Wonderland.

ZAWE ASHTON

On her irresistible role in the politically charged, Guerrilla.

Dress and rings CHRISTIAN DIOR

Dress and rings CHRISTIAN DIOR

“I grew up watching shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air where there was a rich prominent black family, I don’t think I’ve ever seen something in the UK of that nature and that’s just so weird to me.” Zawe Ashton and I are sharing a leather sofa in the corner of a studio behind Brick Lane, brought together to discuss Omega Moore, her character in Sky Atlantic’s latest six-parter, Guerrilla.

She makes a solid and necessary point: while contemporary America’s given us such triumphs as Black-ish, Empire and Dear White People, British television’s own mainstream is somewhat lagging (Channel 4’s acquiring of Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum is for this reason especially significant). In Guerrilla, which counts 12 Years a Slave’s John Ridley and Belle’s Misan Sagay as writers, we’re privy to a cast chiefly comprised of people of colour, something that sadly remains an anomaly in 2017.

Exploring the British wing of the Black Power movement circa 1971, actors Babou Ceesay, Frieda Pinto and Idris Elba take Guerrilla’s lead roles (Elba also claims a producing credit), while fans of Fresh Meat and Not Safe For Work are introduced to Ashton’s most politicised character yet.

Like a Phoebe Philo era Céline muse – she embodies the grace while the wardrobe department has the aesthetic down – Omega Moore is the show’s Althea Jones-Lecointe, Olive Morris or Beverley Bryan, if you will, the fictional female head of the London based Black Rights desk whose dialogue runs from the provocative “I scare the shit out of white people and have no intention of doing otherwise,” to the contemplative “you can either drive the narrative or you can get dragged along by it.”

Complex and at many times necessarily confrontational, the show is composed around issues that unfortunately remain relevant today – institutional racism, police brutality – while simultaneously highlighting a historical footnote otherwise badly underrepresented, as Zawe explains below.

Jumper DKNY, dress BURBERRY

Jumper DKNY, dress BURBERRY

What initially drew you to the project?

What felt exciting about this was the team, John Ridley, [director] Sam Miller, Shaheen Baig who cast it – basically cast everything, any British independent film you’ve seen over the past while, she’ll probably be behind it. So, it was the team first and foremost, I knew if everyone was involved and really passionate about it then it must be something great. And then, I read maybe one or two scripts, and it’s just really great writing; it’s rare when you read something televisual that feels like – every episode felt like a feature film.

The fact that it was also highlighting this period in time in London which is just so underrepresented in every art form. There’s great photography and there’s great music and great art around that time and around the Black Power movement in the UK, but to have something that felt so epic that was really going to dive into brilliant characters – that world was really exciting, and the character [Omega Moore] just really jumped off the page as this very complex woman, and what she stands for in terms of the movement is very interesting. Knowing a lot of my scenes were going to be with Idris’s character, which I always say and everyone’s like “oh, Idris Idris Idris” but he’s a fantastic actor, to go head to head with him as a heavyweight actor, in also a position of producer on the piece and steering the piece in that way was really irresistible, so I’m just happy I got the part really.

Talk me through the research.

It’s interesting because this particular character feels like, she feels like she soaks up quite a lot of international influence when it comes to the Black Power movement and the Black Panther movement and, I think it was accidental that I ended up looking very much like one of my heroes, Angela Davis who was at the forefront of a lot of the civil rights action in the States, so I was already very versed in the movement in America; I was very familiar with Angela, I’d already read a lot of literature, things from the States, so it was about acquainting myself with the movement here. You know there are great people, like Neil Kenlock who’s a photographer has these amazing images from the time and those were sent to all the cast before we started, so I sort of started to research people like Darcus Howe, Olive Morris – Darcus Howe unfortunately passed away just before Guerrilla came out which was so sad but I got to meet him.

He consulted on the show right?

Yeah, I got to meet him and his wife Leila at the reading and I actually grabbed them and talked quiet extensively that day, and so that firsthand information, with regards to my character, and how she’d be operating and the things she’d be up against in all of her circumstances was really invaluable; I was very sad to hear that he died because he’s definitely a big part, an entry point into the work for me.

