Zawe Ashton is evidence that beauty and brawn are de facto. She is an English actor, director and writer whose commanded notice from the moment she stepped out on stage. After graduating from Manchester School of Theatre, her trajectory impressed a number of awards and nominations for her remarkable work as a playwright and captivating performances in theatre. One of her first most notable moments was taking the lead in the docudrama Dreams Of A Life, a multilayered film that ventured beyond the newspaper headlines to resolve the mystery surrounding the death of Joyce Vincent, a woman who remained undiscovered for three years in her north London flat. Zawe's performance was brave and provocative, an exceptionally empathetic approach to grappling with tragedy. It came as no surprise that she was nominated for ‘Most Promising Newcomer’ from the British Independent Film Awards. However, Zawe is most recognized for her portrayal of Vod on the wildly popular cult series Fresh Meat. Her character stole the show, a fiercely independent and acutely hilarious woman with a broken past. Zawe was striking in this role with a texture combining quick-wit and a venomous persona.
Turn to Netflix and you'll find Zawe Ashton everywhere. She was recently in the six-part series Wanderlust starring alongside Toni Collette and Steven Mackintosh. The longtime married couple explores the concept of monogamy by seeing other people. It details a multi-generational family venturing into a layered process of fantastic exchanges and moments of courage. Zawe's character Claire is clever and touching, one of the primary points of romantic interest in this web of experimental fidelity. Newly released was the highly anticipated feature Velvet Buzzsaw, a gonzo horror-comedy set in the upper echelons of the contemporary art world. Zawe stars opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, Tom Sturridge, Toni Collette and John Malkovich, taking on big money and mega-collectors. Her performance brought a sensational depth, which is simply another testament to her dimension and impelling range.
There is no question, Zawe Ashton is accomplished. And you can be sure we'll be binging whatever she's working on.
At only 6 years old, you became a member of the Anna Scher Theatre in North London. Why were you drawn to the performing arts?
I was a really hyper child, my poor parents. My Mum enrolled me in every class going to help me burn off energy—swimming, ballet, karate. Anna Scher was an affordable, local class that kids as young as six could enroll in, so it was a natural fit. I think I started just a little before my 6th birthday. I walked in and saw a basket marked wigs, one marked, hats, one marked costume and I had a resounding feeling that I was in the right place. I stayed for 14 years, every weekend for 14 years. Everything else fell away and acting became my focus, my passion.
If you could have a conversation with the 6 year-old version of yourself, what bits of insight would you share?
I’d say to my six year old self that you’re not weird knowing what you want to do at such a young age. I found out later in life that Jack Lemmon—my favorite actor—knew that he wanted to act aged 8. He said it marks you out as very different when you have a focus at such a young age. I endured a lot of bullying, lots of ‘othering’ as a child because of it. I would tell my six-year-old self to keep going. But to be honest—I did keep going! So I’d just tell her I was proud of her I think. I’d like my six-year-old self to give me advice to be honest. Being an adult is brutal! I’m more self conscious now then I was then.
What do you love most about the theatre? What parts of it do you adopt when approaching television, film or other mediums?
Theatre is where you are alive from the ends of your hair to the tips of your toes. If you aren’t fully present on stage you literally will fall as flat as a piece of cardboard. In film and TV there are so many other elements to support you and your performance. There’s no close up on stage. You have to make the angles, the emotional reach with yourself and your truth. It’s like having a huge work out, it’s more athletic. So when you’ve done a play and go back to film it’s incredible. It’s like having spent four months training for a marathon and now you get to eat fries and ice cream without a care. You feel more alive, more vital. When you have to stand on a mark and talk to a piece of gaffa tape stuck to a wall and pretend to be in love with someone, your imagination has had a brilliant work out and it’s easy to reach those places truthfully in an environment that isn't always set up for ‘reality.’ I love film. Film and theatre particularly compliment each other I think. You are aiming to begin and end a character arc in roughly 120 minutes.
In addition to being an accomplished actor, you are an award-winning writer and poet. Does writing give you something that acting cannot?
Having agency in my work comes from writing. It’s been more and more important to me as time has gone on. The writer is the reason everyone is in the room. The director, the actors, the whole team. Whether it’s theatre, TV or film. We’re all there because someone wrote something. It’s the most powerful thing, the pen. When you’ve been acting for as long as I have, you realise how much of your own voice you have to suppress to fulfill other people’s vision. Having free reign to express myself as a writer and as a director has made me a more whole artist. A more forgiving, more curious artist. I get to open all the boxes and look inside which is a very empowering position to be in. Just being an actor, the subject rather than the object is something that started to feel stagnant for me after 20 or so years!
Of course, you are most recognized for your portrayal of Vod in the hit series Fresh Meat. Having played her for 5 years, how did you evolve with the role and keep it... well, fresh?
That show was a true ensemble, that’s what kept it fresh for me. Acting against incredible and funny people will always keep your game strong. You can’t do it alone. I loved those people I worked with, I loved those characters, I couldn’t wait to see what each of them would do next in a scene. We found each other hysterical, it was such a touch. The writer’s room led by creators Sam Bain and Jessie Armstrong remained awesome and strong and surprising. We all grew together. It was the time of my life making that show. So fun. We all loved each other so much. The make up and hair team led by Janet Horsfield and the wardrobe team led by June Nevin were second to none. Vod’s wardrobe and makeup kept it fresh for me too. We’d always have new references inspired by film, music, grandparents! Whatever! Nothing was off limits with Vod. You hardly ever get that with a role.
