Interview: Zawe Ashton

Zawe Ashton Zawe Ashton - © Rob Greig
Posted: Mon Apr 16 2012

The talented Zawe Ashton talks about her recent work and latest stage role

In the acting industry, rising stars are not exactly in short supply. The schools churn out hundreds of pretty, hopeful girls to compete for a relatively small proportion of roles on film and stage.

But Zawe Ashton is more than just another starlet. After her solid post-grad apprenticeships at the Royal Court and Headlong; her role as mouthy drug hoover Vod in Channel 4's hit comedy 'Fresh Meat'; and her tender central performance as Joyce Vincent in extraordinary docu-drama 'Dreams of A Life', it's clear that she is the real deal.

'The Royal Court was my personal break out,' she says, wolfing down lunch from a plastic box backstage at the Rose Theatre, where she is to play Cath, one half of a young couple in Michael Frayn's living-together drama, 'Here'.

'Things that are visible make other people know who you are,' she says. 'But doing “Gone Too Far”, “The Arsonists” and “Rhinocero” there after I left drama school was a real blessing.'

Ashton, (whose first name rhymes with 'Towie'), is tall and striking, with a deep throaty chuckle and a charismatic way with words. She grew up in Hackney and did her A-levels at City and Islington College, where her first claim to fame was winning the London Poetry slam as a teenager. It's not a victory she plans to repeat: ('There's no way I'd recite a poem in public now,' she insists.)

She remains writer in residence at Clean Break, which works with female offenders. But her acting takes centre stage. Now, aged 27, she's on the cusp of celebrity, a weird world, which sets a higher premium on appearances than reality.

'I have absolutely no bloomin' clue what's going on right now,' she says, when I ask her what she makes of it all. 'Being a character is fine. Being yourself, or being judged as yourself, is really scary.'

As a regular child actor, there was a time when Ashton struggle to fit at school - though she never had any doubts about making her life in drama. 'I've always known there were people who really love it,' she explains. 'My mum took me to see “The Wizard of Oz” when I was about three and I was blown away. I saw Complicite's “Street of Crocodiles” when I was 12 and that blew me away too. I know the effect it's had on me when something touches or moves me, so wanting to chase that was always part of me.'

Being offstage for the last year or so has, she says, given her 'the fear' about performing live. Is fear a sharpener, for a performer? 'Ooh it's a tonic,' she exclaims. 'It is a double espresso in a professional sense.' Fear of failing has pushed her into new territory before: most notably with Vod in 'Fresh Meat', her hilarious first stab at comedy. 'I wanted with all my heart to play that role,' she confesses. 'But comedy? I remember saying to a friend at the time, I'm just not funny. I've been naked onstage. I've gone to every depth of darkness to find roles. But trying to be funny is killing me!'

Her friend wisely advised her to go for the wry smiles instead of the belly laughs. 'That's one thing I've definitely learned,' she says, 'If you play for laughs it falls dead. If you play for real and expect it to lightly amuse, you won't be disappointed.'

Revisiting her own student days in Manchester in 'Fresh Meat' was, says Ashton, 'a fantastic opportunity to leave cups of tea everywhere and relive those student nights.' As a student she was, like Vod, into the music scene and still DJs from time to time: 'I drank in all the experiences on offer and I'm happy I did that. Because then you can put it to bed.'

Michael Frayn's play is a more grown-up affair - dealing, as it does, with a co-habiting couple who are pushing at each other's boundaries in their new flat, their experience put in context by their middle-aged neighbour (played in Lisa Spirling's production by Alison Steadman), who has lived this type of life before.

Frayn's 1993 play reflects, argues Ashton, 'all the conversations I'm having now with my friends who are living together or co-habiting for the first time, about how do we ever afford somewhere to buy? Or, if you have a significant other, how do you make that work?'

The revival will take place in-the-round in a reconfigured Rose Theatre in Kingstons, with 200 seats removed for greater intimacy. Frayn has rewritten 'Here' which he describes as his favourite play, for the occasion. 'Usually the playwright's dead and you don't have to worry, you just do what you want,' Ashton says, 'But Michael Frayn is into actors breathing their life into the production. We all went for dinner with him the other night and were trying to ask him as much as we could to help us understand the characters but he just says, “Look, between when you come onstage and exit, I'm not responsible.”'

Working on Frayn's play has reignited Ashton's passion for writing: although her next lot of aspirations come with the obligatory double shot of fear. 'I'd love to write a really stonkingly good play after I finish this run,' she says. 'But having a play on is a hundred times scarier than being in one. As an actor you can always blame the director or writer for negative feedback. But as a writer, you're the reason why everyone's in the room.'

In the meantime, she will remain level-headed about her rising profile - and try to use it as a platform for something a bit more meaningful. 'The actors I admire always have something to say, or a level of poetry, belief, activism or intelligence about what they do or how they feel. This notion of celebrity: it's just not me.'