Ashleigh Cummings: Fullest, Happiest Self

September 8, 2019
One of this country’s most interesting actors – Tomorrow, When the War Began, Puberty Blues, Hounds of Love, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries – will next be seen in John Crowley’s highly anticipated adaptation of Donna Tartt’s popular book The Goldfinch, in which she plays Pippa, the lead character Theo’s (Ansel Elgort) unrequited love. We spoke with Ashleigh at the Toronto International Film Festival.

How did you score the prized role of Pippa?

Paid them a lot of money. Bit of bribery goes a long way. It was just a self tape that my agents received an audition notice for, and they sent it through, and I was like, ‘gosh, I’ve got this book on my shelf. But I hadn’t read it, so I skimmed it quickly, as much as you can skim a Donna Tartt novel. So, I just did the self-tape in my room with my boyfriend in grungy LA apartment, with a dresser with all these lamps, sort of precariously taped together to give the right lighting and everything, and then I got a call back with John [Crowley, director] and he was just extraordinary. I thought, ‘gosh, if that’s as far as this process goes, I’m the luckiest woman alive’. Because that half an hour with him was just magical and I learnt so much, both as a person and an actor.

I was actually just applying for my green card last I was in LA, so I wasn’t able to work at that point anyway, and it just happened to be there at the same time, so then I went back to New Zealand to finish up a contract there and it was actually quite extraordinary because on that job they knew that I had already auditioned for The Goldfinch. I was a lead character on the show [Westside], and they squeezed twelve weeks of shooting into five weeks, on the off chance that I might get this job.

It was just the most extraordinary thing that anyone’s done for me on a job before because it’s such a business, so much money involved in everything, so for them to care about me as an actress and a creative more than about their business was just so lovely. I got it, thank God. I would’ve felt so guilty, and then I was working the very next day in New York.

Did you screen test at all?

I was meant to but they ended up offering it to me without the screen test. I think this show in New Zealand was just working around the clock and then they were trying to organise me to fly to New York for like three hours from New Zealand or something and I was about to do that and at the last minute they said you can just have it.

How do you prepare for such a powerful character?

I think it’s something that I relate to in some way shape or form. I grew up in Saudi Arabia and there was a period of time there where things got quite dangerous and there were a lot of bombings and shootings and my school was bombed and I had people around me that were dying and so I guess I had some kind of understanding of what they went through. It wasn’t my caretaker, it wasn’t my parents or anything so I was very fortunate but I understood the sense of isolation that you feel.

After that I went back to Australia and I was so confused because I’d been dealing with the concept of mortality for so long and checking under the car for bombs all the time and trying to figure out who the head of the Al-Qaeda was at eleven years old and thinking that I knew where the headquarters were, which I wasn’t far off by the way. Anyways, went back to Australia and we were talking about ballet shoes or playing hopscotch, and I couldn’t reconcile normal life with what I’d experienced and so you’re drawn back towards the people who know those experiences.

I felt obsessed with Saudi, I felt obsessed with my friends who lived there and wanting to connect and reach out to them because they were the only ones who got it and I think that exists for Theo and Pippa as well. It’s a very unique experience to have and the inner turmoil and trauma is so immense. But then it’s also completely within their own individual psychologies as well. They went and had their own different lives for so long and it’s a very interesting relationship, there’s so much push and pull, and I found that it was such a sticky thing that Pippa had to deal with.

There’s this soulful desire to connect with someone, to love someone, to be with someone and then it’s strange that something so magical and huge and emotional should be governed by the rationality that this would be so distractive. These two death driven souls, as Donna Tartt puts it, together would lead to immense chaos and probably more hurt. It’s a really interesting thing, and I’m so glad it’s not romanticised. It is, and it’s not, they don’t end up together. They don’t buy into the cliches that we often see, it’s an incredible duality that this material has, and it comes from the book, and it exists in the film, it’s that there’s so much magic and ethereal beauty in the world and then it’s also grounded in a very gritty, realistic, sense of what it is to be damaged and human.

You have a very interesting background, which probably makes you so interesting to watch on screen as an actress. What were your folks doing in Saudi Arabia?

They worked in hospitals, they wanted an adventure. My mum’s an extraordinary woman, and she was the one who wanted to go out there initially, she was the one who started it all, and my dad was equally as supportive, and we just had the most incredible, adventurous childhood of lots of travel, and I feel so very lucky for it and I think it’s led me to the path that I’m currently on. I think it does exercise a certain muscle of empathy and just constant exposure to different people, cultures, stories, it’s kind of what I do when I work.

Australians are so famous for putting out the welcome wagon in Los Angeles. What’s your experience been with your fellow Aussies in LA?

It’s funny, I’m barely in LA to be honest. I’m based there, but I’m never there. Truthfully, whenever I’m not working, I go to remote Africa. It’s to ground myself and re-center. LA I go to for work but saying that I was really lucky to be the recipient of the Heath Ledger Award. It’s like a scholarship and that was instrumental in my transition over here, and it was how I got into [casting director] Ellen Chenoweth’s room. I think she was a judge on the board one year.

The Aussie community here is so strong, it’s like a little family and Australians in Film is a company that has been the centre of my experience there, and I feel so fortunate to have them. It’s really important to have your Aussie community and branch out at the same time, and I think it’s been a wonderful integration of those things and whenever I’m in LA I do a thing called Sustainable Sundays, and I have my friends over, and a lot of them are Aussies, but then we have a lot of other creatives come who I’ve met along the way from America and it’s interesting to talk about culturally what we can offer each other, and the things that we share. I feel fortunate to have had that time in Australia and the community out here.

Would you ever go back to Saudi Arabia?

