“While I’m proud of my heritage, I don’t want to be reduced to just my heritage. The question ‘where are you from?’ becomes synonymous with the question ‘who are you?’
Aglass box in a London garden – the size of a small bedroom – provides the backdrop to our cover shoot with actor Aiysha Hart. In between patches of glorious winter sunshine, it rains hard. It’s also cold, so we’re heating the ‘cube’ up with a hair dryer. But, resplendent in pieces from Gucci’s fine jewellery collection, Aiysha is graciously blasé about the inclement weather. Whilst we all huddle under too-small umbrellas watching the shoot unfold inside the glass set, she amuses the crew between shots by morphing into Marcel Marceau – all timed to comedic perfection.
Based in London – and therefore used to said weather – Aiysha’s first standout role was playing Veruca Salt in a school production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, aged eight. “It was, however, probably the role that made me want to be an actor,” she laughs. She’s since graduated from Roald Dahl to breakout roles in Emirati horror film Djinn and BBC One’s big blockbuster series, Atlantis. Next month, however, sees the release of possibly her most important and provocative film to date, Colette. Cast alongside Keira Knightley who plays the title character, it tells the biographical story of author Gabrielle Colette who agrees to ghostwrite novels for her husband – at first to critical acclaim and then to devastating effect. Aiysha plays the role of Polaire, a divisive, eclectic and hugely successful French/Algerian singer and actress who embodies the most famous of Colette’s characters, Claudine, on stage. With myriad side narratives, the film’s core centres around freedom of expression and the challenging of societal constraints, and whilst set in the late 19th century, its complexities very much resonate today.
Born to an English mother and Saudi father, Aiysha looks back fondly at her childhood spent between the UK and Riyadh. She takes pride in the duality of her heritage, yet understands the multiplicity that surrounds it – both cultural and societal. She doesn’t want to be boxed in, pigeon-holed, limited because she’s a woman, or because she’s Saudi or British. Her version of humanity is of acceptance and equality, and of freedom of expression that is free from oppression. Like Colette and Polaire before her, Aiysha likes to question the status quo. She’s open about the complications she’s faced surrounding her culture and speaks fervently about feminism, racism and cultural misrepresentation. She’s woke. And that’s what is so beautiful about this 28-year-old actor – Aisyha’s here, querying and challenging existing conditions, not sitting on the side lines, watching everything yet saying nothing. She’s articulate, informed and, perhaps most poignantly, thought-provoking. She raises awkward questions and asks for answers.
In what makes a compelling and unfiltered read, Aiysha opens up about the topics she’s most earnest about, including the dichotomy of a bi-cultural heritage, challenging the social landscape of accepted norms, the limitations still put on women in the 21st century, and why ’80s power dressing paved the way for her views on feminism...
A CHILDHOOD WHERE EAST MEETS WEST
“I have really fond memories of my childhood in Saudi Arabia – they were such formative, carefree years that were really rooted in family. It was only upon returning for holidays as a teenager and young adult that I would feel the constraint of not being able to come and go as I pleased, or walk outside in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. I also became acutely aware of the limited roles for women to play in society and the professional world. It bothered me that women didn’t have the same opportunities that men did, and still don’t. Although, there have been some positive changes, which I hope will continue.”
HER CAREER AS AN AGENT OF CHANGE
“I always knew I wanted to be an actor from a very young age, but I didn’t think it was a realistic pursuit. So for a long time I considered law, because I had a particular interest in Sharia law and I wanted to fight for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. However, I ended up becoming an actor, but I hope to garner enough of a platform through my career to still honour my early ambition, as it’s something I feel very strongly about.”
ON FORMING HER FEMINIST VIEWS
“I went to King’s College London to read English Literature, which was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It informed and helped shape so many of my world views, including feminism and how I approach my work. I grew up with a phenomenal mother who always said, ‘Get your education, have a career, stand on your own two feet and never let anyone control you.’ So feminism was a philosophy I grew up with but I never really gave it a name until I went to university. It was there that I was introduced to feminist theory and the vocabulary to express my thoughts and opinions on gender equality and female empowerment. I’m so glad that today feminism is such a talked-about political movement and that it’s speaking so loudly to so many men and women. Today, I am an ‘intersectional feminist’ and it’s a very important part of who I am.”
