British Actress Ashley Madekwe Is Taking LA by Storm

Lifestyle

The Revenge and Salem star talks swapping London for LA, her marriage to fellow actor Iddo Goldberg, and the challenges still faced by women of colour in her industry

Words  Mary-Jane Wiltsher
Photographer  Elias Tahan

The palm-fringed streets of Los Angeles are a balmy 28 degrees, but 32-year-old actress and south London girl Ashley Madekwe is – in part, at least – pining for the diminishing temperatures of a British autumn.

The British-Nigerian-Swiss bombshell, who broke America in Mike Kelley’s ABC drama Revenge and is currently starring in witchcraft series Salem, is also the author of successful fashion blog Ring My Bell, and she’s jokily mourning her now-redundant collection of outerwear. “I always get really excited about the idea of winter and then remember that I live in LA,” she laughs. “I miss buying coats!”

It was in 2009 that Madekwe, having made inroads in British television with a two season stint as Bambi in Diary Of A Call Girl, made a beeline for the Hollywood Hills against the advice of her UK representation, who felt she should bide her time before crossing the pond. Following her instincts paid off, and in 2010 she landed the role of Revenge’s fresh-outta-Croydon social climber Ashley Davenport. “It made me more well known on a global scale than I ever was before,” says Madekwe. “I don’t think any of the actors on that show could have prepared themselves for that.”

People thought I didn’t know how you’re supposed to sound if you’re from Croydon…. but I went to school in Croydon and have a south London accent naturally! The reason Ashley Davenport didn’t was because the network were like, ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re saying?!

With her caramel complexion, slender frame and mane of chestnut waves, Madekwe looks every inch the Hollywoodite, but it was her south London roots that proved handy in informing her portrayal of Davenport. “The part was written with me in mind, that’s why she’s called Ashley. I know the writer and producer [Mike Kelley] and we’re great friends. He loves that bitchy female English archetype, he finds it funny. I guess people think it was written for me because I’m like Ashley Davenport, but I’m not at all. People thought I didn’t know how you’re supposed to sound if you’re from Croydon,” she pauses, breaking into faux-indignation. “But I went to school in Croydon and have a south London accent naturally! The reason Ashley Davenport didn’t was because the network were like, ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re saying?!’”

Lace dress, ALESSANDRA RICH
Eye earring and ring, DELFINA DELETTREZ

 

Pinstripe and lace dress, WES GORDON
Butterfly diamond ring, VAN CLEEF AND ARPELS

Lace dress, ALESSANDRA RICH
Eye earring and ring, DELFINA DELETTREZ

I think a lot of people assume that council estates are quite grim, but that wasn’t my experience. I felt part of a community and really safe

Madekwe was raised on a council estate by her mother, a stay-at-home housewife who now works as a carer, and father, a plumber. She has fond memories of the cul-de-sac she grew up on. “I think a lot of people assume that council estates are quite grim, but that wasn’t my experience. I felt part of a community and really safe.”

In primary school, aged nine, the acting bug took hold, when she signed up to a free drama group with a friend. “I really responded to it. I’d learned to read early and was reading ahead of my year, so when we were given scripts to read I was good at it. A drama teacher there complimented me on it and it stuck with me.” Brit School and RADA followed, and after graduating Madekwe honed her craft on those series synonymous with so many fledgling British actors’ CVs: The Bill, Teachers, Casualty.

What have been the difficulties, I ask, in making the transition from London to LA? Aside from missing “the wealth of Caribbean takeaways” in Brixton, getting to grips with black American roles has proved the biggest challenge. “I feel like being black British and black American are two very culturally different things,” says Madekwe.  “Sometimes I struggle with that in the acting space, because although I know what it is to be black and British I don’t necessarily know what it is to be black and American. It’s not my safe place.”

It’s fun to be frivolous and I like posting a great selfie as much as the next person, but it’s a shame if you have such a huge outreach not to shine a light. Some things light a fire under me and I want to speak about them

As a mixed race actress who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic, Madekwe has often spoken out about the lack of opportunities for women of colour in her industry. Despite leading performances from the likes of Viola Davis and Kerry Washington, the acting world hasn’t shaken off its deep-rooted tendency to relegate black women to ‘best friend’ or ‘sidekick’ roles, and Madekwe consistently highlights the distance we still have to go.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it, there’s a lack of opportunities for women of colour, and I mean all women of colour,” she states. “Not just in acting, but in all areas. I think it’s definitely getting better, there’s never been a better time to be a woman of colour in Hollywood than there is today. Being a mixed race actress, I don’t always fall into the traditional idea of what a black woman is, but I strongly identify with being black. Growing up mixed race in London I never felt anything other than black.”

Being a mixed race actress, I don’t always fall into the traditional idea of what a black woman is, but I strongly identify with being black. Growing up mixed race in London I never felt anything other than black

A quick browse of Madekwe’s Insta and Twitter feeds shows that these aren’t the only issues she’s willing to open up for debate with her 850,000 collective following. She’s addressed gun control and abortion, definitions of feminism, and championed the #BlackLivesMatter movement. “It’s fun to be frivolous and I like posting a great selfie as much as the next person,” admits Madekwe. “But it’s a shame if you have such a huge outreach not to shine a light. Some things light a fire under me and I want to speak about them. For every nutcase who sends me death threats because I’ve said that black lives matter, there are ten people who can have an interesting, adult conversation about it. Those are the people that I care about.”

