By Emmanuel Akitobi | Shadow and Act December 10, 2011 at 9:00AM
By now, S&A readers should be more than a little familiar with actress Zawe Ashton, and the numerous projects she's been a part of that have been highlighted on this site. Just yesterday, Tambay provided us with 2 new clips from Ashton's upcoming film Dreams Of A Life, directed by Carol Morley. I had the great pleasure of speaking with Ashton this week, for a revealing interview that provided answers to some very pressing questions.
Nobody noticed when Joyce Vincent died in her bedsit above a shopping mall in North London in 2003. Her body wasn’t discovered for three years, surrounded by Christmas presents she had been wrapping, and with the TV still on. Newspaper reports offered few details of her life - not even a photograph. Who was she? And how could this happen to someone in our day and age- the so-called age of communication? For her film Dreams of a Life, filmmaker Carol Morley set out to find out. Joyce may have died in tragic isolation, but Morley was not going to let her be forgotten. She placed adverts in newspapers, on the Internet, and on the side of a London taxi. What she finds out is extraordinary. A range of people that once knew Joyce help to piece together a portrait of the woman that became so forgotten. “She was very sweet, beautiful looking, a bit of a mystery. We weren’t too sure where she came from. It’s almost like she was a ghost, even then.” Dreams of a Life becomes as much about the people who remember her as it is about Joyce herself.
Dreams Of A Life is scheduled for a limited December 16th release in London, and will expand to several more cinemas through March 2012, though exclusively in the U.K.
Earlier this week, I spoke to Zawe Ashton-- who is also currently serving as Writer-In-Residence for Clean Break, a company that helps rehabilitate women who are ex-offenders and at risk of offending through theatre education-- about Dreams Of A Life, and about a few other things that were on my mind. First and foremost, I needed to know how Ashton came to be involved with such an emotionally-charged project, and whether she actively persued the role, or if she was hand-picked.
"It was something that so weirdly feels like it was kind of sent to me, in a really weird way," Ashton told me on a phone call from London.
"I was doing a play at the time that the casting director was sort of taking Dreams of A Life on, and I was playing a woman who was afraid to leave her bedsit, which obviously has sort of weird crossovers with the story of Joyce. And he said, 'Look, there’s this project that’s coming up soon, and we think Zawe would be right.' And I heard about it, and I heard about the story, and my head just blew all the way off. I was gobsmacked because I live about 20 minutes from where she died, and I couldn’t believe that this story hadn’t made it up the bus route to where I was, you know. I thought it was criminal."
"Anyway, the project then disappeared because, I found out later, they were having all these troubles with financing, and stuff like that. So I was, like, 'Oh God, I really hope that that project gets made at some point.' And then it drifted away, and then came back to me a few months later, and just, all the stars are aligned. I got the material, the script, the story, and some research that Carol [Morley] had done, and I just sent my agent a message back just saying, 'This is me.' Because by then, it was kind of a closed chapter in my head, as far as casting was concerned. I was determined to do it."
"And because the play that I was doing was with Clean Break, I’ve kind of been spending this whole year, almost, with this company that were helping women in pretty much this exact same situation, and these circumstances as Joyce. So it was 'all roads led to Dreams Of A Life' for me. But I still had to work hard, and I still had to audition. But I knew it had to happen."
S&A: Some weeks ago on our site, we touched on the subject of selective invisibility with regard to some black actors in the U.K. and abroad, following a news item that expressed one television writer's surprise at recently "discovering" your talents on Channel 4's Fresh Meat. I believe the exact wording was something along the lines of "Where has Zawe Ashton been hiding?" When you saw that quote, what were your initial thoughts about it? Did the S&A story about the quote cause you to interpret it any differently?
Zawe Ashton: Do you know what? It’s so interesting, because my initial reaction was happiness. Because I’d been feeling for a while that I was sort of doing all of this work, but it wasn’t necessarily gaining the visibility that I had hoped. I did this big budget action movie with Jason Statham [Blitz], and all these amazing British actors—Paddy Considine, Aidan Gillen, Mark Rylance—and I was the female lead. And, I suppose, I couldn’t put the fact that I had done that, and the fact that I wasn’t necessarily reaching a higher level of visibility, together.
But, again, I didn’t really think any more about it beyond just being happy that someone was praising me and taking that moment to put me out there. And then I read your amazing piece that you wrote. And all of a sudden, different cogs started to wear in my head, not even necessarily to do with that one journalist and that one quote. But like you do in your piece, opening up that wider thing of, “Hold on a minute. Whoa—I haven't been hiding." I have really, really been doing the opposite of that. I’ve been putting myself out there and doing everything I can, along with my fantastic agent, to create really quality work with varying roles each time. We’ve been working damned hard, and so, yeah, I did start to think, "Hold on a minute. What other wider repercussions of this, of people not knowing necessarily where I have been or where I am or . . . that can sometimes feed into where I’m going to.” You know?
