It’s the day after Zawe Ashton’s 38th birthday when we speak. She’s wearing a bright red, Regency-inspired, rose-covered headdress; she’s had it on since her celebrations with friends and family the night before. “I’ve worn this all weekend. And I thought: ‘Shall I act cool and take it off for Liv? Or will she appreciate it on some level?’” she says with a laugh.
Ashton is still buzzing from the birthday love – as well as, perhaps, the early praise for her leading role in the period film drama Mr Malcolm’s List. She insists she avoids looking at reviews or engaging with what the public think, but it’s impossible to remain completely in the dark. “Obviously, you end up hearing things … That’s the thing I’m hypersensitive to, what that means for the film-makers especially,” she says earnestly.
This year marks the start of a new chapter for Ashton, both personally – she’s expecting her first child with her fiance, Tom Hiddleston – and professionally: alongside Mr Malcolm’s List, she has a villainous role in superhero blockbuster The Marvels on the horizon. Both developments will bring a level of attention she’s unused to; despite starting out in showbiz when she was just six years old (she appeared as an extra in the beloved British-Caribbean sitcom Desmond’s), Ashton has managed to avoid the chaotic life of many who find themselves in the spotlight from a young age.
Zawe Ashton wears gown, Giambattista Valli. Earrings: Alexis Bittar. Tights: Falke. Heels: Giuseppe Zanotti. Main image: Valentino. Photographs: Jacob Pritchard. Styling: Marissa Ellison. Hair: Ursula Stephens. Makeup: Soo Park
I ask if she deliberately keeps what is most sacred to her private. “I’m not Gwyneth Paltrow. I don’t know how to do that thing,” she says, by which she means broadcasting the most intimate parts of her life for the world to dissect. Although, let’s be real, that is already happening without Ashton’s permission: ever since she and Hiddleston were first linked in late 2019, after they starred together in the London revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, the internet has been full of feverish speculation about their relationship.
Still, she doesn’t mean to cast shade on Paltrow. “I mean, I love the Goop of it all,” she adds, referring to Paltrow’s Netflix series Sex, Love and Goop, which takes couples on a journey of sexual and spiritual awakening. “I binged it in one night,” she says. It’s an admission you could never imagine being made by the character she’s best known for – the achingly edgy Vod from Fresh Meat, the cult TV comedy set in a Manchester student flatshare. In contrast to Vod’s take-no-prisoners attitude, Ashton is all jokes and smiles, radiating warmth.
Though Ashton closely guards her private life, during the recent press tour for Mr Malcolm’s List she was unable to hide her very visible pregnancy. “That’s the hysterical thing,” she says. “No one wants to go on a press tour at the same time that they want to keep their personal life private, but that’s my ‘contractual professional obligation’,” she says, partly serious, partly making light of the situation.
Ashton with her fiance, Tom Hiddleston, at the Baftas in March 2022. Photograph: Getty Images
Ashton landed in New York for the film’s premiere just as news broke that Roe v Wade had been overturned. “I thought: ‘Oh God, there’s nothing more tone deaf I could be doing right now than promoting a lighthearted movie.’ I was also very aware that my presence in that promotion would be as a pregnant person.” She argues that it’s more important than ever that the different journeys of child-bearing people are acknowledged. “We’re having very important conversations about the autonomy we have over our bodies. What better autonomy could I have than just doing it how I wanted to do it?” Ashton is conscious that not everyone has had the same experience. “I have so many friends who have been through real grief, with regards to pregnancy and conception. I hope I can represent anyone on this journey, in whatever way they’re on it. Cos it doesn’t get more ancient than this,” she says jokingly, nodding to the fact that she’s having her first child in her late 30s.
Ashton grew up in east London in a tight family unit with her Ugandan mother and English father, both teachers. She started acting when she was a child and has never been short of work; as well as her breakout role in Fresh Meat, she had parts in films ranging from St Trinian’s 2 to Nocturnal Animals, and more recently appeared in the fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet before Mr Malcolm’s List, she had never starred in a period drama.
The film, set in 19th-century Britain, follows the hilarious and often devious character of Julia Thistlewaite (Ashton), who is in her fourth season of seeking a match in high society and at very real risk of being labelled past it. Her character plots revenge against the eligible bachelor Mr Malcolm (Sopé Dìrísù) after he rejects her for failing to meet all the criteria on his list of attributes for a prospective wife. She enlists the help of her cousin Selina (Freida Pinto), with whom she hopes he will fall in love, only for her to break his heart or at least massively embarrass him. It’s a role that makes the most of Ashton’s comic timing, and it’s unsurprising that her performance has been the most talked about of the film.
