Zawe Ashton: 'The views expressed here are not my own'
She's the drug-addled, foul-mouthed student who steals the show in Channel 4's Fresh Meat, but Zawe Ashton is a lot more nuanced than her character. Now the actress is starting to put her own strongly-held opinions into words for stage and screen, as she tells Gerard Gilbert
How do you pronounce David Bowie? Do you go with 'Bough-wee', as in the bough of a tree, or 'Bow-wee', as in a bow and arrow? According to the oracle on these matters, the BBC Pronunciation Unit, it's the latter that is correct – a moot point for actress Zawe Ashton, who is in the habit of telling people that her first name is "Zawe as in Bowie", but who now thinks she might have been telling people to call her Zoe. Anyway, Zawe is short for Zawedde, which, in Uganda, means 'princess', and, as Ashton says with a theatrical roll of her eyes: "It's a lot to live up to. I love it though, because it's also my grandmother's name".
There is something a touch regal about Ashton – she's certainly Amazonian tall, with a deep, clear voice, a face that manages to be simultaneously deadpan and expressive. Streetwise, you might say. We're sitting outside an organic café five minutes from her parents' house in Stoke Newington, the gentrified part of Hackney in north London and a bit of a 'nappy valley' it seems. "It's all kids now… there aren't actually any adults, it's run by five-year-olds," she remarks, as a nearby five-year-old bangs a piece of metal against the concrete floor, beamed at by his proud mother. "But what's brilliant about Hackney is that you have always had lots of different people literally living side by side."
More about Ashton's not-always easy upbringing in this east London melting-pot later, however, because we need to speak about the reason that we're conducting this interview in the first place – her show-stealing character, Vod, in Channel 4's lovely student house-share comedy-drama, Fresh Meat. Created by Peep Show writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, Fresh Meat is instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever passed through higher education, and features a cross-section of well-drawn undergraduate types: Jack Whitehall as a brash but insecure ex-public-schoolboy, Charlotte Ritchie as Oregon, the middle-class girl (her real name is Melissa) pretending to be 'street', Joe Thomas from The Inbetweeners as a virgin geology student with feelings for fellow housemate Josie (Kimberley Nixon). And there is Greg McHugh's splendid turn as the socially-illiterate eternal student Howard, given to air-drying Peking duck in his underpants and attacking all-you-can-eat buffets with military precision.
But Fresh Meat's most vivid and original character has to be Ashton's Vod, a straight-talking literature student on an RAF officer bursary given to copying Oregon's course-work and overdosing on drugs, and whose lecture-hall rant about Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children ("there's a pompous fat man sitting on my face") has become a YouTube favourite. "The number of people who have said 'Right on… that's what I feel about that book'," she says, with a slight look of embarrassment. "I say, 'Look, the views expressed here are not my own'.
"A lot of people do approach me in a way someone might approach Vod," she says. "We were having a lovely time in this little bar in Manchester on my birthday, and this group of people came up to me and were like 'Oh come on, we're all going on somewhere – let's get high, let's go out'. And I'm like, 'I'm literally finishing this glass of wine and then I'm going home'. And one of them said, 'Oh right, you're not that girl are you?' And, no, I'm just not that girl. I did this interview a while back and I had, like, a caption above my head saying, 'Zawe Ashton… I'm a massive disappointment'."
Ashton is no disappointment; in fact she's delightful – funny and smart – and anyway it would be a nightmare to try to interview someone who really was like Vod. How much did she bring to the role, or was it all in the script? "There was no character break-down," she says. "I think it said that she was into music and into weird comic books, so that was all I had to go on. She's so frank and bereft of subtext that I had images of roadies I have known in my time. And Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses for some reason came into my head…"
One of the neat things about Fresh Meat is how life imitates art – for here was a diverse group of young strangers, actors rather than students, thrown together in Manchester. "It really was like being students – we even all lived in the same block," says Ashton. "Last year [for the first series] we went out and used the social lubricant of alcohol, just like students. But this time, the crew said, 'You guys are being well behaved'. And we're like, 'We know… we don't know what's happened to us… help!' Lots of early nights, nice dinners… glasses of wine… and then bed. So it was like the second term.
"We're all so different on that set, especially what we have done acting-wise. We call ourselves the Royal Tenenbaums – we're like a weird Wes Anderson family, so dysfunctional and functional at the same time. You only have to look at a picture of us at the Baftas on the red carpet getting our photo taken. Everyone is looking in different directions.
