Three Great Things: Zawe Ashton

The actor and writer, who's currently starring in the new movie Mr. Malcolm's List, on some of the stuff that makes her life richer.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the July 1 release in theaters of the new period romantic dramedy Mr. Malcolm’s List, starring Freida Pinto, Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Zawe Ashton and Theo James, fan-favorite actor and writer Ashton shared some of the things she loves most in life. — N.D.

The French New Wave
I love the films of the French New Wave. I was a film geek growing up and I worked in an independent cinema for many years. It was the first real job I had. I literally applied for it the day after my 18th birthday, because you had to be 18 to see all the movies.

I remember the cinema I worked at screening Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless; I don’t think I’d ever seen a film that felt like it articulated my own internal rhythm, with its disregard for traditional editing or linear storytelling. For a teenager who was looking for a filmmaking tribe and didn’t necessarily know how to find it, I felt like it was speaking immediately to me. I subsequently found out that Godard actually deliberately cut up Breathless to make it unreleasable, because producers had loved the original so much that he’d thought, “This doesn’t really feel like the agitative filmmaker I wanted to be. I don’t actually want producers to like what I do. I’m going to go and take a pair of scissors to this roll of film!” And then, of course, once he did that, everyone loved it even more and he became the genius he is today.

Watching French New Wave films, I was confronted with a whole new vocabulary for myself as an artist, as well as a new vocabulary of film. And then when I started to really dig in, I was in the land of Truffaut, Rohmer and Bresson. I came alive and I found my artistic voice, I found my true love, and I found a true allowance of loving an anti-hero – or an anti-love story or just an anti-anything. Those films created a real expansion inside of me and gave me a cinematic language I would never have had otherwise.

The Names of Paint Colors
I’m letting you into the weird crevices of my mind with this one … Often when I’m asked, “What would you be doing if you weren’t an actor?”, I will say something like a poet, a teacher or an athlete. But actually, I think I would be someone who makes up the names of paint colors or nail varnish colors, or the names of lacquers of any nature. There’s an irreverence and sometimes a depth to them. It would be my weird specialist skill to be able to look at a shade of off-white and not see just “off-white,” but instead see “Vintage Wedding Veil.” Or a type of yellow that was meant to go on your nails that indeed should not just be called “yellow,” it should be called “Buttermilk Afternoons.” With shades of green or blue, don’t try to compare them to anything in nature, for God’s sake, let’s call them something like “She’s Got to Have It.” I get it. I absolutely get that. That’s the shade of dark blue that you want to put on your nails!

I think I inherited a surrealist nature from my dad. Growing up, when I was playing I Spy in the back of the car, we just always went on unusual tangents with it. For me, naming these colors is about different ways of seeing, or just finding the surreal or the bizarre in the mundane – that has always been something that’s got me through life, to be honest. I am the person in CVS who’s turning over the lipsticks just to read what the name is, and often I will choose colors for myself, solely based on the name. I mean, why would you ever choose a lip color that’s just called “Rouge” over another called “Built to Kill”?

New York City
Because I’m here now, with Central Park outside my window, I think I’m going to have to pick New York City as my third thing. As a Brit, when you come out to New York, you’re so threatened by the iconography of it – everything looks like it’s from a movie set and people just seem so unbelievably cool, just because they’re here in the context of the city. As I’ve spent more and more time in New York over the years, I’ve found there’s something unbelievably special about the energy here that has ultimately made it my favorite city in the world. And I’m a Londoner, so I know people will get very annoyed with me for saying that!

Coming to NYC and performing on Broadway was a mind-blowing experience, just because of the dynasty of that area. There’s also something extremely liberated about the city – I was at Gay Pride over the weekend, having the absolute time of my life. There is a rebellious spirit here that I find unbelievably infectious. And an authenticity that’s infectious, too. The city should feel extremely jarring and noisy and too much, but it doesn’t to me. And maybe there’s a thematic throwback to how I feel about French New Wave films, in terms of my being comforted by chaos. There’s a comforting chaos in New York that makes so much sense to me, and I love it here.

Zawe Ashton is a British actress, playwright, author and director who is currently starring in the period romantic dramedy Mr. Malcolm’s List, opposite Freida Pinto and Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù. Ashton’s portrayal of Vod in Channel 4’s Fresh Meat won her a cult following, and her other credits include the BBC/Netflix series Wanderlust and the feature Velvet Buzzsaw, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, Toni Collette and Rene Russo. She recently wrapped production on Nia DaCosta’s The Marvels, opposite Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris. Ashton recently starred in both the West End and on Broadway in the critically acclaimed revival of Betrayal, with Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox. In addition to being an accomplished actress, Ashton has also established herself as an award-winning writer, producer and director. She was the youngest winner of the London Poetry Slam Championship in 2000. Her debut play, Harm’s Way, was nominated for a Verity Bargate Award in 2007 and her directorial debut, Happy Toys, was nominated for Best British Short at the Raindance Film Festival in 2014. Ashton’s play For All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad was produced in London at the Hackney Showroom and at Soho Rep in New York. Her novel Character Breakdown was published by Penguin Books in 2019.