Zawe Ashton, star of St Trinian's
By Fiona Keating on March 24th 2011
I'm having coffee with Zawe Ashton on a quiet corner near Foster Lane, with St Paul's Cathedral in the background. She starts laughing and looking over my shoulder. I turn around to see a larger-than-life hoarding of a model in the Topshop window, who has a wide, gap-toothed smile. It's all the rage now, as everyone wants that look, spearheaded by supermodel Lara Stone, who has teeth as big as tombstones. Ashton is having a wry chuckle as she remembers advice given to her by a modelling agent as a teenager. "She said to me my look was good but that I'd have to fill up the gap in my front teeth. My mother just said: 'Right, we're out of here!"
It's support like this - the ability to walk away from 'professional advice' that has made Ashton determined the direction her work will take in the acting world. The 26-year old is already a veteran in the industry. "I got my first professional job when I was six in Jackanory - I loved that show. I've been working professionally all through my school life. Tongue in cheek, she says: "I've been in the business for about 25 years!"
The roles that the Stoke Newington-based actress plays are tough and edgy. At 16, she got a part as a killer assassin in a film called NCS: Manhunt with David Suchet. The actress threw herself into the part. "I was holding a baby and holding a gun and threatening to kill someone. I'm not afraid of the darker world. Maybe that's why I got the part."
In the film Blitz, which comes out in May, Ashton plays a police woman who spirals out of control after she's attacked by a serial killer. The cop thriller is set in London and has a strong cast including Jason Statham, Mark Rylance, Aiden Gillen and David Morrissey.
At the same time as working in Blitz, Ashton was also filming St. Trinian's II: The Legend of Fritton's Gold, where she plays the part of Bianca, the leader of a group of rude girls. She feels it was more of a comedy role and came as a welcome relief to lark about. "There's loads of bling but its' also really funny. A few months previously I played a really violent rude girl. Obviously I couldn't go in like that and scare young people and directors!"
I wonder if she ever worries about getting typecast in these roles. "I have played a lot of muggers and prostitutes. My dad always laughs about it," she says. Ashton gets strong support from her family. I ask her if she has experienced prejudice as a mixed-race woman (she has a Ugandan mother and English father). "I steer clear of labels," she explains. "Usually I just say I'm from London. It's an amazing melting pot of races. There's a great Oprah Winfrey tweet - Excellence is the only way to combat prejudice - which was very inspirational to me."
Admittedly, the characters Ashton tends to play are pretty meaty, and many actors would give their eye teeth to play. But Ashton also aspires to classical roles, and she already has her first Shakespearean role under her belt, having played Bianca in Othello at the Globe Theatre.
She is attracted to roles that have depth, which the actress attributes partly to her time at City & Islington College. "We studied a play called Masterpieces by Sarah Daniels which was all about snuff movies and where you draw the line on pornography. I had a mini-feminist awakening."
Ashton reveals that one of her latest roles in the docufeature Dreams of Life, is very close to her heart. "It's the most emotional project I've been involved in." There are not many roles that Ashton will shy away from. During her role in Salome by Oscar Wilde, she had to roll around in oil, do a striptease, and then as a finale, drink blood out of a severed head. What's next for the young actress? Maybe before her next pyscho killer role, she could go back to Jackanory for a bit of peace and quiet. The lull before the next storming role.
A VARIED CAREER
- The actress started her dramatic training at the Anna Sher theatre in Islington
- Ashton began entering poetry slams at the age of 17, and won the London Poetry Slam Championship in 2000
- Ashton was Resident Playwright for Clean Break, a theatre company who work with women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system
- The Royal Court has been a champion of Ashton, both as a writer and actor. Her second play was nominated for their Young Writers Festival
- Her acting credits include The Bill, EastEnders, Casualty and Holby City
- Ashton was named as one of Screen International's Stars of Tomorrow in 2009
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