Funny, wise, engaged and impassioned, Fresh Meat and The Maids actor Zawe Ashton bowls Stylist over
Words: Helen Bownass
Photography: Harriet Turney
Zawe Ashton is dragging a suitcase into the narrow corridor backstage at Trafalgar Studios in the West End. “I’m just tidying up for you,” she laughs, enveloping me in a massive hug while welcoming me into the tiny, very hot dressing room – overflowing with items such as flowers, her shopping list (including razors) and a dot-to-dot sex book – she will call home for the next three months. “It’s boiling in here isn’t it? We’ll have an impromptu Bikram session.”
With a welcome like that, you’d barely guess that in two hours, Ashton will take on the role of a murderous maid, alongside Orange Is The New Black’s Uzo Aduba, with Downton’s Laura Carmichael as their abusive employer, in tense three-hander production The Maids. A show that’s been described by The Guardian as a “highly impressive, deeply political production”.
It sets the scene for my time with her, because meeting Ashton is less an interview, and more of a natter, be it an insightful one. A natter that goes round the houses. And up hills. And through a couple of streams. Before it comes back, just about, to the original point. She likes to talk, to be challenged, to revel in words (mid conversation she goes to thesaurus.com – her most used website – to find an alternative for ‘solid’). At one point the PR comes in to say my time is up and Ashton asks for more. “I don’t want to be on my own,” she laughs, before going on to tell me that adrenaline is like a bad drug for her and after a show is like the “sadness you get after sex”.
Distinctly unstarry, she’s also about as dressed down as you ever see an actor. Jeans tucked into woolly socks, which are shoved in Stan Smith trainers. About three different T-shirts on. Her hair uncoiffed. But that informality exudes a total and utter cool. One you can’t fake. It’s the thing that makes her unsurpassable as the blunt talking, hard-living student Vod in the brilliant Fresh Meat. The Channel 4 series will soon end forever and she is bereft.
That said, Ashton, who was brought up in north London, has a certain savvy about the industry – after starting out in The Demon Headmaster and Desmond’s aged six, before going on to train at the Anna Scher Theatre school, that’s probably to be expected. The majority of her roles (with perhaps the exception of St Trinian’s 2) have tended towards the challenging and extreme end of the spectrum, including Not Safe For Work, a comedy about jilted thirtysomethings, and docudrama Dreams Of A Life, about a woman whose body was found three years after she died, and plays such as Abi Morgan’s Splendour in 2015.
But acting – “I call myself an actor [rather than an actress]” she muses. “People are like, ‘Oh you say actor now do you?’ But it just feels good in my mouth when I say it” – is far from her only talent. She is writing a novel, has won slam poetry contests, is a published playwright and has set up a production company, Asylum Features. But for now, acting takes centre stage.
It was the official opening of The Maids last night, how many reviews have you read?
None. At the beginning of a 13-week run that is the kind of thing that will spiral me into a certain madness. A good review can be as bad, in terms of how it affects your self-consciousness. We’re all so emotionally raw. It’s taken over in an enchanting way. We’re wrapped with it.
The play was written in 1947. Do you think it’s still relevant today?
I saw the play when I was about 13 at school. It was so special and really drove me into myself, in a way that is quite manic, watching it as a 13-year-old in an all-girls school. The themes are so wildly now: women trying to find a voice, trying to rise up, two women of colour in a position of servitude in the States. The three of us appear in our own context and the male gaze is hardly anywhere to be seen. To embody them every night, it does do funny things to you. We three women are all actors who want to work on challenging material, embrace roles outside of the box and, as we know, they’re not around the corner. When I saw the three of us on the poster I welled up, because it feels important. Our very presence on the stage is like an essay in itself. It’s about visibility and opportunity. I was in an all-female four-hander at the Donmar last year, and you could feel a little shuffling in the seats, a flicking through the programme, a wondering when Ralph Fiennes was going to come on and make sense of all of this female hysteria [laughs].
Is that why you set up your own production company?
It definitely felt like a space that needed to be filled. I’ve always tried to be part of the change, to use that hashtag people are throwing around, from feminist issues to climate change to getting Snickers to return to their normal size, because they are shrinking! It feels like it’s something you do have to do if you want to play those roles or direct those films or work with people that aren’t necessarily ‘commercial’. And that’s insane. We all deserve to get paid, to be here on Whitehall and be part of that conversation.
How are you at having those conversations though? Standing up for yourself isn’t easy.
It is intimidating. But I’ve been doing this job so long I’ve stewed myself in my own juices. I’m very over-marinated at this point. There isn’t a lot of doubt in my mind about what I find interesting in the arts. I’m not going to be put off by the notion of someone doubting the work I want to do. Also I’m not jaded. I’m open. I’m like that character Dory in Finding Nemo. I’ve had doors slammed in my face, I’ve been shouted at in my face in meetings when I’ve stood up for myself.
How do you react to that behaviour?
It is horrible but I’m a perpetual internaliser. I internalise everything – it will all turn into horrible diseases no doubt. But in the moment, I’m totally, “I can cope right now!” Jean Genet [who wrote The Maids] said, “Hatred is where our ideas will come from.” And I’m drawn to that.