S&A: For many years now, we've heard numerous accounts from black actors in the U.K regarding the difficulty of landing acting roles, let alone quality ones. What is your personal view on the state of the black actor in the U.K.?
Z.A.: I should probably say, first and foremost, that I am mixed-race. I am bi-racial. My mum is Ugandan, my dad is English. And so I think there is a difference sometimes in terms of how people are classified here and in the States. Here we have an easier grasp a lot of the time of where our immediate roots might be. You know, whether we’re African, or West Indian. Where as in America, it feels like sometimes that if you’re a shade darker than white, then you’re black, you know? Which is something I definitely identify with. But I think it would be silly to pretend that the same goes for over here, because it doesn’t.
I want to be part of that wider struggle, of the black U.K. actor struggle. However, I think I should probably be tentative to the fact that someone black might turn around to me and say, “Listen—you're not black.” At which point I would have to say, “No. You’re right.” I am mixed-race, and we do have those different definitions here. But I am someone who does definitely fly the flag. I mean ask anyone who knows me, in terms of my writing and my work, my acting work. But I fly the flag for the black British actor, and I’m very much happy to be in that camp. But I’m also aware that there will be times when maybe I’m getting more of a break than some of my sisters in this industry.
Second, overwhelmingly how I feel, and also talking to my peers in this industry, is that the roles are just not there. You feel like perhaps you can get to a certain point of working consistently, and doing good work. But you just don’t know when that glass ceiling might descend, you know; when you might just feel yourself hitting your head up against that glass ceiling and be like, “Whoa. Ok, this has dried up.” It never really feels like there is a huge consistency, in terms of, “Ok, I’ve done this one great role. That should then lead to another fantastic role.” Because sometimes that role just isn’t waiting for you. You know, it’s a real lottery.
One of my friends said that it feels like we’re on the ladder, but we still have like 80% to go, you know? So we’re there. It feels like we’re here, but it’s just that forward motion, that forward movement, that it sometimes feels doubtful. That seems to be the main thing. And all of a sudden something like Wuthering Heights, which came out just now, Andrea Arnold’s film, casting a black actor as Heathcliff. You know, “Wow!” Your head kind of starts worrying, because you’re like, “Yes. We have been in this country for centuries, and we do belong in period drama.” We seem to recycle period dramas that focus on worlds where we do not exist, unless it’s in a serving position. And we all know that we’ve been here inventing and travelling, for a much longer period of time.
So, the other thing is the writing and the roles, and the programming, in that sense. I, for myself, have to speak extremely carefully, with my foot in two worlds, you know. I’ve been blessed, with a capital “B”, for the past—God knows how many—years since I left drama school. I have been able to have this as my job, as my bread, and as my creativity. All three—that hardly ever happens, you know? I get that I’ve had some fantastic roles, I’m able to pay my rent, and I feel like I’m moving forward. But it saddens me when I look outside of that, and I don’t see that happening for enough people.
S&A: Here in the U.S., your film Blitz was released on DVD this summer. This film, along with Dreams of a Life, shows that you definitely are capable of taking on darker, more serious roles than that of Vod on Fresh Meat. Is the dramatic route where you see your career going in the future? Or are you still going to remain open to doing comedy and other light-hearted fare?
Z.A.: For me, what seems to have become very apparent about my career, as it builds, is that if I try and pin it down, it will wiggle away. And remaining open and changeable, and, I guess, somewhat chameleon-like, is beginning to look like my strength.
I think my career, right from the get-go, especially in film, has been on a knife edge. I got cast in St. Trinians II and Blitz simultaneously. I think maybe days apart from each other. And I put my hands up, and was just like, “Hallelujah. This is exactly where I thought my career would go.” Which is, literally, playing a school-girl shooting, kind of, slingshots by day, and running around and being funny and light-hearted, to—sometimes I would literally go from there to the set of Blitz in the evening, and play a crack-addicted policewoman. And I’m happy walking that line, I think. I don’t want to be pinned down, and I don’t want to sit in a box.
And I think that’s just kind of where I live; there is no comedy without drama or tragedy, certainly. And I don’t think there is tragedy without light-heartedness and comedy. You need them to live side by side, like shade. Otherwise you go into a two-dimensional world—for my money. And I’m all about 3-D. So I hope my career will continue down both paths, and that no point will someone say, “You are now a comedy actress. You must only do comedy” or “You are a dramatic actress. You must only do drama.” I’m not going to let that happen.
S&A: You have had a very busy year, also co-starring in the BBC's Case Histories, which was broadcast here in the U.S. this fall, and was well received. Can you tell us if we will have an opportunity to see more of you as Deborah in a second series?
