PHOTOGRAPHY BY NOLWEN CIFUENTES
CREATIVE DIRECTOR & STYLING BY ROBIAT BALOGUN
MAKEUP BY ARCHANGELA CHELSEA FOR CELESTINE AGENCY
STORY BY MIN A. LEE
You starred in both the acclaimed film and the Netflix series Dear White People. In the movie and show you play Joelle Brooks (“Curls”). What has this role meant to you and your career?
I’m so grateful to Justin Simien, who is our writer, director, producer, showrunner, everything under Dear White People, who has always believed in me and has always made it a point to collaborate with me in all of his projects and to bring me into the fold. To play this role in the movie that has grown so much into who she is now going into the fourth season of Dear White People the series, it’s really a blessing because it’s basically a dream job, right? I’ve been able to expand this character and work on this character since 2013, and now it’s seven years later, and the chapter is closing a bit because it’s our final season. It’s been the ride of my life. It’s been the role of a lifetime. I’m so grateful in the ways I’ve been able to inspire young women, particularly Black women. They’ve been able to inspire, encourage and uplift me. I’m really living the dream.
Can you give us a sneak peek of what’s to come in Season 4 for Joelle?
Honestly, I’m not sure, I wish that I knew, but I will say this I know that fans and supporters and viewers of the show will feel very satisfied with how her story wraps up. I do know that. I don’t know all the details, but I know that is of importance, and that Joelle gets her send-off in a way that she deserves.
Having done various characters throughout film and TV, what made you pursue acting?
Honestly, it was something that I was always drawn to. When I was young, my older sister and I—we’re nine years apart—I was always inspired by the things my sister was doing. She was always involved in the performing arts, whether it was dancing or acting or singing, and I think that part of it is I was just born this way and was destined to do. I was also really inspired by my sister and wanted to do anything that she was doing. It was easy to get involved in the arts, because I already kind of had an example who was doing it. My mom’s a singer, and she always encouraged my artistic talents and abilities, as has my father. You know, I always joke I was that kid, who at a very young age, knew I always wanted to be an actor and move to LA, since I was probably two or three years old. I know that I’m one of the blessed ones, who has been blessed to know their purpose since they were very young. So to surmise it all, it’s half my sister, but it’s half I was just born to do this—really, truly.
You also co-produced and wrote for a TV series in the past, was it challenging navigating between these fields?
When I co-created Hello Cupid with Lena Waithe, and we did it for Black & Sexy TV, it came out at that time—it was 2012, 2013—it came out of a place because I wasn’t seeing myself on TV, and Lena wasn’t hearing or seeing the type of voices and characters that she wanted to see on TV either. It was at the time in which when web series were really up-and-coming, and a really good way for actors, writers and producers to get their start and introduce people to their work. It happened because, I needed to create a lane for myself. I had a friend who also wanted to the same and really believed in me and I believed in her. We kind of took our careers into our own hands, and it kind of sucks honestly, because it’s not easy to do that now. The industry changes so fast, because at that time people were watching web series more than TV. Web series were the thing, and now TV has become a place where we can see ourselves more and feel more represented. There’s a more wide range of projects that can appeal to many different types of people.
It’s hard when aspiring actors or actresses ask me for advice. I can’t even give them that same advice of starting your own web series, because it’s not as easy to do. We don’t live in the same time, but I’m really grateful for that experience because I was so young. I have carried that through in my career and my life. It really showed me that I’m capable I’m creating what I want, and I want to continue to do more of that. I’m hoping this year and the years that follow that I’ll be able to still create more content and work with other great collaborators because it really did change my life. Even to this day, so many people come up to me like “Ashley, I’m an OG. I’ve been with you since Hello Cupid.” Hello Cupid was before Dear White People, so I have wonderful supporters who were rocking with me then, and I’m so grateful for that, and I will never diminish that or minimize it. It really did in a lot of ways put me on the map, and it came from something we created ourselves. We weren’t waiting for a job; we weren’t waiting for anybody to call us. We said, “you know what, we can’t bank on that, but we can bank on ourselves,” and that’s what we did.
Do you have any upcoming projects or roles you can tell us about?
I just got back from Sundance, I’m in a movie called Bad Hair, which we just premiered and it’s Justin Simien’s second feature after Dear White People. We are working together again. It’s a horror satire film about a killer weave, set in 1989 Los Angeles, and it’s really amazing. It was fun to do a period piece. It’s haunting, and it touches on social commentary that a lot of people are afraid to touch on, but Justin’s not. I’m so proud to be a part of the project. It’s cool because I play a character that no one’s ever seen me play before, so it’s very different from what people are used to.
As an advocate for mental health awareness and empowering women, can you share with us how you stay positive and in-control? Especially given how the digital age and social media have developed and how “trolling” can become dangerous on these platforms—so many will hide behind a keyboard and screen and feel it’s ok to put others down.
To be completely honest, I’ve been really blessed and lucky because I don’t really get trolled on social media. I’m knocking on wood, but I’ve been really blessed that I don’t have to wake up every day to read comments and hate mail. I know people who do. For me, it’s not so much the trolling that’s an issue, but it is how we’re all connected to these phones and to these social media platforms that can make us feel like we’re not enough. Instagram is an instant way for you to have the spirit of comparison because you’re constantly looking at other people’s profiles.
The way I stay grounded is one, I have an amazing therapist. I go to therapy once a week. I really encourage everybody to do so, especially people from the African diaspora, because we have traumas, and we’re still healing from things that nobody has helped us get the tools to heal from, and we have to take that into our own hands.
I am also surrounded in real life by amazing people who edify me, encourage me, support me, and love me and believe in me. It’s easy when you have that in-person real-life reinforcement and wonderful people around you to not be phased by things behind a screen because it’s not real. My advice would be surround yourself in-person physically with wonderful people. Be more concerned with that than who you are connected with on social channels because it’s a medium that’s not real. You’re right. People are hiding behind screens and behind keyboards. There’s no real substance behind that. Now, that’s not to say I don’t find inspiration on Instagram or Twitter or beauty or wonderful people and stories, but it pales in comparison to the way in which I am able to do that in real life.