interview | zawe ashton

dress. Rejina Pyo
earrings. Jessica McCormack
gloves. Paula Rowan

Actor, director and writer Zawe Ashton has no interest in being perfect. Drawn to the messiness of being a villain, Ashton uncovers the heartbreak behind the anti-hero as she takes on the role of the formidable, Dar-Benn, in Nia DaCosta’s The Marvels. Relishing the chance to make “her-story”, Ashton and DaCosta bonded over literature and their joint vision for an empowered, all-female, ethnically diverse ensemble. The lack of diversity on screen wasn’t lost on Ashton growing up as an aspiring actress – the ability to rectify that and heal her inner child is a mission Ashton is grabbing with both hands. 

The vastness of the Marvel realm means most actors in Hollywood have their Marvel audition story. For Ashton, there had been previous close encounters, narrowly missing out in the latter stages. But with DaCosta, it was different. Ashton recalls, “We bonded over literature. Nia wanted to make a very small movie based on a Jane Austen novel and I was absolutely into this so we talked for a good couple of hours. But instead, what ended up happening was her asking me to play a villain in this movie… The process was so natural, I didn’t have to think so it made my goal really clear to serve Nia’s vision. Being part of this piece of “her-story” with the youngest black woman to direct a Marvel film felt extremely important as a moment in my career.”

A departure from her traumatic high school physical education lessons, Ashton felt empowered by the experience of getting into physical shape for the role, all while transitioning into motherhood. “It ended up being transformative. The entire stunt team I worked with touched my heart in such a deep way… They helped me realise a physical world so far removed from botched PE classes that had made me think that I couldn’t be a physically strong person. It was very powerful.” 

It was also the opportunity to set her inner child free on set that made the transformation into Dar-Benn so liberating. She enthuses, “Having the inner child run wild was the best – and scariest – part of this film… I had to play which most of us haven’t done since the sandpit. So indulging in that was a very unique experience to have in front of thousands of people. But it was so fun – I honestly loved every second of it.”

But it was her character’s vulnerability that Ashton sought to capture. “Anti-heroes have always been attractive to me. As a child, I was drawn to the reasons for why they did what they did. So I was always really satisfied when we got to see their vulnerabilities that helped us to understand them.” And while egos often get in the way, Ashton had no qualms playing the villain. “I honestly feel like the responsibility to be the hero would be too much on my shoulders. I’m very comfortable in a space where I don’t have to present as perfect, where I get to be a bit messy or a bit frightening or a bit off centre… I always find that a very interesting journey to see why someone on the outside wants to carry out what they want to carry out.”

dress. Bora Aksu
headpiece. Susan Fang
dress + cape. The Vampires Wife
shoes. Roger Vivier
earrings. Yves Saint Laurent + 4element
gloves. Paula Rowan

Despite history being made with The Marvels, Ashton isn’t shying away from debates around wider representation across the film and TV industry. She considers, “Being part of a completely female driven cast is really important – bringing different ethnicities to the screen heals the inner child within me. I think back to myself as a young girl looking to film and entertainment and not seeing a broad spectrum of representation, and how that was more damaging than I could have realised or vocalised at that age. So being part of something that makes another little girl not have to experience that is very moving.”

And while she’s hopeful for the future, Ashton knows there’s still a long way to go. “I think the scale is tipping. But there is still a huge amount to do to truly, holistically balance out the things that need to be balanced out to have a healthier industry. I feel very grateful to at least be on that road and be part of the conversation… There are so many voiceless people out there, who should probably have the mic instead. But this industry is extremely powerful in terms of how we interact with it. So I’m really aware that I have this platform because of the work that I do.”

Not content with shaping conversations on screen, Ashton is also changing the narrative through her work as a writer and director. She muses, “There are a lot of stories that are brewing inside of me that I’m desperate to get out… You get to a certain point in life where you have this incredible vantage point over a huge portion of your lived experience that you can’t really access while you’re still living it. One of the benefits of aging is that your creativity really can deepen. You have even more life experience to draw from and more creative ways of looking at that life experience. It’s another way for me to process life.”

With so many stories to tell, one character that remains a cherished favourite is the enigmatic, if not slightly deluded, Vod from Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s, Fresh Meat. Ashton enthuses, “I cherish her as a character so deeply. I cherish the team that helped bring her to life – all the amazing production and design team who were all part of bringing her weird and wonderful world to life. Often as an actor you can be known for a role that has a small trauma attached to it, so the character becomes an avatar that you feel slightly trapped in because how you view the character isn’t how the audience see the avatar, so I was lucky. It’s one of the biggest achievements in my career so far!”

As Ashton continues to find her voice both on and off screen, she’s discovering new realms of possibilities.

dress + cape. The Vampires Wife
shoes. Roger Vivier
earrings. Yves Saint Laurent + 4element
gloves. Paula Rowan
dress + gloves. Richard Quinn
shoes. Christian Louboutin
earrings. Chanel Vintage + 4element

The Marvels is in theatres now.

photography. Ryan Saradjola @ Monday Artists
fashion. Kate Sinclair
talent. Zawe Ashton
hair. Earl Simms @ Caren Agency using Sam McKnight
make up. Kim Kiefer @ A Frank Agency using Laura Mercier
production. Clara La Rosa
fashion assistant. Izzy Gibbs
make up assistant. Annabel Clark Clem
location. The Lane London
interview. Katie Shuff



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