What was the most surprising thing you learned through your research?

I think nearly every cast member felt a resounding confusion as to why this isn’t on the syllabus at school, why this movement which we associate so heavily with the US – in terms of the Black Panthers – why that wasn’t taught to us, I think that was the most surprising thing, because it feels like something everyone can really really benefit from – this time where oppression was so strong, racism was so rife, police brutality and this Black Power desk, you know the police was almost totally corrupt, and black people were organising themselves – there’s so much to be embraced about that, and so I think the most surprising thing was why I hadn’t had in-depth learning about it at school.

Shirt BALLY

Shirt BALLY

Definitely. The show has been subject to criticism in regards to the erasure of black women from the narrative. Was this something you were conscious of, with this project specifically?

I think the dialogue that’s opened up generally about the erasure of black women in the media and in the arts, is a subject that is very close to my heart and must be treated with the utmost respect, and I find it very interesting the dialogue that has opened up around the show. I find it interesting because I wish that there were like, five other dramas that we were watching couched in the black experience that we could be comparing and contrasting, which so often happens with period dramas that are cast, as everyone knows, almost exclusively with Caucasian actors, so those four or five period dramas that come out at Christmas, which are all in the same vein, you get to have a wealth of comparing and contrasting.

John Ridley is a wonderful wonderful artist, and he has brought to life his perspective of what is a huge movement, and so I respect him and his choices, as the director and the creator, and I really respect that dialogue that’s opened up around it, and I feel very fortunate to be involved in that dialogue because it’s not about shoving it down, we do have a problem with the erasure of black women in the media and in the arts and I’m very glad that I’m involved in something that enables a further discussion. I’m an actor, I look after my role, I get so pleased when I’m able to do work like this, and in terms of what drew me to my character was that she did feel like a very prominent, strong woman… No fuck it, strong is such a crap word… Complex woman of colour who is really putting herself on the line and out there for what she believes is justice and what is a movement, and that’s what I was drawn to.

And how significant, or not, do you think the role of class is in the show?

Well I feel like, Britain is a society couched in and driven by class and maybe in contrast to the US, class and race are very bound up in the United Kingdom especially when it comes to the arts – it’s taken a very long time for the UK to cotton onto the fact that there are middle class people of colour. I’m not sure about the question of class but what I like about the show is it has people of colour from every class, you have Babou’s character who is in the UK, he has a degree, he’s been studying and he goes to try and get work on the basis of having a degree but his whole experience is minimised because of the colour of his skin, and then you have someone like Tahari, not necessarily in possession of a university degree but has huge intellect. So I think it’s just really nice to have different characters who represent different things because that’s the London that I know and it’s never the London that I see on screen and it’s such a shame.

So finally, the costumes.

They’re wonderful aren’t they?

Totally.

Ever since a kid, clothes have had a huge impact on me – maybe that’s because I started acting so young – but as an actor I always work from the inside out, you can never expect to put on a pair of clogs and be like ‘I found the character!’. But it just so happens that clothes and hair and make-up have always had a really extreme impact on how I feel, as the character, it always feels like the final part of the process for me, and it’s an important one. What was brilliant about having such a wonderful hair and make-up department and a fantastic wardrobe department was, it got rid of that diluted vision of the 70s that we have – the 70s has been parodied so many times – but what I found so brilliant was just how empowering elements of those clothes, that certainly my character wears, were. So having your hair in an afro is extremely empowering, to have iconic parts of that time integrated into your whole physicality was really amazing. Wearing clothes – even just like the feeling of suede, like I never wear suede, no one ever really… a full on full suede dress, so just the colours and the fabrics and the feeling of all those different elements was, wonderful to experience rather than see from a really diluted perspective. You feel strong and you feel cool and you feel lots of different, I don’t know, lots of different interesting emotions came from the clothing and the hair for me.

All episodes of Guerrilla are available now on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.

Photography
Olivia Richardson at Unit 30
Fashion
Margherita Alaimo
Words
Zoe Whitfield
Hair
Fabio Nogueira at Frank Agency
Make-up
Jessica Mejia at Stella Creative Artists
ZAWE ASHTON

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