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Zawe Ashton interview: 'I decided it might be time to stop acting'

We chat to multi-talented Zawe Ashton about the end of ‘Fresh Meat’, almost quitting acting, and returning to the West End in Jean Genet’s violent, kinky headfuck ‘The Maids’

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

‘The Maids’ is about two servants fantasising about the violent slaughter of their mistress. It’s one of your favourite plays – why?

‘I saw it for the first time at school when I was about 13 – too much too young! – when a couple of girls in the final year decided to do it for one of their drama pieces. That’s unbelievably edgy for 16-year-olds. It was fantastic. It’s still to this day one of the boldest performances I’ve ever seen.’

You and Uzo Aduba (‘Orange is the New Black’ play the maids and Laura Carmichael (‘Downton’) is the mistress. Is two black servants and a white mistress pointed casting?

‘It wasn’t the intent: it was as much a surprise to Jamie [Lloyd, director] and I that Uzo and Laura were even available. But of course, two women of colour in a position of servitude in the United States – where we’ve set it – and it means you have a whole other frame, and we all feel really stoked by that.’

Speaking of America – is success there the next step for you now that your C4 sitcom ‘Fresh Meat’ is over?

‘I do want to go – less so now Donald Trump’s on the up… I actually had my first taste of doing a big American project just after I decided that it might be time to stop acting.’ 

When was that?

‘Last year. I sort of had one of those disillusioned moments. And also I have a production company, which is a thing that needs a lot of work if you’re going to do it. But then I got this part in [an HBO pilot of] the story of the Salem Witch trials, which Jenji Kohan wrote and Gus van Sant directed, and it was very inspiring. But if you asked me what country I’d work in if I had a blank slate, I’d say France – if somebody would wave a wand so I could speak French.’

How was filming the final series of ‘Fresh Meat’?

‘It was wonderful. We love each other an inappropriate amount; it doesn’t really constitute work when you enjoy being together so much. But you know, women who’ve created roles in comedy drama don’t necessarily work again. I don’t really want it to cut to ten years down the line and it’s me, Chico from “The X Factor” and the bones of Wellard the dog from “EastEnders” being shipped out to do some sort of surreal and awful meet and greet. Honestly, the life of a serial character on television, I’d love to write an essay about it.’

You’re from Stoke Newington. How do you feel about the whole, er, ‘thing’ that has happened to east London and N16 in your lifetime?

‘My dad constantly tells me I should calm down, but I feel so sad when I see places I’ve known since I was a child closing. I burst out crying when a local pharmacy closed the other day; it’s just going to become a shop that nobody has much of a need for. But I am trying to move with the times. And I will buy a £5 coffee. From the outside, some people might consider me a hipster!’  

The Maids’ is at Trafalgar Studios until May 21 2016.

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