First published by The Times Weekend on 15 September 2018
To encounter Zawe Ashton is to be enveloped by a warm whirlwind. When I arrive at a London restaurant to meet the actress, she hugs me. “How are you?” she asks enthusiastically, as though we’re old friends. She informs me that it’s the first day of her period, so I should be prepared for clumsiness. Then she peppers the waitress with questions about the wine list — but after every polite, “And is it a full-bodied red?” she looks sideways at me and delivers a funny, theatrical wink, as if to signal that she’s making it up as she goes along. After the waitress retreats, she turns to me and says: “I love pretending to dialogue with the sommelier.”
When I ask around about Ashton, I find that everyone who has crossed paths with her has been charmed. It’s not unusual for an actress to be charming, of course, but there’s something different about this tall, cheerful East Ender who has been in the business since she was six. It’s in the way Ashton, 34, presents two sides of herself at all times: one an earnest thinker, the other a joker, keen to puncture any suggestion of pretentiousness with gags.
The project we’re here to talk about is Wanderlust, the BBC One drama that started this month which everyone is now talking about. In it Ashton plays Claire, a witty, confident teacher who becomes involved in her colleague Alan’s open-marriage experiment. Alan and his wife, Joy, are played by Steven Mackintosh and Toni Collette. It is a strong cast, powered by Nick Payne’s sharp writing. “Claire is a woman who has decided that the traditional path when it comes to relationships is not for her,” says Ashton.
The show is an exploration of how non-monogamy might work in 2018. “I’m the same age as the character, and I can relate to Claire feeling like society might write her off because she’s come out of an amazing relationship and is going into something that feels very bohemian,” Ashton says. “But at the same time I’ve never been in a polyamorous relationship.” So, to get into the role, she conferred with a friend who has. “You’ve got to a point in your life where all options have to be open because you’ve tried everything else — and why wouldn’t you engage with new-found feminist situations? But t that she had suddenly got ill, and the person [she was seeing] couldn’t be around. She realised, ‘Oh right — this isn’t the person who I call when my life is not great, or I’m not sexy or I’m not chatty.’ At the moment, women are straddling this incredible precipice and on one side is all of the brilliant things that we can do, but on the other are still the hard rock formations of security.”
There has been much hype about the amount of sex in the show. “What is there to be shocked by any more?” says Ashton. “One of the best things I did for myself in my teenage years was to stop buying women’s magazines. I had been saturated with column inches talking about all the ways I should be having sex. So I think potentially what a BBC audience might be most unhappy about, underneath all the noise about raunchiness, is the fact that Wanderlust is tackling a sexless relationship and two people who are deciding what they do out of that. That to me is very edgy and very taboo.”
When we meet, she hasn’t watched it. “I’m preferring not to see myself having intercourse on screen,” she explains. She has also never talked publicly about her own love life. “I don’t hang around with famous people, so no one [in my life] has asked for that self-consciousness [they would feel if they were written about]. It’s similar to the reason why I don’t want to watch myself having sex — that’s not an element of self-interpretation that I need to have in my life as an anxious person.”
Anxiety looms large. Ashton has a long performing career, with appearances in the 1990s sitcom Game On and the children’s show The Demon Headmaster, but she has talent in other areas — she is on deadline with her first book and has directed short films and written plays (next spring she will stage For All The Women Who Thought They Were Mad, about the mistreatment of black women with mental illness). At the end of 2017 she was certain that it was time to drop acting. “I got to a point where I thought, ‘You have decided to do a job that aggravates every single cell of you that you’re trying to calm down.’ Then, going into the new year, suddenly Wanderlust happened and this movie happened, and all of a sudden I wasn’t quitting acting.”
The movie she’s referring to is Velvet Buzzsaw, due to be released on Netflix in 2019. It’s an art-world thriller by Nightcrawler’s Dan Gilroy, with a starry cast including Jake Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette (again). It’s not Ashton’s first Hollywood film — she was in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals — but she’s excited about it.
She wasn’t expecting it to be so enjoyable. “I went in there with boxing gloves on, thinking everybody in LA was going to be mean to me. They fire you out there! We don’t do that here. We’re, like, ‘Oh, she’s not very good . . . OK, the film will just have to be bad. Action!’ ” She laughs. “When you’re in an environment where you realise that time really is money, it can be terrifying and you wonder if people will tell you to lose weight or change your face. It couldn’t have been more different to that.”
Nevertheless, she has made changes: she no longer lives in London full-time, and has grown fond of Los Angeles, although this week she is cat-sitting in Margate in Kent. She grew up in Hackney, east London; her mother emigrated from Uganda as a teenager and met her English father here. They were both teachers, although her dad later worked in educational programming for Channel 4. “They’re 40 years married this year,” Ashton says. “I will not be telling them to watch Wanderlust.”
Although her trajectory suggests that this won’t be the case for ever, Ashton is still best known as Vod, the much-loved lawless, blustering character in the university sitcom Fresh Meat, which ran from 2011 to 2016. She was once followed into a shop by a boy who nervously handed her a flyer for his band. “He wanted to talk to Vod, so I was, like [she adopts Vod’s nonchalant, streetwise manner], ‘Yeah, cool. Might try it out, see what I’m doing later, whatever.’ I felt a real responsibility to be her for him.”
She doesn’t mind. “I can go to my grave saying that I created a cult TV character. In the 2040 spread of weird characters who were iconic at one stage on British television, maybe it’ll be me and Del Boy.”