"Coming back for the second series has been amazing because everyone's been doing other things – like that period of growth you have on those holidays away from uni," she says, and revealing that in the new series Vod finally gets a boyfriend – rather like Ashton herself, who is dating an unnamed documentary-maker whom she doesn't like to speak about in interviews.
Ashton was born not far from where we are sitting, 27 years ago, the eldest of three children, her mother a teacher from Uganda who came to Britain in her teens, while her white, English father was also a teacher who later became an education programmer for Channel 4. It was her mother, Victoria, who pushed the young Zawe into anything that came along – whether it be swimming lessons or (from the age of five) classes at the legendary Anna Scher's theatre school in Islington, whose alumni include Kathy Burke and countless stars of EastEnders.
She appeared on television throughout her schooldays – in the Nineties children's TV drama, The Demon Headmaster, for example, and (her proudest child-actor memory) in the Channel 4 sitcom Desmond's, "playing one of three kids walking across a zebra crossing and giving Pork Pie (who had decided to become a lollipop man) some grief".
It was, however, the schoolgirl Ashton who was receiving some grief, thanks to the jealousy inspired by these TV acting gigs. "I had people wanting to beat me up at the back gates," she says. "There were threats of physical violence, but even when it was about to go down, I somehow managed to just chat my way out of it."
Despite having to move secondary school because of the bullying, Ashton is proud of the way she survived. "I'm thankful for it now," she says. "I can see how it's shaped me. Anna Scher used to say 'Anyone can do it while the going's good; if you can do it when the going's bad you're probably on to something'."
Drama school in Manchester ensued, and Ashton has hardly been out of work since, paying her dues in the familiar litany of The Bill, Casualty and Holby City. She also featured in the pilot episode of Sherlock and the second series of Misfits, as well as appearing in the movie sequel, St Trinian's II. Perhaps her meatiest role to date was as Joyce Vincent, the 38-year-old ex-City worker whose body lay undiscovered in her London flat for three years, in the acclaimed drama-documentary, Dreams of a Life.
Next comes the second run of the BBC1 detective series, Case Histories, once again playing private detective Jason Isaacs's "light relief" PA. But as with many a modern young actress with designs on longevity, Ashton has developed a second string to her bow – writing.
She completed her first play at the age of 11, under the guidance of Anna Scher ("it was called Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses and it was about an evil doll"), and took up performance poetry at 17, winning the London Poetry Slam Championship in 2000. In 2006, she was Young Writer in Residence at the Contact Theatre in Manchester, and her first play, Harm's Way, was premiered at the Lowry in Salford in 2008. She is currently under commission to the Bush Theatre, and to the Clean Break theatre company, the charity for which she has worked for the past two years "helping to rehabilitate women ex-offenders through the medium of theatre and writing. My commission will hopefully include a residency in a prison.
"In terms of writing good parts for women, [writing] doesn't feel like a choice," says Ashton. "It's the only longevity I can see." To that end she is also currently working on the script for a BBC series based on an idea suggested to her by Idris Elba, star of Luther and The Wire. "We have the same agent and we met at a Christmas party," says Ashton. "We found out that we're from the same place, and that we're cut from a similar cloth… He's in a position now where he wants to nurture new talent and he said, 'I want you to be in this and if you want to write it then go for it'."
Enough to be getting on with, you'd think, but there is also the BBC costume drama that Ashton has been developing and that she doesn't want to talk about ("I don't know if I'm allowed to…"), as well as the short film she has just finished writing, but doesn't want to discuss for a different reason ("Someone might steal my idea"). And if that wasn't enough, she also has designs on directing – echoing the Parade's End director Susanna White's recent comments about the dearth of women behind the camera. "There is an urgent need for more female directors."
If being a woman in the film industry wasn't difficult enough, does being a woman of colour make it harder still? "Absolutely," she says. "I had a meeting a while back with a big group of women – actors and producers and writers – who are all ethnic minorities and we just aired what we thought was happening and why, and someone said that, as a black or mixed race actress, you feel like you're renting space instead of carving out a career.
"But I'm just going to get on with it. It's all about being specific, because I'm having the time of my life. Dreams of a Life and Fresh Meat have left me on such a high. I'm not complaining but I'm not complacent either. There's still a mountain to climb."
'Fresh Meat' returns to Channel 4 on 9 October
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