Dress: Carolina Herrera. Floral hats: JR Malpere. Photograph: Jacob Pritchard/The Guardian
It wasn’t until watching Bridgerton that Ashton imagined finding a place for herself within the period genre. After falling in love with a world filled with romance, gossip and high tea, she sent her team an email saying: “‘Put me in a corset asap’ – but I didn’t think of it as on course to happening!” With the serendipity of the best romantic comedy, it wasn’t long before the call for Mr Malcolm’s List came through. The actor who had previously been cast in the lead role had dropped out, and Ashton was given just 24 hours to decide whether she wanted it. Despite being second choice, she accepted enthusiastically. “You mustn’t have any ego about this as an actor,” she says. “Film-making is intricate, it’s difficult, it’s expensive, it’s weird. And wherever you end up is wherever you end up. So I was just stoked to do it, because I had just watched Bridgerton, and I’m not going to lie, I thought: ‘The door is open!’”
That wasn’t always the case.
Ashton tells me that when she was studying acting in Manchester, teachers adopted a white-centric approach to period drama. “There was this terrible time when you had to do period pieces where the reference, or sometimes the explicit message, was that anyone of colour in the cast had to imagine themselves as white,” she recalls with dismay. “That’s actually what a director said to us as a group when we were doing a Restoration comedy. And you can imagine the comedy immediately left the bones of the seven people of colour.” Ashton, of course, is far from the first Black actor to share the traumas of being a minority within a majority-white acting class, which is why she’s now taking the time to deliver talks and connect with other students. “I’ve decided to dedicate myself to that this year,” she says.
As a self-described “creative chameleon”, it didn’t make sense to Ashton that the artistic fantasies of others didn’t stretch to seeing Black people step into worlds or characters unknown. “I couldn’t understand why the imagination I had as a reader of classic pieces was not being interpreted on screen.” She finds it absurd that it has taken almost 32 years of acting for her to be tasked with putting on a bonnet. “Sometimes there’s this undertone, like: ‘Well done for retaining enough energy to wait for this moment to happen.’ And that’s a little bit how it feels to step into period drama.”
The process of getting into this character was like allowing myself to feel joyful, silly, tender, clumsy, goofy, soft
Many of the roles Ashton played before Mr Malcolm’s List had been harrowing (with the notable exception of Fresh Meat). Earlier this year she starred as a survivor of sexual assault in Lucy Kirkwood’s urgent 25-minute BBC drama Maryland, a work filled with the collective anger of women fed up with a failing criminal justice system. In Dreams of a Life (released in 2011, the same year Fresh Meat premiered), she played the near-silent role of Joyce Carol Vincent, the north London woman whose dead body lay in front of her television for three years before anyone noticed she was gone.
The intensity of those characters’ worlds sits in stark contrast to the jubilance of Ashton’s latest part. She revelled in the chance to go light. “The process of getting into this character was like allowing myself to feel joyful, silly, tender, clumsy, goofy, soft.” These are, she suggests, states of being that Black women are often assumed not to experience. “I thought: ‘Why would anyone think that my peers and I were incapable of this joyful, tender thing?’ What’s that about?”
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You’re allowed to play a fun role, I point out. “I am absolutely allowed!” she says. “I realised that for myself at some point in filming. That was a huge penny that dropped.”
She reflects on a protest she attended in east London recently, in response to the story of Child Q, the 15-year‑old schoolgirl who was strip-searched by police officers in 2020 after school staff falsely accused her of having marijuana in her possession. Child Q was menstruating at the time. Teachers and officers didn’t contact her parents before she was searched, and no other adults were present. As Ashton speaks, it is evident just how much the abuse experienced by Child Q disturbed her. ‘‘I went to the protest with a placard bearing a slogan that the writer Bonnie Greer had given me. She was like: ‘Why are people trying to take tenderness from young Black children?’ And I thought that was such a poetic way of putting it. So instead of something very boldly antagonistic, which is where your mind goes when you write a placard for any type of protest, I wrote: ‘Stop killing young Black children’s dreams’. Then I scrubbed that out, and put: ‘Let Black children dream’.”
Ashton might be starring in period dramas and Marvel movies these days, but not long ago she was on the verge of giving up acting altogether; she was worried about being typecast after five years of starring in Fresh Meat. “There are strange things that happen when you leave episodic television, and I think this applies in the UK and the US. There’s a really weird chunk of time where everyone wants you to do the same thing again.” She points to the example of Friends. “Look at the stalling Joey spin-off. Look at the subsequent difficult realigning of identities that someone like Matthew Perry, who played Chandler, went through.”
