Zawe Ashton is an English actress, playwright and director best known for roles in Channel 4 comedy dramas Not Safe for Work and Fresh Meat. Other credits include feature films Blitz and St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold. Her new book “Character Breakdown” is what Zawe describes as an “unconventional memoir that charts autobiographical chapters” throughout her career. (Image credit: BFI)
Joy; Welcome to Alt A on the red carpet at the BFI & Radio Times Television festival what can you tell us about your book “Character Breakdown”?
Zawe: It is an unconventional memoir that charts autobiographical chapters throughout my career. As a child I started acting when I was 6 and it is also thread through with fictional scenes told from the perspective of a character called Actress who is having a breakdown because of a lifetime spent performing.
Joy: So, when did you start acting and realized this is what you wanted to do?
Zawe: I started age six. I went to a class in North London called the Anna Scher Theatre and so many people pass through its door’s incredible actors,directors. And it was just a place to go and express yourself. It wasn’t really about being on TV it wasn’t about me famous or being a star and in fact those two words were banned from the classes which I think was so smart. But I just knew when I walked in on the first day that this was what I wanted to do. That makes me quite a weird 6-year-old, I am aware of that.
Joy: So, we are here at the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival why is this an important event in the calendar?
The BFI has been one of my spiritual homes for a very long time. It feels so great to be in a cinema, in a kinda of film context but talking about the elements that go into making TV. I think its sort of a time for TV right now. TV is becoming a more cinematic experience I think as it becomes more complex and as it becomes more sophisticated, platforms start changing. So, it just feels like it straddles all the different worlds I belong to. I just love it here to be honest.
Joy: So, talking about characters you are on stage with Tom Hiddleston in Betrayal tell us a bit about that?
Zawe: Yes, I’m on stage with Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, we also have the brilliant Eddie Arnold who is playing the waiter which is a very key role. It is brilliant, who does not think Pinter is this incredible icon whose work is so visceral and so real, and it tells the story of a seven-year affair and the betrayals that happened between two best friends and a husband and wife. And it just feels personal of our times because there’s so much choice out there and there’s so many ways that we’re also suppressing our real needs and just trying to get on and do the right thing and actually sometimes it’s not about that sometimes it’s about being free and moving forward with your life grabbing the things that you want selfishly and Pinter just seems to weave those complexities together so brilliantly.
Joy: So back to the book tells us about some of the research that went behind it and how long did it take to write?
Zawe: It took me about two years to write. I did not have to any research because it is my life. But it’s worth saying that a character breakdown is a breakdown that you get for a character when you go for an audition and that’s what I’m playing with in the title. These breakdowns are often very two dimensional. Often, they don’t have a great amount to go on and you can find especially as a woman that you start to feel very diminished by them. And I just got to point where I thought you know what just because I’m an actor I do not have to put up with this anymore I don’t have to internalize this crap anymore. And so, I kind of play with each chapter being named after a character heading. A two-dimensional character heading but then still fleshing out with the three dimensions of my experience.
Joy: What’s are you working on next?
Zawe: Pretty quickly after Betrayal I have two productions of the same play at the end of the year. The play that I wrote called for All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad. I wrote it 10 years ago which deals specifically with the over medicalization of women from the African diaspora in the West. And that is going to be on at Stoke Newington Town Hall in October and simultaneously Soho Rep in New York in October as well. So, I go to New York in July to workshop it and that would be my life for the next couple of months.
Joy: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure speaking to you.
Interested in acting: https://www.annaschertheatre.com/classes