So doors being slammed motivate you?
Yes, for now! But it’s broken me before. I’ve had times in the past where I wanted to give up acting, get my head out of the arts because it was like my constitution couldn’t deal with it. My job means I get judged on my looks; I get discriminated against because of my sex; I take on roles that are so two-dimensional… you can go mad trying to fill that third dimension.
Can you tell me more about that?
Sometimes even the character breakdowns [for auditions] can feel wounding. For example it says: “Smart, lawyer, go-getter, Harvard graduate. Complex role. Brackets nudity required.” And you’re like, ‘Where will that come in, I wonder?’ But as you grow as a person and artist, the stakes become higher. If your work’s going well then your life is in tatters, and if your personal life is having a nice time it’s like, ‘Yep work must be doing really badly’. You take it home with you; there’s no cut-off point. I’m very slowly writing a book, about the membrane between actor and human woman becoming scarily thin.
Tell me about your writing process.
I’m awful, I’m terrible. I’m chaotic. I suppose there is a calm in that chaos. I love doing it, I feel so fulfilled. I love writing with pen and paper; I hate technology. It’s against me. What about those appointments you have to book at Apple? I went in the other day and was like, “Help me with the computer.” And they were like, “We can help you, come back… in five years!”
Where do you go to write?
I find that if I feel too self-conscious I can’t do it. If I’m sitting in a cafe, with my laptop and a cup of tea and there are other people around me writing, I hear Carrie Bradshaw’s voice in my head, ‘And then I got to thinking, if I just walk past that guy one more time…’ I love small spaces. I can’t wait to start writing here.
It’s very womb-like…
I need to be within the womb. And actually I was about a 36-hour labour for my mum. I wasn’t interested in coming out of that womb.
What do your parents think of the show?
They haven’t been yet. What with the old incest and plotting to murder and brief moment in my pants and the c-word that rains down on this play… There is a level of self-consciousness when they come. They’re very cool and two of the most supportive people ever but sometimes you do like to be up there and think no-one knows you and feel somehow invisible.
Someone who isn’t invisible is Vod from Fresh Meat. Can we talk about her?
Yes please. I feel so emotional about it. No-one tells you about being in episodic television and it ending. No-one tells you how painful it is. How bizarre it is when you’ve dedicated your life to one character for five years. It hit us all between the eyes. Have you ever been asked to leave anywhere? I don’t think I have. She has been the most joyous specimen to bring to life and so much of her is mingled up with me and vice versa.
She’s incredibly cool. Is that mingled?
Well, look at me! [Laughs] What’s interesting is I’ve always had an androgyny which maybe is cool and definitely great for male and female friendships, dynamics and mutual admiration. So her androgyny is mingled with me. She owns herself and her own space and body.
Do you live in the moment or the future?
The future. But I’m not like a ‘planning for the future’ type. I live in the future, with the future being nostalgic. If that makes sense? I’m 100% nostalgic. I know very little about the present day. I listen to a lot of music from the Eighties and Nineties – Heaven 17 and Fugees are on my Maids playlist. I hanker for the past, for simpler times. Like, the internet – go away. Go in the bin. But then at the same time I’m really into it. I’m trying to write a film at the moment, which is a remake of an Eighties film. It can’t have the internet but I need to set it in the present day! The woman can’t have access to the outside world. I’m just going to do it and pretend it doesn’t exist. That’s the dichotomy I live.
Have you embraced non-Nineties television?
Other than Orange Is The New Black not really. My So-Called Life was just… there’s nothing hotter than Jordan Catalano. My stomach was in knots the whole time he was on screen.
Do you hanker for London 20 years ago?
Yes I do. It felt like there was less choice. I hate too much choice, but at the same time my happiest place on earth is TK Maxx. Everything goes really quiet in my head and I can focus in the chaos. Other people don’t get TK Maxx. You’ve got to be open for the adventure. They’ve just opened one in Hackney. I was going to go with a friend with party poppers and party hats.
Would you ever leave London?
Yeah. I think London and I have been amazing flatmates for a long time and we love being together but at the same time that thing is starting to happen where you feel yourself getting a bit too upset when there’s a toothpaste ring in the sink. I feel like we’ll maybe have a little break from each other. We’re going to have a long-distance thing for a bit. There are very few places I feel inspired and LA is one of them. I love how weird it is. I found myself being really inspired by how awkward, shiny, new, untrustworthy and diabolical it is.
Let’s finish on a big question. What do you think is the most important issue facing women of our generation?
The word flashing in front of my eyes is ‘embrace’. And I think that is because, especially as perennially disappointed millennials, there is a sense that you want more than your parents had, but you also want exactly the same thing. You want this huge complex canvas by which you can do anything and be anyone, but at the same time you want this stability. That seems to be the dichotomy that is sending us mad. And elevating us at the same time. I was reading a fantastic art book recently about sculptures made of recycled bits of old movie sets and the artist seeing them as being about the acute anxiety that comes from constantly treading a line between endurance and transience. Home, relationship and career feeling… settled? That’s for the women of the past! Time to quit your job, finally go inter-railing and take a French lover 10 years your junior!