Not so long ago, grief and self-doubt threatened to kill her career. Now Zawe Ashton – TV star, stage actress and author – is the breakout star of 2019.
Zawe Ashton bursts into the café where we’ve arranged to meet, just around the corner from the theatre in London’s West End where she’s starring in the hit revival of Harold Pinter’s classic play Betrayal. She’s ten minutes late and full of apologies. ‘I was in a Turkish bath and I fell asleep!’ she cries, pulling off her grey beanie hat. ‘I was lying on the hot marble slab and I was so exhausted, I just shut my eyes and I was out.’
It’s not surprising that Zawe (her name, pronounced ‘Zow-ee’, is Ugandan) is shattered: the past few months have been a whirlwind for the actress until now best known for playing maverick student Vod in Channel 4 sitcom Fresh Meat. So far this year she’s had stints in Los Angeles and at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah promoting her latest film Velvet Buzzsaw for Netflix. Returning to her native London, she had ‘one sleep’ before being plunged into rehearsals for Betrayal.
Now the show’s up and running, with rumours of a Broadway transfer. Zawe, 34, has been highly praised for her performance as Emma, the mother who has an affair with Jerry (Charlie Cox, star of Marvel’s Daredevil), the best friend of her husband Robert (Tom Hiddleston of The Night Manager fame). ‘The three of us are having the time of our lives,’ Zawe exclaims.
Tall, in black jeans and jumper, hair tumbling over her shoulders (‘I look rough as hell, I’m falling apart!’ she cries – a patent untruth), Zawe is hugely entertaining company: engaged, mildly hyper (‘I have a very short attention span’) and flamboyant. I have to interrupt to remind her we need to discuss her book Character Breakdown: ‘There’s so much going on, I keep forgetting the book!’ Zawe laughs.
Character Breakdown describes incidents in Zawe’s acting life, which began aged six, when she started after-school classes at the Anna Scher Theatre School. Based in North London, it wasn’t far from the house where she grew up the eldest of three children of teacher parents – Cockney Paul and Ugandan-born Victoria.
The book’s anecdotes are variously funny, insightful and decidedly shocking. I assume they are about Zawe, but it’s impossible to be sure, as the book reveals no specific names (of directors, projects she’s worked on or fellow actors) and is written more like a novel than an autobiography. ‘If people call my book an actor’s memoir I will be very upset,’ Zawe says. ‘I can’t bear anything too literal, so it has elements of truth and elements of fiction sitting side by side.’
Though her tone is darkly funny, many of her anecdotes make her profession sound – frankly – grim. Girls at her comprehensive who had seen her on television – she won her first BBC role in The Demon Headmaster aged 11 – bullied her so badly she had to switch school. Older actress friends tell her about work drying up once they’ve passed 30 and had children.
The book’s protagonist is required to negotiate nudity clauses (she agrees her areola but not her nipple will be on screen) and sent to auditions where she’s asked if she has a skimpier outfit and judged (and often rejected) for being ‘too tall, too fat, too brown, too quirky, not talented, too talented…’ Both on and off-set she’s groped and abused by other actors and men claiming to want to cast her.
For years, Zawe says she’d shrugged off such incidents as part and parcel of a woman’s life. ‘They were things that you dismiss, because you don’t want to be deemed hysterical,’ she says. But now that Hollywood’s started calling out such behaviour, her account packs a timely punch. ‘It took me a while to write the book, then suddenly #MeToo and #TimesUp were happening and it took on a new resonance,’ she says.
Some of her experiences sound so nightmarish I ask why she’s still in the profession. ‘Why become a mother?’ Zawe retorts. ‘Childbirth really hurts, it’s hard, but you still do it. I’ve always acted, it’s my passion and belief system. Anyway, I did try to quit when it became too much.’
That was two years ago, when Zawe was at a low point after her maternal grandfather had died: ‘I just thought, my personality doesn’t suit this any more. I’m an extremely sensitive person, so why am I doing this job where I have to be hyper-aware of my face and body and get all this criticism and love from total strangers?’
But just then, as is so often the way, she won her part in Velvet Buzzsaw, a Netflix-streamed horror/satire film set in an art gallery, directed by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) and co-starring his wife Rene Russo (The Thomas Crown Affair). ‘Rene and Dan and I became best friends and I just felt so fulfilled and valued,’ she smiles.
