From Jackanory to The Royal Court, actor Zawe Ashton has had a strikingly varied career. The NYT graduate and rising star of stage and screen tells us how a typewriter and drama class led to a professional writing career and box office opportunities…
I did drama at the Anna Scher theatre, which also had an agency, so I started acting professionally at six or seven. Casting directors would come in and I got my first job on Jackanory.
As a kid I was always writing short stories; I was given a typewriter at nine and you couldn’t hear yourself think for the clicking. When I moved up to Manchester to do my drama school training I kept it up and the two started merging together. I was writing and performing my own poetry throughout drama school. The poems started to take on different voices, almost like dialogue, probably because I was reading so many plays.
As a young, mixed-race, female actor I wanted to go to drama school because I didn’t want to be typecast. Drama school made me realise that I was well within my rights to aspire to play classical leads as well as the thief and prostitute roles I had played in my early professional career.
I entered my first ever play in the Verity Bargate award through the Soho Theatre, which will be launching again in March. It has a £5,000 prize and my play was shortlisted for the award and was produced at The Lowry Theatre. That was the beginning of my writing career.
Funnily enough, I had redrafted the play while appearing as Bianca in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe. I didn’t appear for the whole first act so took that opportunity to work. I then found out I had been nominated when I was working at the Royal Court Theatre in two plays, ‘Rhinoceros’ and ‘The Arsonists’. I had to go to the awards ceremony in full 50’s make-up, with curlers in my hair under a hat so that I could run back in time to perform on stage that night!
The Royal Court has been a huge champion of my work both as an actor and a writer. My second play was nominated for their Young Writers Festival after I had been part of their Invited Writers group.
I write in a thunderbolt. I can’t plan to write, which is quite annoying, especially when you’re working under commission [as she is for Clean Break]. If an idea comes, I just have to drag my computer to wherever I am.
My writer’s head and my actor’s head are separate. Although I do have much more of an awareness of the sheer effort, time and love that goes in to writing a play.
When it comes to auditions, there is no better advice than just be prepared. You are an investment; something that you want people to invest in. So present yourself in the best way possible.
Being a writer, and having cast plays was an insight in to the dos and don’ts of auditioning. You just don’t go for the person who hasn’t read the script, or only read half of it, or doesn’t have any questions.
Over Christmas I made a film called ‘Dreams of a Life’. It’s about a real woman called Joyce Vincent who died in her flat, and wasn’t found for about three years. Not only is it an amazing story, it’s probably been the most challenging of my film work so far. Also, I’m in a film called Blitz, which comes out in June, which is a big blockbuster with Jason Statham and Paddy Considine. That will be my big film debut, I suppose.
Zawe was talking to Nell Frizzell.
To find out about Zawe’s work for Clean Break, visit their website.