Ashley Dyke stars as Anna in Brad Pitt's oscar-worthy "12 Years a Slave." The story is based off of Solomon Northup, an African American in the mid-1800s who was born free but later kidnapped off the streets in Washington, and brought to slavery. There's nothing about this movie that isn't liked. The film is poignant, moving, and brings you sobbing for one individual who was robbed of his right to freedom.
We sat down with Ashley to discuss more about the movie, and about herself.
There’s a lot of political background in your family, with your parents both being lawyers. Did you ever want to have a career in law or politics, or has acting always been your passion? I have always wanted to be an actor. When I was little, I was more reserved. I loved expressing myself through “playing” other people, because it helped me deal with my shyness. I also find myself to be very sensitive to the emotions and needs of others. Even when those emotions and needs aren’t verbalized, I am able to put myself in their shoes and sympathize. Both of these traits have helped lead me to acting. With my parents being lawyers, and my father being a politician, it allowed me to understand that I had to work hard if I wanted to succeed and that work needs to be guided both by morals and creativity.
You grew up in Fairfax, Virginia. Los Angeles is definitely a vastly different place to live. How did you acclimate to the city? Do you feel you’ve changed any since moving here? What do your siblings do now? I moved to Los Angeles with my fiancé right after I graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in theater knowing that I needed to work really hard to develop my craft even further. Moving here with someone I love allowed me to fully experience the city with him, but at the same time kept me grounded – and that is important to me. With that being said, LA and the industry have changed me. I’ve learned more about who I really am and the kind of work I want to do. I don’t take my profession lightly; I understand the impact of the medium I work in. Telling the stories of other people isn’t something you do haphazardly. I honor that by staying true to myself. This industry has taught me that I have to protect myself and my work, because there are people here who have different agendas.
My siblings are possibly the most incredible and inspiring people I know! I really and truly mean that. We have all found success both personally and professionally on our own paths, mainly due to our family’s role models and work ethic. My brother is a lawyer with two children, my older sister has three kids, is a therapist with her own practice and, in her spare time, teaches Zumba, and my little sister has a baby boy and is a public relations executive.
You attended the famous New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Did you debate between moving to Los Angeles and staying in New York? What do you find different about the acting scope in New York? I studied at NYU’s Stone Street Studios. I loved living in the city…probably a little too much. When I graduated, the choice between LA and NYC was a hard one. My mentor at the time, my acting teacher, Richard Warner, suggested I move to LA, and I trusted that advice. It felt right. I do believe acting is different in New York. The thing that I love about New York is that yes, there are a lot of actors, but the fact that you are an actor doesn’t fully define you. In LA there is a lot of stigma and importance that comes with being an actor, both of which don’t interest me. I have developed my own community here which has allowed me to love what I do and the people around me.
Steve McQueen, who is the director of "12 Years a Slave," is flourishing as one of Hollywood’s elite filmmakers. Were you nervous when auditioning for the movie? Yes! A million times, Yes! Nervous and honored! When I read the script that Steve and John Ridley had written and Steve was directing, I knew innately this film was something I needed to be a part of. It felt like the story was a part of me. It connected to who I am and what I am made of, and what my ancestors were made of.
Steve is brilliant, honest, and dedicated in his work. I knew working with him would be one of the greatest honors of my career - so basically, I was scared to death! I worked with my incredible and fearless acting coach, Iris Klein, and put the audition on tape. We insisted on exposing Anna with all her honesty and vulnerability. I knew Steve’s work, the level at which he operated, and that I could only do Anna justice if I operated on that level. After another audition via Skype, and before I could really process everything, I was on a plane to New Orleans…still scared to death.
The film is getting a lot of Oscar buzz. Are you excited or worried about the attention that you’ll receive from being part of such a prevalent film? What do you want this film to do for your career? I am most honored that Solomon Northup’s story is being told and that I could have any part in that. When I first read the script, I couldn’t believe that in all my years of school I had never heard of his book. The idea that people are talking about the film and that the subject is being analyzed truly means people are being educated about an important part of our history. The film that Steve created to tell Solomon Northup’s story is nothing short of a masterpiece. Solomon’s story is told with honor, dignity, and unflinching honesty.
I terms of what I want this film to do for my career, I want it to begin to define my career, to categorize me as an actor that does work that can make a difference, that can take the human experience and expose it, and that can allow us as a society to learn from it and grow from it. I want to continue to do work that I enjoy and excites me, as a person and as an artist.
Speaking of the Oscars, what would you wear to the ceremony? Who’s your favorite designer at the moment? First and foremost, I would pass out. After recovering, I would have to say I love the work of Alexander McQueen, Pucci, Erdem, and Prada, to name a few. I have worn Lorena Sarbu for my last two events, and her clothes are stunning perfection. I feel beautiful and unique the moment I put them on. In addition, working with her people and her team is a dream. They are absolutely wonderful.
So you were really active in sports as a high school student. Are there sports you still play? I definitely gave up cheerleading, even though I was fantastic at it, if I do say so myself. But now I practice yoga, hike, and run. I like to stay active, but the competitive nature that I had growing up that I had parlayed into sports has long gone. I would rather deep condition my hair and take a nap.
Other than acting, what can you see yourself doing in the near future? I think I will ride this acting thing out. I still have much more work I want to do.
Is there a quote you tend to live by? “Be what you is, not what you isn’t.” That is a quote from my father, Jim Dyke. Consider it a gift.
Photographed by Vince Trupsin Interviewed by Amanda Evans