Madekwe is also unafraid to call out body shaming on Twitter, even recently eliciting an apology from a woman who had targeted her. At surface level, body shaming appears to be just another form of trolling, but it’s also a depressing symptom of how the media’s relentless obsession with weight, entrenched by circles of red ink mocking cellulite or visible ribs, has pitted women against each other. ‘Too fat’ or ‘too thin’ are seemingly the only camps for women in showbiz, and Madekwe has found herself accused of being the latter. “I think that when women body shame each other it’s really damaging. Nobody’s perfect. I’m like any other woman, I have those things about my body that I don’t like and the things that I do. I’m a naturally thin girl, I always have been. It’s not that I’m not eating, I love food. My aunt is anorexic and has been most of my life, so I’m very aware of what an eating disorder is, what it looks like, and the impact it has on a family. When people make an assumption and throw around a word like anorexia, that hurts my feelings.”

Meanwhile, a third season of Salem has just kicked off for Madekwe. Set in brutal 17th century Massachusetts, the series delves into the dark, twisted history of the town’s infamous witch trials. Madekwe plays Tituba, the accomplice of Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), the most powerful witch in Salem. “This season is an odd one for Tituba ‘cause she spends a lot of her time removed from the main action and is very much doing her own thing,” says Madekwe. “The writers always tell me, ‘well, she’s mysterious’ and it’s very hard as an actress to portray that. When I go into the season I don’t always know what the end game is, or my objectives as Tituba. We can ask questions and writers will always try to give answers, but the nature of television is that it can change.”

I’m in complete audition mode right now, doing them almost every day – the depressing reality of being a jobbing actor. Sometimes you might only be sent a theme or a small part of the script, so I like to create a backstory, just for myself

Otherwise, for the moment at least, Madekwe is head down in a pile of scripts. “I’m in complete audition mode right now, doing them almost every day – the depressing reality of being a jobbing actor,” she says. “Sometimes you might only be sent a theme or a small part of the script, so I like to create a back story, just for myself. I know it probably won’t be correct, but I find that helps.”

Lace shirt and trouser, MONIQUE LHUILLIER
Alhambra diamond earrings and butterfly ring, VAN CLEEF and ARPELS

Lace dress, ALESSANDRA RICH
Black patent pointed toe stilettos, JIMMY CHOO
Eye earring and ring, DELFINA DELETTREZ

Pinstripe and lace dress, WES GORDON
Black patent pointed toe stiletto, JIMMY CHOO
Butterfly diamond ring, VAN CLEEF AND ARPELS

Madekwe shares her home in the Hollywood Hills with husband Iddo Goldberg, who also starred in Diary Of A Call Girl, and ginger cat Oscar, owner of a cat passport, who travels everywhere with her. Madekwe and Goldberg originally met after Madekwe’s graduation from RADA in 2005, while doing a play for the Edinburgh Fringe. The pair married in London in 2012, and getting hitched to a fellow actor has had its benefits. “I love being able to talk to someone who understands exactly what it is that I’m going through,” says Madekwe. “And having him at my disposal to put me on tape for the auditions that I can’t make!”

I’ve always loved Miu Miu, it’s fun and irreverent, and I love everything that Gucci does. But I’m always looking at what I can ship over from ASOS, I like a high-low mix

It was Goldberg’s camerawork that helped kick-start Ring My Bell back in 2009, too. “I was travelling a lot at the time for work and ended up in New York shooting. My husband’s great with a camera, so [the blog] kind of started as an online diary.” Today, Ring My Bell celebrates Madekwe’s hero pieces with monthly mini shoots, though she confesses to being “terrible at updating regularly – I don’t deserve the following!” Denim dresses and fluffy sliders have her attention right now, but her rule of thumb is to integrate her favourite designers with the best of the high street. “I’ve always loved Miu Miu, it’s fun and irreverent, and I love everything that Gucci does. But I’m always looking at what I can ship over from ASOS, I like a high-low mix.”

Assistance with blog posts and audition tapes aside, what does she think is the secret to keeping a marriage fresh? “Oh, I don’t know! Different things work for different people. My parents have been together 30 years and they’re not even married. They argue like there’s no tomorrow but they’re still really happy. Me and my husband have a lot of the same interests, and I think having friends that you both like is key. When you have separate lives, separate interests, separate friends, that’s when you’re in danger. We have a lot of friends in common that we enjoy spending time with, which is a really good thing for us.”

Quizzed on which actors and directors she’d like to work with in the future, Madekwe cites Martin Scorsese (“I mean, who wouldn’t want to work with him?”) and Daniel Day-Lewis. But what hits home the most when chatting to her is that this is a woman with a total appreciation of the here and now. “Any acting job is a highlight for me,” she says, earnestly. “It always feels like an amazing miracle and gift to get paid to do what I love.” From others in LA’s tribe of hot young actresses, such a sentence might have a whiff of sap about it, but from the mouth of this sharp, savvy, articulate south London talent, it feels nothing but authentic. Hollywood, this one’s a keeper.

Salem

Salem Series 3 is out now on WGN America and comes to Netflix in March 2017

Lace shirt and trouser, MONIQUE LHUILLIER
Alhambra diamond earrings and butterfly ring, VAN CLEEF and ARPELS 

Stylist Joey Tierney
Hair John Ruggiero
Make-Up Jenna Anton

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