Zawe Ashton

Tell us a little about your character, Katherine?
She’s someone who has found herself dislocated from her own life. Her marriage has failed, she's lost a child and her career has been stalled by the budget cuts within her department in the civil service - The Immigration Pathway Team. She has essentially become an immigrant in her own life. She desperately wants to do something to help people who feel displaced while simultaneously trying to work out exactly where she now belongs.

What was it about Not Safe for Work that particularly attracted you to the project?
When I read the script, it felt really filmic. I loved the surreal tone that it has. It reminded me of some of the independent films that I really love. Todd Solondz is a film maker I've always loved because of how he balances darkness, humour and surrealism in his films. There are the most bleak moments underpinned with the most surreal comedy. I don’t think I’d read something for TV with that style in a long time. I also loved how the character of Katherine is unapologetically written – she’s not the most likeable character, she’s at a point in her life where she has to be quite selfish and assertive in her struggle to get her life back on track. She’s been described as mercurial, and I think that’s a great adjective for her. She speaks before she thinks and there are a lot of contradictions and complexities within her, which were great to play.

Katherine is a troubled character, and yet she’s involved in some very comic scenes. Was it a challenge playing that dichotomy, or was it enjoyable?
I was very fortunate to have had three years on Fresh Meat, before working on Not Safe for Work. Comedy drama is a very hard genre to nail so I was very glad to have had some practice. Comedy drama needs strong writing for actors to be able to feel supported and DC's scripts have really strong rhythms to adhere to which helped all of us as a cast when navigating the pathos within them. There's a Charlie Chaplin quote that I love, "life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot”, and that’s definitely my world view! So working on this style of material that walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy suits me down to the ground.

There are a lot of strong women, and women in power, in the world of Not Safe for Work. How important was this for you?
I prefer to avoid the phrase “strong women” when talking about female characters and the lack thereof or the need therefore, because it’s not about being strong, it’s also about being vulnerable, funny etc. For me, the banner that I want to wave in terms of giving a jump start to writers of any gender is just to make female protagonists as complex as their male counterparts. It’s as much about having more of these types of characters and these types of shows commissioned as it is about encouraging writers to write them. I know lots of writers from really diverse backgrounds all writing female driven pieces, but they can’t get them made. Dreams of a Life, the film I was in that was written and directed by Carol Morley and championed by Film4, took seven years to make. Would it have taken that long to finance if it was a male-centric story? The depressing answer is, I'm not sure it would. The question is now for the 'gate keepers' to answer. Production companies, channels, commissioners and producers now need to be the ones being called to account for the lack of diversity within our industry. It's up to them to answer the question, "If the material is there, why aren't you making it?"

Not Safe for Work has a great ensemble cast. Did you all get on well and hang out after filming?
Yes we did – it's so great when a cast are all staying in a place that isn’t their home, you end up in this bubble together which definitely makes for more opportunities to spend time together and bond. We had great chemistry as a cast, we did lots of eating and exploring Glasgow together after shooting. The days were intense so we were very lucky to have such a fun and talented cast and crew.

Much of the action happens in an office environment. Did it feel an alien environment to you, not coming from that 9 to 5 background?
Everyone really understood the space of the office. One of the hardest things when I was approaching the character was her experience of working in an office. There are so many assumptions that you make as an actor about people that do a 9 to 5 job, but the key for me was finding the truth of what that routine, and what the politics of that office space really are. Kieron Hawkes, our first director, got us in before filming to rehearse on the set and we made the office a character in itself. The office is laid out in such a way as to encourage and enable beats of drama and comedy – such as Katherine having a direct line of sight into Anthony’s office and also into Danny’s office where she can see him taking selfies all day rather than doing work. It was quite funny shooting in an abandoned office, because our green room was essentially this slightly depressing world of MDF and scratchy sofas so it did sometimes feel like you were in this surreal office world in between scenes as much as when on set.

You’re currently filming the last series of Fresh Meat? Can you see any similarities between Vod and Katherine?
Ha! No, none, none at all! But, even though I don’t see any similarities between the two, what is quite nice is that when we started Not Safe for Work it was literally going from playing a student with fears of graduating to playing someone a few years down the line living with all the disappointments of being a graduate. Playing Katherine feels like a graduation of sorts, with Channel 4 as the University I guess!

You also have lots of other projects going on, writing and directing etc. Have you any projects on the horizon we should be looking out for?
Both of my short films have just got distribution, which is great, and my first short was nominated for Best British Short at Raindance Film Festival last year, so I feel very inspired to continue writing and directing after that. There’s a feature film that I’m working on at the moment and my production company, Asylum Features, is beginning to develop its slate which is really exciting. I’m writing a book about an actor, which is surprisingly therapeutic, and I’m under commission from the National Theatre at the moment which is a big bucket list tick! I also wrapped a pilot for HBO in March, directed by Gus Van Sant and co-written and executive produced by Jenji Kohan, called The Devil You Know, about the Salem witch trials, which will be airing later this year. It would be amazing if that got picked up, spending more time working Stateside would be tremendous.

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