V Girls: Zawe Ashton
The British renaissance woman makes a stateside debut in a Sundance-approved art-world thriller.
This feature appears in the pages of V118, our Spring Summer 2019 issue, on newsstands soon!
Netflix snapped up Velvet Buzzsaw even before the high-stakes thriller, set in the mega-gallery art market, had premiered at Sundance. Zawe Ashton plays Josephina, an ambitious gallerina whose ticket to art stardom—a deceased neighbor’s forgotten collection—comes back to haunt her. “Things slowly get very, very strange and dark and scary,” says the former child actor.
Before landing the meaty project, the London native had starred in critically acclaimed Brit theater and TV, including the immigration-themed Channel 4 dramedy Not Safe For Work, and the BBC’s Wanderlust, about a polyamorous couple played by Steven Mackintosh (Ashton’s love interest in the show) and Toni Collete. Despite the depth of her reel, Ashton had decided at one point to quit acting to direct full-time. “I didn’t feel like there were many artists left in film,” says Ashton. “The middle ground [between] franchise films and films that don’t pay or don’t get distribution seems to have completely gotten lost, and I was fed up with it. I’m an indie kid and always have been.” But that changed whenBuzzsaw landed on her desk. “When you get a project like this, that is independent at its heart, with budget and distribution to realize an incredible vision… This was the only project that was going to get me out of retirement.”
The film’s artsy subject matter aside, it didn’t hurt that it also starred Jake Gyllenhaal, John Malkovich, and former scene partner Toni Collette, and was written and directed by Nightcrawler’s Dan Gilroy. Ashton had recently directed both art and fashion-related collaborations, including a documentary on the New York-based artist Lorraine O’Grady commissioned by the London’s Tate Modern, which she says primed her to play the striving Josephine. “[After directing] a fashion film, I thought, ‘Wow, [the fashion] world is so bizarre and tough. And then I was like, ‘Oh, no. It’s the art world.’ I’d never had contact with an artist’s gallery, and it was such an eye-opening experience; I think it’s a world that attracts very specific personalities; at the center is this creative, potentially vulnerable artist, who obviously needs to be represented, and the next layer of people are notoriously very tough, and then there’s another layer, until you get to a point where you’re dealing with people who very creative at all—they’re money people.”
This knack for empathy is apparent in Ashton’s future projects. She is slated to direct her play For All Those Women Who Thought They Were Mad, a play about the over-medicating of U.K. black women by mental health providers. “Black women in the U.K. are filling up most of our mental health institutions,” she says. “There are institutions in the U.K. that still have a cognitive bump when faced with people of the African diaspora.” She’s also working on Character Breakdown, a memoir on her near-three decades in showbiz. And whatever character she’s playing, Ashton is sure to be churning out insightful entertainment for years to come.