Interview by Hayden Peyrard & Jana Letonja

Actress, producer, writer and activist Ashley Jackson was destined to follow in her parents’ footsteps, who are both political activists, but her career path took a bit of a turn from the expected as she paved her own way into the entertainment industry. She made her feature film debut in Netflix’s original ‘Beats’ in 2019. Ashley is currently a graduate student at USC, working towards her master’s degree at the prestigious Peter Stark Producing Program. Her plans are to become a film producer, continue the pursuit of her acting career and write stories that intertwine her activism and her love for the arts.

You made your feature film debut as Niyah in Netflix’s original ‘Beats’ in 2019. What got you into acting? 

I have always been deeply fascinated by the arts, drawing inspiration from classic television shows and movies as a child. In school choirs, dance teams and musical theater conservatory programs, I developed a passion for singing, songwriting, writing and acting. While still in high school, I started attending adult acting classes to further develop my skills and at the age of seventeen, during my freshman year of college, I landed my first job. On my nineteenth birthday, I found myself boarding a plane destined for Chicago to film the Netflix movie ‘Beats’.

How was the experience of being on set, getting into your character, learning scripts. Did it come naturally to you? What excites you the most about it?

The process of acting came naturally to me. I consider my ability to quickly absorb scripts to be one of my superpowers. I can learn numerous pages of dialogue, often within a short timeframe, which proves beneficial for auditions with tight deadlines or script revisions the morning of a shoot. And my acting coach, Richard Lawson, taught me the invaluable skill of delving deep into the essence of each character I portray, connecting with their humanity. Essentially, strengthening my practice of empathy. 

For instance, while the background and lifestyle of my character Niyah in Netflix’s ‘Beats’ are different, I draw from my own experiences as a teenage girl to understand her perspective on her unique circumstances. Through extensive study, research and rehearsals, I strive to breathe authenticity into the characters. I genuinely relish the opportunity to immerse myself in a new character’s journey, temporarily becoming someone other than myself, whether it’s for a few minutes or months.

You are currently studying film production and working towards your master’s degree at the Peter Stark Producing Program. Are you more interested in the production aspect of film than acting? 

My aspiration is to excel in all the areas I’m passionate about pursuing, including producing, writing and acting. Becoming a multi-hyphenate creative, someone who masters multiple skill sets in the entertainment industry, has been a lifelong ambition of mine. Given my acting experience and my undergraduate degree specializing in screenwriting, I felt compelled to delve deeper into producing during my time in graduate school. The Peter Stark Producing Program stood out due to its unique combination of specialized curriculum and hands-on involvement, along with the exceptional mentorship opportunities provided by industry experts and renowned faculty members. I believe that becoming a ‘Starkie’ will expand my artistic knowledge and enhance my business acumen in an evolving industry.

During the pandemic, you accepted an apprentice position at Freeform in the first inaugural Disney General Entertainment Apprenticeship Program. Can you tell us a little bit about this experience and what it entails? 

I accepted a position in the first inaugural Disney General Entertainment Content Apprenticeship Program in 2020. In this role, I had the privilege of shadowing creative executives and forming close bonds with an exceptional group of talented peers. The program also granted me the freedom to explore various interests within the network, including development, alternative and scripted programming. As an apprentice, I actively participated in providing feedback alongside executives on shows such as ‘Grown-ish’, as well as other successful series on the Freeform network, like ‘Cruel Summer’ and ‘Good Trouble’. It is truly rare in this industry to be part of a company where all of one’s direct superiors are women and I consider that experience to have been an extraordinary gift. My two years with Disney allowed me to acquire a wide range of administrative and creative skills, which have already proven fruitful. I am immensely thankful for the invaluable time I spent ‘behind the scenes’ and the experiences that have shaped my professional journey.

You are very passionate about volunteer work. You recently joined forces with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) to eradicate sexual abuse and explotation. What kind of work do you do with them? What is the approach being taken to help eradicate sexual abuse and exploitation? 

Addressing systemic issues that affect underrepresented populations is of utmost importance to me. When I became aware of domestic sex trafficking in high school, I began organizing donation drives to support survivors. Recently, I had the opportunity to lead NCOSE’s ‘Lend My Voice’ social media campaign, which illuminates the consequences of full decriminalization of the sex trade, while promoting survivor-focused solutions like partial decriminalization. Through the campaign, influencers and celebrities are utilizing their platforms to amplify the voices of survivors and shed light on these crucial issues. By working with NCOSE and engaging in these initiatives, I strive to contribute to the ongoing fight against exploitation and to advocate for policies that protect and empower survivors.

Why is volunteer work and giving back so important, not only to you, but also for society in general?

It’s crucial that we prioritize taking care of one another in our society. Kimberle Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality provides a framework for understanding how various forms of oppression, such as racism, sexism and classism, can intersect and overlap. Lack of access and equity lie at the core of these oppressive systems. To address the needs of historically underserved and underrepresented communities, active engagement in social justice work becomes essential. This can take different forms, including volunteering and participating in the democratic process through voting. Personally, I find great fulfillment in giving back to others at home and in our global community. It’s a commitment that may require sacrifices, but the rewards, both on a personal level and in creating a more justified world, make it all worthwhile.

Your plan is to become a film producer. Are there plans to bring these two sides together, bringing activism into your films? Can you tell us a bit about what that process would look like to you?

My storytelling and career intertwine with themes of political advocacy and democratic politics. Although I’m not currently pursuing a political career, I incorporate those interests into my screenwriting and acting roles. My personal experiences as a member of Generation Z, my father’s involvement in politics and civil rights and the knowledge gained from my mother’s college courses, including intellectual aspects of Hip Hop, political organizations and the Black Power Movement, fuel my creative drive. I am inspired by art like ‘The West Wing’, ‘Madam Secretary’ and ‘The Diplomat’ and by film producers like Forest Whitaker, Megan Ellison and Stacey Sher, who commit to pushing boundaries and elevating untold history in storytelling. 

Your parents are both political activists. How did they take your interest in acting?

It’s safe to say that my parents were taken aback when they discovered my passion for acting, considering their own deep involvement in intellectual and political life. I was quite the dramatic kid growing up, but they never expected an actress to emerge. They gradually came around. And I proved myself by studying my field of interest and building a resume that aligns with my aspirations. Today, they are genuinely proud of how I have incorporated my own political interests into my artistic endeavors. So, although we had a bit of a rocky start, we have now reached a point of solid understanding and support.

With you being both an activist and in the entertainment industry, what is your take on the current situation in the industry and everything going on?

I stand in solidarity with unions and labor organizations seeking equitable treatment of their workers. I recognize that these matters are about the wellbeing of the collective. The outcome of these negotiations will establish standards that will shape the future of representation and fairness.

Ashley, what can you share with us about your upcoming projects? Where will we be seeing you next?

I eagerly anticipate future acting projects and producing the scripts I’ve been writing. Looking ahead, I can definitively confirm that my next endeavor will involve me sitting in classrooms at USC, alongside my esteemed cohort in the Peter Stark Producing Program. I can’t wait.