Ashton as Vod in Fresh Meat. Photograph: Channel 4
She briefly moved to the Kent seaside town of Margate in 2018 to clear her head; it helped her return to the industry refreshed. After years of navigating entertainment, she had been on the verge of burning out. “I think it’s because I started young, before any pendulum swing in the industry. I’ve seen it all at this point. The stories I could tell – I mean, that’s the reason I wrote Character Breakdown,” she says, referring to the book she published in 2019, which explores the horrors of the TV and film industry through a mix of fiction and memoir. It’s both shocking and humorous, and includes imagined scenes that reflect the power plays between film-makers, actors and agents. After her brief hiatus from the industry, the role to reel her back into the world of entertainment was, fittingly, that of a gallerist in 2019’s Velvet Buzzsaw, a horror-thriller situated in the world of fine art that asks the question: who is in control – the artist or the industry?
Reflecting on the Ashton of now versus the Ashton who rose to fame in Fresh Meat (the show turned 10 last year), she is more focused on the parts of herself that stayed the same rather than the elements that have changed. “I’m still someone who wants to create interesting characters,” she says. “I’m also someone who loves being part of a loving ensemble – that’s where I always feel most alive. I still love Manchester. I’m not that person any more, but I don’t really know in which ways I’m not – that’s so weird, isn’t it?”
Dress: Carolina Herrera. Hat: Eric Javits. Photograph: Jacob Pritchard/The Guardian
It has been intriguing for Ashton to witness the ways people have seen themselves reflected in the character of Vod. “A student said to me: ‘You are the first person of colour I saw representing any sort of flavour of non-binary or punk or queerness on television.’” She recognises the huge responsibility that comes with that status.
Part of the reason Vod has chimed with so many young people who find themselves occupying a space outside the norm is Ashton’s unwavering determination to create complicated characters over likable ones. “The show’s brilliant creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong wanted me to play it like Vod’s really cool. I said, early on: ‘I won’t be able to create someone cool for you, but I will be able to create someone who doesn’t give a fuck.’”
There is a widespread sense that, because there has been so little representation of marginalised perspectives within the film and TV industry, each character who does make it on to the screen must represent every minority experience, which, of course, it cannot. It’s something that has long frustrated Ashton. “Reading Toni Morrison taught me from a very early age that the personal is universal. Anyone who tries to tell you it’s not has to think about that. That’s also just the way art works. You know, it doesn’t need to be liked all the time. This is what I can’t bear! I don’t care.”
Someone who instilled this mantra within Ashton is the groundbreaking Black artist Lorraine O’Grady. During a series of documentaries she recorded with the artist ahead of the Tate exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power in 2017, Ashton learned that O’Grady had been shunned by some of the Black artist networks in New York because her work extended beyond the concerns of Black struggle. Yet, at 87, O’Grady continues to create the art she wants to see. “Is she someone who goes to bed at night feeling a bit sad that she was outcast by certain communities? Yes. Has she let it take her away from her gut and her heart, and her own experience? No, she has not.”
Dress: Carolina Herrera. Floral hat: JR Malpere. Photograph: Jacob Pritchard/The Guardian
Having taken inspiration from O’Grady, how have Ashton’s own personal struggles affected her professional life? “They say the same things you struggle with as a person are the same things you struggle with as an actor,” she says. “There was a point when I couldn’t cry on cue. I was like, ‘God I’m just a crap actor, everyone else seems to be able to act loads of stuff, and it’s just me.’ And, actually, it was me. I had a lot of unprocessed sadness and trauma that wasn’t ready to come out in my own life, let alone when someone snapped their fingers and said to cry on behalf of someone else.”
What eventually allowed Ashton to process her own trauma was her writing. In 2019, she wrote a play called For All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad, exploring how workplace dynamics affect Black women. “There is an instant feeling of writing from places that need releasing, writing about something that was traumatising me. So I’m changing the world and changing myself at the same time, and that’s still how I write now.”
And when Ashton isn’t making sense of the world’s traumas, past, present and future, what does she do for fun? She really has to think about this one, not because there isn’t joy in her life – it’s full of it – but because her life’s enjoyments are in many ways tied up in her work. “I feel attacked,” she says through a giggle, as I list some possible activities that she could do for fun outside of the classic film club she joined during lockdown, or the books she reads (she hosted last year’s Women’s prize for fiction podcast).
“I want to get back to the sea,” she says. “It changed my whole headspace. And I should take up gardening.” A day later, she sends me a follow-up email, concerned I might think she’s forgotten how to have fun. “I gave the most post-Covid answer to my free-time question. Forgetting that I love art galleries, live music, yoga and pilates, acupuncture and painting. Sometimes I’m still operating from a place of captivity!”
It’s time for Ashton to go. Hobbies or not, she has plenty on the horizon: she is a woman on the verge of everything from Marvel to motherhood. But, amid the upheaval, she appears to have found a new equilibrium. “I think over the past five years I’ve realised that the only way to do anything in this industry is to be anchored in myself,” she says. “As long as I have that, everything else will fall into place.”
Mr Malcolm’s List is released in the UK on 26 August and is out now in the US.