At the beginning of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lies down to go to sleep in a cramped slave shack. We haven’t discovered how he’s come to be there, but we can tell he’s in his own form of hell.
He turns to his side and sees a fellow slave, Anna, staring at him. What follows is an intense and intimate scene, with no dialogue, depicting a moment of tenderness between two humans who have been treated like animals. When it ends, Anna turns away sobbing, taking us back to a horrifying reality.
“It sets the tone for the film, and I think Steve uses it as a way to bring you in,” says Ashley Dyke, who portrays Anna. “You understand that this is how intimate we’re going to get.”
The harrowing adaptation of Northup’s 1853 autobiography, in which the accomplished violinist is kidnapped and sold into slavery, has been getting Oscar buzz from a majority of film critics. With co-stars like Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, this is Dyke’s biggest film role to date.
A Fairfax native with Hungarian Jewish and African American Christian roots, Dyke moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career after obtaining a theater degree from the University of Virginia. She’s appeared on the CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones, starring Robin Williams, and she’s currently working on a TV show with Workaholics’ Maribeth Monroe.
She recently spoke to WJW about her experiences as an actress and her Jewish upbringing.
Q: You’re here for the Washington West Film Festival. How did that come about?
A: My dad is on the board. They had reached out to him and said, “Your daughter is in 12 Years a Slave, would she be interested in being a juror for the film festival?” So I jumped at that opportunity. I’ve never been a juror for a film festival before, so I was excited to try it out.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to be an actress?
A: I’ve known I wanted to be an actress since I was really little. I found myself to be a little more introspective and quiet when I was young. I found expressing myself through acting was really good for me, and it excited me, so as I grew up I always knew. For a short time I wanted to be a vet, but then I jumped right back [laughs]. When I realized I didn’t like cats, I thought: “Maybe I won’t be a great vet, I think I’ll be an actor.”
Q: What was your first acting gig?
A: I was in The Vagina Monologues in college and that was the first acting job that I had. I was the angry vagina. It was a bit scary and over the top, and I was really nervous about it. It was impressive and sketchy, all at the same time!
Q: And now you’re in 12 Years a Slave. How did you get cast?
A: My manager sent me the script and I fell in love with it. I’ve been a fan of Steve McQueen since Shame and Hunger. I was completely connected to the material and knew I wanted to be a part of it. I really pushed and fought, sending in auditions for Anna. [I had a Skype audition] with Steve McQueen and then I was on a plane to New Orleans [where 12 Years was shot].
Q: Your character Anna is on screen for a very short time, and we don’t know her story. What would you say her story is?
A: Since she didn’t have a back story, I got to really do what I wanted. What brought her to this moment and what brought her to this need? For me, I feel in the film she represents the untold stories of slavery. Throughout this film you’re seeing the extraordinary story of Solomon Northup, and in that, which Solomon references in his book, there are so many stories that won’t be told.
With Anna, I think the film pays homage to the fact that there are many stories we won’t know, we can’t understand and we can’t comprehend. I think the one thing we can see from the scene is that when you’re treated like an animal, worked like an animal and beaten like an animal, your need becomes a very human need. Sometimes you just search for something that’s human so that you can feel something. I think there’s some shame in that need as well and Anna brings all of that to the surface.
Q: How did you get into character for Anna, and other roles in general?
A: It depends on each role. What’s amazing about New Orleans is it’s so full of energy. There’s so much going on there that as an actor you’re really quite filled when you arrive. And for me, going to the actual plantation and going to an actual slave shack was really helpful as an actor. You were surrounded by a past and surrounded by something alive.
Q: How was filming the scene with Chiwetel Ejiofor?
A: It was work. Chiwetel and Steve were so incredible and supportive, and everyone understood it was a bit of a delicate scene. I felt very comfortable and was continuously made to feel that way. We rehearsed it among the three of us, and we knew it was going to happen. When [the crew] was brought in it was actually pretty seamless. I think that shows how wonderful Steve is as a director to make sure his actors felt safe and comfortable in the scene, because it was intense.
Q: When you first moved to L.A., what roles did you get?
A: I started working almost immediately when I moved to L.A. One of the first productions I did was I Never Saw Another Butterfly. I played a young woman in a concentration camp. Again, that role connects to the beautiful thing about being an actor. You’re able to dive into your own heritage. There’s something really powerful about looking at yourself in the dressing room mirror and having a yellow star on you, knowing your ancestors went through that process, and being able to connect to that today. The same goes for visiting a slave shack in New Orleans. That’s what the gift of being an actor has been for me. Many times, I have to reach for a role and understand a character and find them, a bit outside of myself at first. Then I bring it in.
These kinds of roles, playing a Jewish woman at that time and then playing an African American during the time of slavery, really became a process of going inward and understanding what I’m made of.
Q: Besides those types of roles, what other roles would you hope to score in the future? Superhero?
A: I love comedy. I enjoy being in that kind of atmosphere. I’m definitely pulled toward drama but I love doing lighthearted fun humor, like The Crazy Ones. With Robin Williams on set, it’s just a blast. And I wouldn’t mind being a superhero. That’d be pretty cool.
Q: Your mom is Jewish and your dad is Christian. Were both faiths a part of your life growing up?
A: We were raised Jewish. I [became a bat mitzvah] and we celebrated all the Jewish holidays in our home. We’d also celebrate the Christian holidays with my father. We really embraced both religions. We had Chanukah and Christmas, so we got double the presents. We did understand that it was his faith but also that we were Jewish.
Q: If you had the chance to work with anyone, who would it be?
A: I would really love to work with Denzel Washington [laughs]. He’s amazing! He’s at a point in his career where he can really do what excites him as an artist. I think working opposite someone who’s operating on that level is thrilling.
12 Years a Slave is playing at select theaters across the country. It’s rated R for cruelty/violence, some nudity and brief sexuality. To keep up with Ashley Dyke, go to facebook.com/AshleyRDyke.
Very nice, interview, well done Ashley.