Z.A.: I hope so! There’s very, very serious talk about a second series, and I would come back and do it in a heartbeat. Because I really, really like the Deborah character, and I think Jason Isaacs is just fantastic, as well. And as the lead in this series, he’s enjoying a lot of success in the States. Now, with this show that he’s doing—which he was actually auditioning for when we were filming Case Histories—it’s going to be, I’m sure, hard to get Jason into some sort of schedule over here. But—fingers crossed—I would love to come back and do it. And I’m so happy it’s been well received over there, because, actually, someone said to me while we were doing it, they were like, “We don’t really have characters like Deborah on U.K. TV.”
When I was creating the role—because it was initially a much smaller role—after I had gone in and read for it, and I guess kind of brought this comic twist to it, they said “Look, if Zawe signs on, we’ll right for her and we will make the role bigger and more prominent.” And so that was a huge compliment. So when you’ve got that type of enthusiasm behind you, you always kind of want to go where the love is, as well. I would happily go back because they were so forthcoming in choosing me, and wanting me to ad-lib around the lines. And, you know, they really trusted me with this role, and I knew that I wanted to create a role that maybe hadn’t been seen in a drama like that before. She’s very vivid, her dress sense is big, her presence is very big. And I think that’s something you guys do over in the U.S. much, much better than here. So I definitely had things like Ugly Betty in my mind when I was going into that role, because I kind of like how she’s slightly larger-than-life, but also somehow fits into the show. You know, you can suspend your disbelief a little bit with her. And she has a razor-sharp wit, and she’s a woman, she’s strong, and you guys do that much better there than we do here. So I kind of approached it from a U.S. perspective. So, yeah, I’m really glad that it’s gone down well out there. It’s a good platform for me, I hope.
S&A: As more U.K. film and TV projects gain exposure in the U.S. (through BBC America, PBS, Hulu, etc.) are you personally optimistic about the possibility of raising your own profile and reaching a broader audience? And will S&A readers in the U.S. see you make a leap similar to that of your peers (Idris Elba, David Oyelowo, Naomie Harris, Eamonn Walker, etc.) who have found considerable success working in the U.S.?
Z.A.: Yes, it is! I’m just kind of, like, I don’t know . . . kind of like of a racehorse just before the pistol goes. At the moment, I’m so ready to go--U.S.-wise-- now. And the fact that I have these projects, which are just-- thank God-- falling into place in terms of some kind of positioning of my profile in the U.S., is amazing. I can’t wait, because I think that the way to go to the U.S. is with something behind you. Because when I come, I’m not coming to play around. I’m coming to make my presence known. So it feels great that there are things in my arsenal that kind of giving me a stronger foothold there, definitely. Again, some of which I found out by accident. But I’m just so glad that I’m becoming a little bit visible out there. On the back of Blitz, I had some amazing meetings in New York. Earlier this year we were holding meetings at Glamour and Vogue, and GQ, and people were beginning to sort of know who I was. And maybe not know who I was, but beginning to believe the hype, if that makes sense. It’s kind of hard to get across the threshold at a lot of those places, but I managed to get across the threshold. I want to work hard, and I want to do quality roles and you have them there. We have them, but you have them more. Someone like Viola Davis is someone who I look up to massively, as an actress who already has an Oscar nomination under her belt for a tiny part in a film. But, she got honored for that. And again, more visibility means more change. And I just think she’s just the most stunning actress. Stunning. Just so much integrity.
I follow Oprah on Twitter, and she’s always coming out with some amazing quotes. She just the other day tweeted “Excellence is the only way to combat ignorance.” And I live by that, definitely. And the U.S. is somewhere that promotes excellence; to be the best you can be; positivity; “Get to the top”, “Oh, you went that far? You can go further. You can go all the way.” And I love being around that. All of my trips that I’ve had to America in the past couple of years have left me just buzzing, so that’s definitely on the card for next year. If you want me, I’ll come. And Dreams of A Life, Oprah needs to see this film. We’re thinking of ways to get it to her because we think that there is a huge community . . . the black community in America will find an affinity with this film, for sure.
What I love about British actors like Idris Elba and Eamonn Walker, who are friends of mine, is that they do bring something back. They come out there, and they use what they get out there to also bring something back. I don’t want to sound like “Thanks for all the love England. See ya!” It’s like, you’ve got to stretch your wings and then come back. I heard an amazing quote years ago, and I don’t know where it’s from, but it’s about mothers. But I think it can be applied to anything. “Mothers give you two things; they give you roots, and they give you wings.” And I think that quote can be definitely applied to London, or the U.K. . . . that it gives me roots, but I also hope that it gives me wings.