I think I’ll always feel connected to it. I was born there, I was there until I was twelve. I think that’s partly why I went to Morocco this year. I was living there for half of the year and went to university and studied Middle Eastern studies and peace and conflict resolution and working with children, learning Arabic and French as well. There is something unresolved there. I haven’t been able to go back just because we fled, so it’s a tricky re-entry thing, but I really want to revisit. I think it’s a world that has changed drastically since I left it. It changed drastically in the time that I was there. It’s a really fascinating world that is not represented accurately. The majority of my experience was extraordinary, I had incredible Arabic friends, I was raised by a wonderful nanny and Islam is this beautiful religion that I fell in love with. I don’t particularly adhere to any one religion, but I’ve learnt so much from it as well.

I think with our media we give it all a different face, so I would love to explore that in my creative work as well, at some point down the line.

Like a lot of Australians, you did Home and Away before making it in the movies…

I had my first ever kiss in real life and on screen on Home and Away! I was seventeen, a late bloomer. I was saving it for something really romantic. I was like, ‘no I can’t kiss you, it’s gotta be the love of my life’. This was probably my Saudi upbringing. Just feeling like I needed to really treasure it and it was very sacred moment and then of course I do it with this guy that I met two minutes ago, and we do it like eleven times, and I didn’t know how to kiss. I was meant to be playing this quite promiscuous young woman who makes out with someone. I just didn’t know, and I kissed him, but I just stopped. That was it, and they were like ‘can you move your head a little bit?’ Anyway, good mates with him now, my boyfriend is great mates with him, we laugh about it all the time.

Did you grow up admiring Australian actresses, and is it weird that you’re acting in a film with Nicole Kidman today?

Nicole, yeah, how surreal is that? She was someone who I looked up to. I was fourteen when I started my acting career and journey, before that I was obviously in a different part of the world where that wasn’t in the forefront of my understanding or vision. But, I ran away from home when I was fourteen to America, ‘ran away’ loosely. I told my parents in the end and we had certain things in place to keep it safe and everything. That was where I discovered acting, in America, and when I returned, I actually started seeing a psychologist and it was her dad. So, I saw him for a little while when I was fourteen and that was when I was journeying into acting.

All these little connections, but I never met her until this job and I’ve looked up to her for so long and it’s really surreal and feels like the full circle in some ways. Because I used to ask him about her and how she dealt with it and everything. I didn’t see him for long, he stopped practicing soon after but it’s quite interesting. Before that I didn’t really have Aussie icons, I had Bindi Irwin when I was in Saudi. The stuff that could come in and out of Saudi was quite limited at that time. I actually had a book called Tomorrow When the War Began, which my grade three teachers gave to me. She was Australian, one of the only Aussies in the area and then I ended up being in the film for that, which is weird as well. And I had an Australian woman who ran an underground illegal theatre group in Saudi, so that’s where performing arts all began.

So what was it like to meet Nicole for the first time, especially since her dad recently passed?

It was quite emotional for me, just having had that experience with her dad. And that was a really critical time in my life where a lot of changes were happening and I felt very connected to her because I kinda saw her path and her work and I was fascinated with that journey and feeling. I was a young woman who didn’t feel like I fitted in the environment that I was at in my schooling, and I don’t know if that was her experience but I felt I connected to her and I felt there were other artists that I connected to. To meet her was just surreal and she’s so divine, just so kind and as magical in real life as she is on screen and it was just a really special moment.

She’s very generous, her spirit is just willing to be open and giving and her husband, Keith, my mum is really obsessed with him and has had the same CD in her car for three years. The same Keith Urban! I get in the car every Christmas planning to relax for a couple of days and my boyfriend and I get in the car and I was like, ‘it’s the same CD turn it on.’ Keith, same one, not even a different album. Mum doesn’t know the names of any of the songs, she just knows the tracks, she’s like, ‘I like one, seven, nine and eleven’.

You seem so fascinated and in other aspects of life, but where does the acting fit into this?

I’ve definitely tried to quit acting a number of times. I always quit because I feel like I can’t honour the full experience of what it is to be that human being and my agent goes ‘okay, call me on Monday’. It’s more a conflict of feeling, that I care about it so much and I’m so passionate about it, I have so many different aspects of my life but the core of everything really is acting.

I think it’s just a place where I can channel all of those curiosities. And it’s a place where I can collect everything that I’ve learnt about myself and about the world and about the people and put it into some constructive use and for some reason that’s where the pull is, it’s just an inherent thing. I love doing it, I love going to Africa and trying to support people in a more tangible way. Obviously, that has its own issues and I’m really passionate about how you support people in developing countries. Because I think it’s something that has to be done very carefully and it’s a reciprocal relationship.

So there’s that element but my parents work in hospitals, they save lives every day and so I felt having growing up in developing nations and seeing all of that stuff, it’s hard to go to set knowing that there is so much money being spent on a crane shot. So, I’ve really had to reconcile with that, but this book helped me with it because it talks about the importance of art and why we need it.

I noticed that with my creative stuff, with art, I think, if we invested more in storytelling and connection with ourselves and to others and engaging in humanity, a lot of the division and chaos that exists in the politics of the world, wouldn’t be as prevalent. It’s taken me a while to get to that point where I really felt justified in my career, because I don’t feel that comfortable staying in fancy hotels and dressing up, and putting make up on, it’s not naturally me. I’m much more comfortable covered in cow shit in remote Kenya or shovelling dirt in the Zambian jungle and not showering for months at a time because you’re in the Sahara and this is life. It’s an interesting discordant that I’ve had to marry but I think it’s in service of something that I’m extremely passionate about both because of what it can do for the world but also I figured it’s just within me and I really have to honour it because when I don’t, I can’t be my fullest, happiest self.

The Goldfinch is in cinemas September 26, 2019


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