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Zawe Ashton

As one of the most fierce creatives to make her way into our worlds over the recent past, Zawe Ashton continues to break the mould on what’s truly cool. Creating her own unique mark and not letting the industry dictate her world, Zawe began her career in the acting world which has seen her lead with roles in Velvet Buzzsaw + Mr. Malcolm’s List. She has branched out into podcast hosting while also becoming the author of an incredibly insightful, raw + vulnerable book ‘Character Breakdown’ which she speaks about here with us.

Describe your book “Character Breakdown” in 5 words
Fact, fiction, human, system, womanROADS – What brought you to write your incredible book?ZA – A tragi-comic TV pilot that I wrote from the perspective of a young woman having an existential crisis was turned down by the network that optioned it. We hadn’t yet reached the Golden Age we’re in now of multi-hyphenate women artists being given the freedom to write truthfully and messily about their own lives and have that material be celebrated and produced without fear. The then defunct script found itself in the hands of my now book agent, who asked me for coffee to ask if I’d ever considered writing a book from that perspective and with that tone of voice. I certainly hadn’t, the idea of writing continuous prose instead of dialogue and stage directions petrified me. The conversation set in motion the idea that my life already seemed to resemble the structure of books and the fluidity of script. Fact and fiction. My real life felt like prose and my performing life was always a new character. I went home and wrote twenty pages of fac-tion (fact and fiction) with my own existential crisis as the jumping off point. I had really crashed at a point in my late 20’s when the pressure of performing as a human woman and as a human actress had collided, causing a kind of catatonia I had never experienced. As I began to write, I knew that it could be a book that spoke to the human condition and our relationship to performance, not just the condition of artists. It took two years and in the middle of that process the #MeToo movement was re-born. The unveiling of the sexual predators at large in our industry was finally happening and so that was a pivot point in my writing that came with a whole wave of new inspiration and a fearlessness to write more deeply and truthfully in the chapters centered on the entertainment industry. Each chapter in the book is based on – mostly real life – two dimensional and prejudicial breakdowns of character that you read as an actress almost every day.

How does it feel to have your work circulate in the world?
I wrote the book as a lifeline for myself and by extension for anyone who read it. There’s nothing like being published. It’s a sense of legacy even more profound than making work captured on film. The most wonderful feedback I ever got was from a young person who approached me a year after the first lockdown and told me the book had saved their life.
ROADS – Your top moments as the host of “Bookshelfie”..ZA – This has been like the fantasy dinner party of my dreams. Curating the list of women to speak with this season has been the most joyful and inspiring process. Too many top moments to mention here! Every woman was her own highlight and really brought the honesty and emotion in relation to their reading lives that you would hope, talking about books and your reading journey is strangely emotional. I will say securing Malorie Blackman as our final episode was very emotional for me. She doesn’t do many interviews at all any more and she’s a huge icon for me. Reading her first novel Hacker at 8/9 was the first time I’d read a black family at the centre of an aspirational novel. It was life changing to say the least.
Please do listen back to season four and rate and subscribe so we can keep amplifying women in literature!

Things you’re excited about for the future.. There’s so much unrest in the world, so I am trying to remain positive about the things I have more control over like work. I’m really excited for the release of my new film Malcolm’s List this summer. It’s an inclusive and representational cast heading up a sweeping period romp. It’s my first time in anything period after years of being an actor and the genre being almost exclusively Caucasian from a casting perspective. There’s huge conversations to be had around the inclusivity in this genre – not just from a stand point of present day change but also educating people on the reality of the historical context of these films and these landscapes. People of Colour were there, we were there populating spaces in so many different kinds of ways. The erasure in this genre on TV and film is embarrassing and finally changing with so many projects like Hamilton, Bridgerton, David Copperfield and the recent Anne Boleyn with Jodie Turner Smith. Telling the stories of the past with the actors of today is something Lin Manuel Miranda advocates for so beautifully! He created a cultural happening that couldn’t be unseen in Hamilton. There’s been steady progress ever since.

Who/what is inspiring you right now?
Sistah Space – a charity Founded in November 2015. It’s a community-based non-profit initiative created to bridge the gap in domestic abuse services for women and girls from the African diaspora. They have a shop and centre in Dalston and their services are undeniable. They are a force for change, pushing parliament to create Valerie’s Law. Named after Valerie Forde, a black woman who lost her life and the life of her daughter to an abusive ex with no police intervention despite extensive calls and reports. Valerie’s Law advocates for mandatory Cultural Competency training that accounts for the cultural nuances and barriers, colloquialisms, languages and customs that make up the diverse black community. Valerie’s Law will enable police officers, relevant government agencies and domestic violence safe-house staff to acknowledge and protect black women in abusive situations through

What is your most memorable scent association?
Great question. The inside of my Mums handbag as a child. A mixture of Chanel No 5, lipstick and pressed powder.