Why do you think people find Vod so intriguing? Do you miss her at all?
I miss her desperately. Part of me died with her! I mean, she’s not dead, but I think we all left something in Manchester when the show ended. I think her fans found her intriguing because she’s indefinable. She defied any conventional televisual stereotype in lots of ways. She messed with gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes—it was a pleasure to play her and she also surprised me. I had no idea what I was doing when I started, me and Vod had to find it all out as we went along. Maybe that’s something an audience can pick up, a vulnerability and a strength that we both had as we went along! Let’s do the film! I’m missing her too much!
You have been known to play profoundly tenacious female characters that are often thought of as outsiders. Why are you drawn to these roles?
I feel like I’ve spent a lot of my life being othered in one way or another. I think I just have an affinity with the under dog, the disenfranchised. I’m never drawn to characters that don’t have a complexity to them.
Your mother is Ugandan and your father is English. As a British woman of color, do you find it especially difficult in the industry, or have you been able to transcend barriers?
I’ve made it my life’s work to try and transcend barriers—and it has been a life’s work, it’s my 28th year in the industry! I've just always said no when material has felt archaic or unhelpful to the betterment of women or more specifically women of color.
You've been noted saying, ‘If you want shit made, you just have to do it yourself’. Is this notion the catalyst for producing your own short movies, writing plays and poetry, as well as being an all-around magical human?
Haha! It’s definitely my attempt at quadruple indemnity! Acting, writing, producing, directing. I say add as many commas or forward slashes to your CV when you can if you’re a woman and looking for more agency in the entertainment industry. Waiting for someone to tell you when you can and can’t work was something I just couldn’t do anymore.
In the docudrama Dreams Of A Life your performance was exceptionally eloquent and appalling, a testament to your incredible acting chops. How do you blend a character's unique complexities while subtly infusing your own perspective?
What you struggle with as an actor is often a signifier of what you struggle with as a human. I think if a character is well drawn and well written and well shot and well directed, it all pours out of you. That’s the experience I had with Carol Morley on Dreams of a Life. It’s hopefully a fitting tribute to Joyce Vincent, the real life woman who I played. Someone who passed away without a trace. She wasn’t discovered for three years when she passed away. It was a huge responsibility to take on that story. It was a real responsibility to play a real life woman, so it means a lot when people respond well to the film. It’s still on Netflix and online, please do watch. It’s such an important story for our times.
The Netflix series Wanderlust attempts to address the age-old concept of "tired couple tries swinging". After playing the other woman in such a compelling experiment in fidelity, do you believe in happily ever after?
I believe in happily ever after being what you define for yourselves in a relationship.
Your latest project Velvet Buzzsaw on Netflix looks terrifying. Tell us everything about it. Also, how did you sleep at night?
This is an incredible thriller set in the art world. Dan Gilroy is a genius, I loved Nightcrawler and couldn’t wait to work with him. His mind captivates me. He’s managed to make something that is extremely prophetic and deep with regards to the tenuous relationship between art and money and the consequences of greed and consumerism. But he’s also made something frightening and thrilling with a pulp fiction to it, a cult classic edge. It’s a sprawling ensemble, Dan references Robert Altman’s The Player when he talks about his inspiration for going that route. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Colette, John Malcovich, Daveed Diggs, Tom Sturridge—I look like a competition winner amongst them! And I feel like it. I feel so lucky. So many women wanted the role. Josephina is a frustrated assistant at an art gallery, who finds some powerful artwork in the apartment of a dead man in her apartment block. When she tries to sell the art as her own, she’s intercepted by Rhodora—Rene’s character—and they distribute it together. Jake’s character Morf is a prominent art critic who Josephina is using as a consultant and a love interest, he starts to delve in to the life of the dead artist and BAD stuff starts to happen. The art starts killing people. I think the world is ready to killer art! Big themes, supernatural art, great outfits and SO MANY killer one liners. Literally.
You worked with Toni Collette on both Wanderlust and Velvet Buzzsaw. Is she the most amazing person IRL? We must know.
She is. You can sleep easy! She’s badass.
Your work spans across comedy, thriller, drama, as well as action-adventure. How do you remain so malleable at your craft? Is there anything you are dying to try next?
I’m open to anything! Ha! Romantic comedy would be great. My life is a romantic comedy so why not get paid to do it! I’ve always made it a priority to show versatility with every role I take, so I’m up for anything as long as it’s different to the last character. I like to hide in plain sight and transform as much as possible with each role. Can’t catch me!
We are starting to see more UK projects trending with the support of streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. What are your thoughts on this and do you have your sights on Hollywood?
I would love to move to LA, I’ve always loved California. I’ve been waiting to be involved with a project like Velvet Buzzsaw to make it feel like I had an ‘invite’ workwise. Like a vampire! Now you’ve invited me in Hollywood, I’m going to be the houseguest that never leaves!
You are welcome to stay in Hollywood anytime, Zawe. You are exactly what this city needs.