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Zawe Ashton Almost Quit Acting Before Her ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ Breakthrough

In many ways, “Velvet Buzzsaw” never should have happened for Zawe Ashton. A literal art house movie, Dan Gilroy’s latest explores the intersection of art and commerce as members of the L.A. art scene, from Jake Gyllenhaal’s critic to Rene Russo’s gallery owner, find themselves haunted by a series of paintings. Trippy and original, with bursts of gore and humor, the film has provoked a wide range of reactions since it landed on Netflix two weeks ago. But there is one thing everyone seems to agree on: It announces Ashton as a major screen presence to watch.

Born in London to a Ugandan mother and British father, Ashton has been acting since she was six, when she enrolled at the Anna Scher Theatre School, the same institution where Daniel Kaluuya got his start. She has earned acclaimed for performing slam poetry and writing plays such as “She From the Sea” and was perhaps most recognized as an actress from the Channel Four series “Fresh Meat.” But after years of working in the business, she had decided to quit acting around the end of 2017.

Ashton’s grandfather had recently died. “It was super sad, but also, I hope we all go like that. He was 97 and still having a whiskey off the drink cart in the hospice,” she says with a laugh. “I wanted to quit acting and as soon as I decided that, the call for ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ came through.” Ashton had previously auditioned for Gilroy’s film “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” and enjoyed it so much, she decided to put herself on tape.

Ashton gave her blood, sweat, and tears – especially blood. “The night before the self-tape, I chopped the top of my finger off,” she reveals. She raced to the emergency room, where she spent four hours waiting “holding the tip of my finger with a kitchen roll” until 5 a.m. “The next day, I was tired, mad, had a huge bandage on my finger while doing a scene with a cell phone I was having trouble holding. I watched it back and thought, ‘You look mad. Not pretending to be insane, you look like an actual insane person. And I think there’s something about that that’s going to work.’”

Not only did it work, but according to Gilroy, Ashton’s was the only tape that nailed the humor. “It was the scene where her character is explaining to Rene’s gallerist character that Toni Collette has been killed by an errant piece of art,” says Gilroy. “And of all the auditions we saw, Zawe’s was the only one that made us laugh. It’s not indicated in the script or the dialogue, but Zawe intuitively understood there was a satirical element to what was happening that imbued everything. She’s a tremendous actress who can write and direct and I can’t wait to see what she explores in the future.”

A few days later, Ashton received the word that she’d been cast in the film, an experience she describes as life-altering. “It was so fun — you see the lineup of this cast and I feel like I look like someone who’s won a competition,” she says. “I made a film about the intersection of art and commerce and that’s where I fell off the wagon, the intersection was too bumpy. And now I have belief again.”

Ashton’s Josephina undergoes a major arc in the film, from a gallery assistant to a major player, romancing Gyllenhaal and wheeling and dealing, all while maintaining a cool, calm façade – and sporting a killer wardrobe. “I’m still waiting to hear if I can take some of that wardrobe!” she admits with a laugh. “I loved playing her because there’s something in the art world people possess that I’m always trying to possess; it’s a distance, an aloof, glacial quality where nothing gets to you. As a woman in that world, you really can’t show emotion because there is so much money involved. So I loved experimenting with that.”

But Ashton can’t play it cool about the dizzying whiplash of the last few days. She premiered “Velvet Buzzsaw” at Sundance before heading to L.A. for the premiere, then back to England to begin rehearsals for Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” opposite Charlie Cox and Tom Hiddleston, opening March 5.

The latter is part of a season titled “Pinter at the Pinter” from the Jamie Lloyd Company but wasn’t originally intended to be a full production. Ashton and Hiddleston were cast as the couple at the center of “Betrayal” in a series of scenes presented at a gala last October marking the late playwright’s birthday. “We had about 15 minutes rehearsal,” she recalls. “We had such a lovely time and people kept coming up afterwards asking if we were in rehearsals. That was never the plan but by the end of the night, I was asking the producers, ‘Why aren’t we doing this? Should we be doing this?’”

The production came together surprisingly fast, adding Cox as the third member of the love triangle, and Ashton has nothing but raves for the experience. “Everyone involved is so brilliant,” she says. “I’m exhausted, but creatively so happy.”

The experience was similar on the film; in fact, Ashton can draw some direct comparisons between the writers of her most recent projects. “Dan’s imagination is insane, he’s 10 steps ahead of everyone at all times,” she notes. “He writes in the most visceral way, in this way you can’t escape. In that way, he’s like Pinter.” Similarly, both are intense material, but she’s enjoying the experience. “Often when you’re working on dark material, the atmosphere is fun,” she admits. “When you get to do things you love with every fiber of your being, it’s a different experience.”

Next, Ashton would like to do more work behind the camera. “I want to be where the urgency is, and right now, in my mind, female directors are the urgent conversation,” she says. While she’s currently writing something, she’s “desperate” to direct. “I love the visual medium of film and TV. I love the science of it, working with the sound and the lighting and every aspect.”

Ashton is also still adjusting to starring in buzzed-about flick after years of steadily working in a tough industry. “Last week I was looking for ticket for the train and rummaging around in my purse,” she recalls. “And the man at the hall said to go on through and added, ‘I love your movie.’”

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