the choices I’d made, but I was cast on a Friday and we moved to Manchester to start shooting on the Sunday! I remember just thinking ‘I need a way in…’ I started scribbling in a notebook on the train, I made up bands that Vod might listen to. I think one of them was called ‘Jesus Teen’. These extreme, heavy, no wave bands! Music was always a way in with Vod. Her attitude is punk of every shade. Music was a big part of what defined my teens and early years at Uni, I worshipped grunge and punk bands as a teenager, I was always the only girl in the mosh pit. So, I suppose there’s some cross over there!
Dress and trousers as before
That definitely carried over in to Uni. It’s an age where people ask ‘what do you listen to’ rather than later on life – ‘what do you do?’ as a means of defining you. I think I thought I was a punk, but I cared way too much. The beauty of Vod is just how much she lives life on her own terms. I’m still trying to do that! You have no idea how happy it makes me that I can die knowing that Vod is a cult classic. I miss her. You’re really lucky if you get one moment like that in your career as an actor.
You often play characters who are considered outsiders. Do you feel like an outsider off the screen as well as on it?
Lots of people say this to me and it’s not something I think about until I’m faced with questions like this! I would say I feel a deep affiliation with outsiders, yeah. I think in lots of ways I’m a natural loner. However, I get nearly all my energy and motivation from people and social interaction! It’s a duality that makes my objective as an actor always to make outsiders – insiders. If I have to play ‘likeable’ characters, I die on my feet. I understand misfits much more and seem to have a knack of making them accessible. I love playing roles that on the page seem to have no redeeming features and find a way to make them empathetic. I covet the loveable weirdos.
Actor, director, presenter, writer – what do you feel has pushed you to pursue these different avenues within performing and the creative arts?
Quadruple indemnity! I started acting as a child and have always had a very ingrained sense of a woman’s place within this industry being precarious. You can sense the imbalance on set, sense the extra pressure on women with regards to their appearance – even if you’re too young to articulate it. I remember working with an actress in her thirties/forties when I was a kid, she was always overly concerned with how she was being lit before we shot a scene. I didn’t understand it then, but I obviously learned over time that lighting can alter your appearance hugely on screen. She looked great to me. It was sad that it had become an obsession. It was more of a priority than the work itself. I saw this happen over and over again. It’s an image that’s always stayed with me. It’s always been important to me to be part of the industry of storytelling – but without being reliant on my appearance. I don’t want to wait for someone to tell me when I’m hot and when I’m done. I want to create work that lasts the test of time, to be working in to the Winter of my life. Heading behind the camera does that, curating and hosting work does that, being involved in the industry on a cellular level does that.
Your play For All The Women Who Thought They Were Mad is currently in development at Hackney Showroom, can you tell us more about the story and the inspiration behind it?
I’m so glad you’ve asked me about this! Honestly. This is a play that means the Earth to me. ‘for all the women who thought they were mad’ is a play I wrote nearly ten years ago, it was shortlisted for the prestigious Royal Court Young Writers festival. It didn’t make it to full scale production and since then has been on a rollercoaster ride. It’s been commissioned and re-commissioned – people are drawn to it – but no one seems to want to commit to its themes. It’s a play about the over medication of black women in Western medicine. Black women and mental health is a huge issue in the UK and the Western world at large. The play is about the cultural bias that often takes place in hospitals and GP’s offices in relation to black female patients. I did reams of research with the Black Women’s Mental Health Project (a now defunct government funded centre.) There was a thread to the stories I collected, stories about black women having to assimilate to the dominant culture in the West and being worn down emotionally and mentally. There isn’t often the vocabulary to describe this by the time they reach the doctor’s office, or there are women who speak English as a second language and find it hard to express the minutiae of their condition and end up over medicated, sometimes in mental institutions. At its heart, it’s a play about the fall out of Colonialism. The play is nearly exclusively female and exclusively black, nearly every actress over the age of forty. So, it doesn’t scream commercial hit to most people!
Hackney Showroom have grabbed it with both hands and have committed to a production next year. It’s a theme that needs an audience. And there IS an audience. We are fundraising ourselves. If you’re someone who is interested in investing in challenging theatre – please be in touch with Hackney Showroom! It’s thrilling to be making truly independent work for the stage.
You set up your production company Asylum a few years ago, how important do you think it is that more women and especially women of colour are in positions of power in the film and tv industry?
It’s fundamental. There needs to be an awareness that leads to training that leads to opportunities. Women of colour need to be ingrained in positions of power. No fads, no flukes. Trained, empowered women who will help to broaden the spectrum of storytelling within the industry. Everyone deserves to have a mirror held up to their experience. Everyone deserves to escape through art. Black women are no different, we must see more work that reflects that. Society will be happier and healthier for it.
In Wanderlust, launching this month on the BBC and Netflix, you co-star with actor Toni Colette. You’re a kid of the 90’s, what was it like working with the terrible Muriel?!
Just amazing. Muriel’s Wedding was a defining film for me. I remember watching it on TV really late and night and just being stunned. I definitely identified as a Muriel! Toni is a rare actress; her versatility is second to none. I’m sure she could have played Muriel over and over again and she’s just defied stereotyping with every role. She’s a wonderful woman with an amazing sense of humour and great work ethic. It’s been amazing getting to know her and see her at work.
Like most creative women you are busy. What do you do to switch off from the world?
I’m still working on this. I find it hard. I’m hardwired, a Londoner through and through. I spend more and more time out of London which helps. Getting to the sea has always been the biggest leveller for me. Jumping in, I feel like a child again. Engaging with that inner child helps me switch off. For a little while at least.