London-born director Amma Asante, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, has tackled racism in all three of her features: “A Way of Life” (2004), “Belle” (2013) and her third Toronto world premiere, the interracial relationship drama “A United Kingdom.” She talked to Variety about making the transition from child actor to helmer and her very personal connection to her work.
What made you want to be a director?
When I was 14 and acting on my series “Grange Hill,” I recognized this young actor’s amazing ability to communicate, and loved watching it unfold. After trying to become an adult actress and realizing there wasn’t much work out there, I wanted to stay in a world where I could tell stories.
You began landing development deals at age 23 with the BBC, Channel 4 and Chrysalis, then named your production company Tantrum Films. Why?
There is or was a sense that if you’re a female with creative control over your work, you had to be a bit difficult. People would often ask, “If you don’t get your own way, do you have a tantrum?” It became a bit of a joke.
Is there a reason for the nine-year gap between “A Way of Life” and “Belle”?
I won a BAFTA for my first film, but found that it was as big a struggle to make my second film, probably because I wanted a slightly bigger budget. In 2008 we hit a credit crunch, and I had three projects just collapse. I was hugely disillusioned and thinking of giving up when the producer of “Belle” approached me. After “Belle,” for the first time in my life, I had choice!
You met your CAA agent in Toronto in 2013. Any reason you didn’t follow up “Belle” with a U.S. project?
[“Kingdom” producer/star] David Oyelowo, whose first job out of drama school was the [UK] series I’d written and produced, “Brothers and Sisters,” called and said, “I’ve got this passion project. In order to get it greenlit, we need the right director, and I think that’s you.” I was intrigued by a film involving two continents had been relevant in raising me. And I still had this drive to tell a story that I’ve wanted to tell for so long, [called] “Where Hands Touch,” and knew I might still have to earn some stripes in order to be allowed to make it. “A United Kingdom” exercises a different muscle for me as a filmmaker. It’s epic—there were days where we had 4,000 extras—so I feel really ready for Hollywood.
I’m also fascinated by periods of transition. My dad stood in Independence Square in Ghana at the point when it became the first Sub-Saharan African country to gain independence. When you were born in a colony and then move to the country that once colonized you, it makes for a very interesting dynamic that fascinated me.
How did being in an interracial marriage with a Danish husband affect your approach to the subject matter?
If anything, it’s just made me see them as normal. But I’m interested in characters of color having to assert their identity in situations where not many people are around to support them, so their struggle is harder. I’m also interested in love and politics, and interracial relationships often have those things—a sense of struggle, and a political and personal assertion of identity.
What perspective do you bring to your work as a woman of color?
There are definitely areas of the industry that realize it makes sense to give women of color a voice. There is a whole gaze that we’ve never had the opportunity to see. If we’re going to keep on creating fresh ideas—or, as I’ve always said, opening fresh windows on traditional and classic ideas—then somehow we’re going to have to open up opportunities to people who have traditionally not been allowed to tell stories or implant their vision onscreen.
Now you’re about to make “Where Hands Touch” in Belgium. What can we expect?
It’s a coming-of-age story set in Berlin in 1943, about a girl who’s not Jewish and not Aryan, as Hitler would have put it, wanting to find out who she is.
Is it intentional that this will be your fourth film to explore issues of race?
[Laughs.] Once I finished “A Way of Life,” the only interracial story I was going to tell was “Where Hands Touch.” But I suppose the way the film industry works, if you do something and people deem that you’ve done an okay job with it, they bring you a bit more of the same. But it will definitely be time to change it up after “Where Hands Touch.” Once I finish this film, I will comfortably call myself a filmmaker who has something of a body of work. And I think in some ways it will free me. I love the idea of being able to explore television, and I definitely want to work in Hollywood.