An Interview with Tala Ashe

The Interval   |   Written by Victoria Myers | Photography by Tess Mayer

Full interview:


“It is challenging. When I first came to New York and first started auditioning for things, I remember meeting with agents and they’d be like, ‘You’re ethnically ambiguous and it’s great.’ I was like, ‘What?’ I hadn’t heard that term. I’m from Ohio and I went to a small private school that was really diverse, and in terms of acting, I didn’t feel like ‘the other.’ In college I played Kate Keller in All My Sons. The world was open to me in terms of the color of my skin. It wasn’t until I came to New York that I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going out for a lot of women who wear hijabs.’ I said yes to many things that I wouldn’t say yes to now, and as I’ve gotten older, I say no to a lot of things and a lot of projects where it feels like either there’s tokenism going on, or a lack of sensitivity or accuracy or authenticity to the character.

Who I am is a girl that grew up in Ohio, and there’s a tension in being told that I’m playing stories that I’m actually not, and [that I’m] less acquainted with. This play, in some ways, I understand, especially the family. I come from a very liberal family, intellectual Ohio State University, that was my Iranian-American community. A lot of these stories [that I’m asked to do], I don’t know more about than anybody would from doing the copious amount of research that I do. It’s been a challenge to sometimes feel like you’re brought into a room and expected to represent something that you actually don’t.

I think we could do better in theatre in terms of putting actors of color in places that we haven’t seen them. That has been hard. That speaks to the part of me that is American. I want to be part of those stories, not just the ones that are Shakespeare or the ones that are sort of in a mystical, magical world. Stories about Americans, but Americans that happen to look like this. Part of it is that some of it hasn’t been written.

I guess what I’m realizing is I’m forging a path that I didn’t think I would be, and I have no doubt that in 20 years it’s going to be better. This is happening in the Middle Eastern community now, but it is and has been happening with the Latino community and the Asian community and the African-American community for a long time. I feel like we’re a little bit behind in the fight, and it doesn’t help that we’re in a climate where a lot of brown people are depicted as terrorists. There’s a lot of stereotypical tales out there that I’m not interested in. I feel like the task at hand is to push stories forward that normalize. I think there’s a lot of different ways to do it. There are going to be growing pains, and many of my predecessors and actors around me have been dealing with it longer than I have, but it’s important. I think it’s a really important thing. I feel like for a while I resented that that was part of the gig because being an actor is hard enough. Now, I’m finding I’m embracing it. I’m also finding it really important to figure out how to have those conversations with theatres. It’s tricky, because I think there are good ways to do it and not good ways to do it. I would be really interested in having a Middle Eastern theatre forum in the next couple years like the Asian community did a few years ago, and to have an open conversation about what are really justified and prevalent issues in theatre and beyond.

I’ve realized that it’s kind of part and parcel with this work at times. It’s really lovely when it’s not. It’s really lovely when I’m able to just be an actor and not focus so heavily on issues of representation, but I also feel really capable of doing it, so I’m ready to engage and fail and try again.”

“When I read projects, sometimes things just come off as offensive and I go, ‘Nope, not doing it.’ Other times there are things where I’m like, ‘There’s an interesting idea here. I don’t see any of the red flags. I think for this project to be successful it would need this and this, and need this kind of support.’ Then sometimes, when I’m lucky, there’s a workshop or a reading, so I can see if that is important to the makers of that piece, and then sort of choose my own adventure from there. Sometimes you audition for something and you’re going off of the script and it can or cannot be everything that you had hoped.

I do think inside of that, my job is to continue to fight for what feels important to me, which is hard as a woman of color, but I think also just as a woman and as a youngish woman. I feel like you have to be more careful and more articulate in order to get what you want and articulate what’s important to you. In situations that I come up against where I’m like, ‘This isn’t right, this isn’t accurate, or this feels like tokenism in a way that I’m not interested in,’ it’s tricky. I think it can label you as a difficult woman. More and more I care less and less, since it’s really important for me to speak up. I have a really hard time holding my tongue. It really eats away at me. I’m interested in being part of that conversation—not as a teacher, but just as a person. I know that I’m sensitive to certain things and it’s important for me to voice that.”

“I wish I wrote, because I think part of seeing stories that I’m more interested in seeing would be about creating them, and I’m really passionate about doing new work. I think it’s just important to have other things. I produce this podcast with my friend Therese called That’s What She Said. It’s conversations with women about love, and it’s been this really lovely thing that I’m just a small part of, but week after week, when we talk to these really amazing women and post these episodes and get the response that we’ve gotten, it widens my world. I think widening one’s world is really important because it’s easy to get tunnel vision in this career. There are so many heartbreaks that happen that can send you to dark places if you let them. I have a really good group of girlfriends who are really supportive for me. Living in New York has been helpful too. There’s something about being in the city, even though sometimes I’m very angry at the city. Walking through the streets, it feels very alive and gives me a perspective that is helpful to my work. But it’s incredibly hard, and there are still days where I desperately search for if there’s something else that would excite me in a way that acting still continues to do. It’s a really hard thing that we do, but it’s also something that I believe in. Onward for now.”


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