There have been many other high points in Zawe’s career, not least her time in Fresh Meat, the breakout show for many stars, including comedian Jack Whitehall. ‘We all grew up together: it was like a second coming-of-age after university, a last hurrah, reliving that studenty joie de vivre,’ Zawe says. Of all its characters, Zawe’s foul-mouthed, hard-living Vod was the standout. ‘I could never have imagined the love people had for Vod and it was because she didn’t give any f****, which was how I was at the time,’ she says. Zawe had a lot of input into the character, deciding to shave Vod’s head and choosing her trademark clumsy gait and growly voice. ‘I said, “I want her to be messy and shambolic, because the coolest people don’t know they’re cool – they are just living their lives.”’
That philosophy of not worrying about other people’s opinions has served Zawe well, not least in Betrayal, where she has the potentially tricky task of portraying a married woman having an affair: ‘I’m not really concerned about being liked on stage – I’m a bit more concerned about it off stage,’ she says. ‘Emma’s a very real woman, who is nailing her job, has two kids, a marriage and also happens to have an extramarital relationship… Everything about that to me says human – there’s nothing I judge about her.’
Complex characters such as Emma are, Zawe claims, what audiences crave and new streaming services such as Netflix are providing. In contrast, she says established networks such as the BBC need ‘to up their game’, even though they’re also under pressure to get large viewing figures by appealing to the broadest audience. She’s speaking from experience, having last autumn appeared in the BBC drama Wanderlust, playing a teacher who starts an affair with a colleague (Steven Mackintosh) after he and his wife (Toni Collette) decide to have an open relationship. The show received mixed reviews and wasn’t recommissioned.
‘The subject matter of Wanderlust p***ed a lot of people off, but it made a huge impact and had a committed audience, even though it wasn’t wide. It didn’t get another series because it didn’t deliver on figures and that’s sad to me,’ Zawe says. ‘Without laying any blame, I think BBC audiences like what they like and they didn’t warm to the idea of a married woman having extramarital sex, even though her husband was doing the same thing.’
Working in such an unpredictable profession, Zawe’s hugely grateful to her supportive parents: ‘I’m in a very privileged situation because they believed in me becoming an artist when I know so many people whose parents are, like, “Get a degree, go to law school, become a doctor, make life easy for yourself.”’ Her mother hasn’t yet read Character Breakdown (‘I’m reading bits of it to her’), but her father has – praising her writing style. It must have been hard for him learning about his daughter’s travails. ‘I think he’s impressed by my resilience,’ Zawe says.
Hugely proud of her mixed-race heritage, she has frequently visited her grandparents in Uganda. ‘I loved seeing them and hearing stories about their childhoods, but I equally love hearing about the experiences of my dad’s father, who was very much London-based. You have to engage with all your lineage and hold it as a precious diamond.’
Today, her family spend a lot of time together at the house in Margate, Kent, which Zawe recently started renting, attracted by the town’s artistic scene. ‘And there’s the sea – being close to nature is something that, like lots of Londoners, I really needed in my life.’ Yet, her run in Betrayal means right now she can only spend Sundays there, returning to her home in London on Mondays. ‘So I’m kind of flushing all my money down the toilet, paying for two places to live,’ Zawe laughs. ‘But it’s worth it because I’m at a point where I’m working out where I’m supposed to be – and you can’t work it out without trying it.’
It goes without saying that Zawe’s a feminist who thinks many women – not just actresses – find themselves playing roles foisted upon them by society. ‘The first time I lived with a partner I became obsessed with a bin I ordered from Ebay to the point where I dreamed about it. I was so fixated on making my home lovely and cosy,’ she laughs. ‘I thought, “I’m trying to live out a housewife persona, and it’s not a natural fit.” But where has this pressure come from to be like that? It’s the voices of all our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers telling us we have to be a certain way, but now, suddenly all that is up for negotiation.’
Zawe won’t say if she currently has a partner or not, but concedes. ‘I’d love to have children, but there’s time… Why are we told there’s no time?’ I say that the much quoted statistic stating female fertility rapidly declines after 35 is based on 18th-century French birth records when women had the most basic healthcare, so bears little relevance to much better-nourished women today. ‘I was just talking to a friend about this!’ Zawe cries. ‘That blows my mind. People are trying to scare women with misinformation, to keep us out of the way at home, while men get on with their careers. But guess what? It’s not going to work any more… Women in their 30s and older are very much here and you’re not going to get rid of us.’
She giggles. ‘I have to say there’s something to be said for not having children – like falling asleep in the Turkish baths. My mum says, “You can tell you’re not a mother, doing things like that!” And compared to my friends with children, I have the life of Riley.’ For now, it would certainly seem to be the case.
Interview by Julia Llewellyn Smith
Character Breakdown is out now (Chatto & Windus, £16.99); to order a copy for £13.59 until 28 April, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. Betrayal is at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre until 8 June, pinteratthepinter.com