Acting is a profession that requires you to really see people. You have to notice the little things – how someone moves, the subtle changes in their face when they react to something, what it is that makes them tick. As a child, Ashley Dyke had lots of time to watch people and understand. One child of four, she enjoyed keeping to herself and watching her sisters and brother play and interact instead. She was happy not being the center of attention. Now, more attention than ever is being focused on her – she has landed a role in 12 Years a Slave, which boasts A-list names such as Brad Pitt among its cast. Those childhood years of simply watching people have apparently paid off.
12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in New York who was kidnapped into slavery for twelve years. Dyke’s character is Anna, another slave who Northup meets during his journey. She didn’t want to give too much away about the role that Anna has in the movie, but Dyke was thrilled to discuss the importance of Anna on a larger scale. “She kind of represents to me the untold stories of slaves and slavery,” Dyke says. “I feel like this film pays homage to that with this character.”
Given the nature of slavery, many stories – great stories – were lost from memory and will never be told. Stories of women especially are difficult to come by. White women in America during this time period were fighting for basic rights. Black slave women were lower than cattle. Who would ever tell their stories? This movie is finally telling one of them. That’s part of why the role of Anna is so important to Dyke, and why the part is so special to her.
“When I first read 12 Years a Slave, I was like, I have to be a part of this,” she says. “I feel so much pride that I do feel like this a role that I love.” For Dyke, who is biracial, the role was also an opportunity to connect with her heritage. Her ancestors on her father’s side were slaves, so for her, the connection she felt to the role of Anna was innate. The walls of her trailer on set were covered with pictures of her ancestors to serve as a daily reminder of the work she was able to do. To Dyke, this is how she can play a part in the story of her family. Her ancestors lived the realities of slavery, and she is able to bring those realities to light as an artist.
Often, to prepare for roles, Dyke says it’s easy to find yourself seeking – seeking to understand and to find out where the character is coming from. For this role, however, her innate connection with the story of the film allowed her to be much more introspective in her approach. Her environment still influenced her, though – New Orleans, one of the movie’s filming locations, was bound to have an impact. The Big Easy’s culture, food, music, and people were able to enrich not only Dyke, but the movie itself. “You know,” Dyke says, “the film is working with this difficult subject matter, that – the fact that you were enlivened by the city is really powerful as an actor. You know, you can’t be in New Orleans and not feel everything. And so in some ways it made my job that much easier.” Dyke had never been to New Orleans before coming to film. And while she loves L.A., where she currently lives, she says definitively that New Orleans is what a city is supposed to feel like.
“New Orleans is...there’s nothing like it,” she says. “That city, you know, has been through a lot. And to come out on the other end and still remember what’s important, you know, and not be jaded. Be stronger. You know, it’s something we could all learn from.” When one thinks of the subject matter of the film – a man who is able to go through a multitude of terrible experiences and still come out stronger on the other side – it is easy to see how the city could have influenced Dyke and the other actors during their work here.
12 Years a Slave isn’t Dyke’s first project. She has also made appearances on CSI: New York and The Crazy Ones, and has various stage credits to her name. She studied theater at the University of Virginia and did a semester at the well-known NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Such an intelligent and talented woman can easily be intimidating – but she stresses that she’s just a normal woman who loves yoga, likes to travel with her fiancé (hip-hop and spoken word artist Omar Offendum), and is proud when she makes a good steak. But she’s a normal woman with a career that seems like it’s bound to keep improving.
Dyke gave some advice to other young female actresses who are trying to break into the business. When actors first start out, she says, “people tend to just do everything. They’re like, oh, this is a job, okay, I’ll take that, this is a job. And I would encourage young women to be selective and to understand your power. And if something inspires you and intrigues you, then do it. And you can do it full, you know, you can do it with everything you have and that will bring more work like that into your life. And really starting to understand what makes you tick, what makes you proud to be an actor and start to understand that and want to do that kind of work. And you can trust – to trust yourself, and trust your instincts about it.”
12 Years a Slave premieres Friday, October 18 in theaters across the country.