“In A Discovery Of Witches, I play the part of a two-thousand-year-old vampire geneticist, Miriam Shephard, who has dedicated the last few hundred years of her life to researching species’ decline and exploring the DNA of vampires, witches and demons. And then in Colette, I play the role of Emilie Marie Bouchard, or Polaire as she was famously known, a French singer and actress who was the first person to embody Colette’s most famous character, Claudine, on stage. Both women are of MENA descent, as Polaire hails from Algeria and Miriam comes from ancient Sahara, and nomadic beginnings. What I like is that one is a historical figure, the other fictional, but neither narratives nor on-screen personas are driven by their ‘heritage’; rather they are both defined by their careers and vivid personalities.”
THE DUALITY OF HER HERITAGE
“I’m hugely proud of my dual heritage. It’s taught me to see the world in many shades of grey and it’s imbued me with an innate appreciation of cultural diversity. But you do find yourself constantly walking a line between two worlds, never fully ‘existing’ within either. It’s liberating to operate on the periphery, as it gives you a unique perspective, but the world is intent on boxing you in and packaging you up. Others have always placed me in cultural or ethnic boxes that I’ve never defined myself by. I encountered it as early as five years old, and still encounter it as an adult, particularly in the world of acting. At school in the Middle East, I was considered English and in the UK, I was considered ‘ethnic’. It’s a strange experience to only be made aware of your ‘otherness’ through the eyes of others. Oddly, in Saudi, my otherness made me feel cool, but in England, at a young age, it made me feel stigmatised. Twenty-five years on and we still live in a world where white beauty takes precedence. I remember being made conscious about the colour of my skin and thinking for a long time that it made me ugly. While things are slowly starting to change, there is a long way to go.”
ON MINORITIES IN MAINSTREAM MEDIA
“While I agree we need culturally-specific stories from and about people of colour, we also need people of colour in everyday stories about humanity. The key here is that whiteness is normalised and therefore assumed to have no implication politically, while all other skin colours are sites of political oppression and the orientalist gaze. A white actor can play almost any character, whereas an actor of colour is continually placed within the confines of their religion, politics and race. The common and dangerous paradigm of placing people of colour in depthless roles sends a direct subconscious message to the audience that these people don’t feel, that they don’t matter as much, that they aren’t as important, that they are not human. MENA actors in particular are the least represented and most stereotyped on screen, and I’d also argue that they are the minority most racially miscast. Not to mention the amount of Arab characters that are whitewashed when played by Caucasian actors. How is it still acceptable to ‘brown up’ someone for a role? Then, when you do see MENA characters on screen, they are usually agents of violence, and only seen within the context of war. As [actor] Riz Ahmed recently said, we are ‘either being bombed or bombing... Either killing or being killed.’ MENA women are continually depicted as victims, either of extremist ideology, religious fundamentalism, sexualisation or violence and are often saved by the Western man in the end.”
“While I’m proud of my heritage, I don’t want to be reduced to just my heritage. It’s limiting from the perspective of an actor as well as a human being. The question ‘Where are you from?’ becomes synonymous with the question, ‘Who are you?’. I define myself by many things, not just my heritage, which is just a small part of many other things that make up my individuality, and yet publicly I am often reduced to ‘Saudi actress’.”
CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO
“I love the way my character Polaire inverted the patriarchal beauty standards of her time and embraced her self-proclaimed ‘ugliness’. She was described in the most unforgiving manner for her quirky style and her ‘caricatured’ features: big hands and feet, a long nose and protruding smile. I happen to think she was absolutely beautiful. In a self-penned article entitled How My Ugly Face Makes Me A Fortune, Polaire explained that she could never compete with the darling beauties of her Music Hall days, so she abandoned any desire to conform and embraced her ‘ugliness’ and the things that made her unique. By liberating herself from the confines of social ideals of what a woman should look like, she also unlocked her potential as an actress, stating that her lack of vanity meant she was ‘not afraid to twist, contort, be hideous, in order to wring my heart’. In openly celebrating her uniqueness and gaining self-acceptance, she discovered a power that no-one could take away from her. I find it interesting how such ideas resonate today, particularly with beauty standards being more sharply prescribed and scrutinised than ever before. Women are unconscious victims of inherent patriarchal conditioning and consumerism that constantly targets us and dictates the way we should look and feel about our bodies. While men are largely appreciated and celebrated for their successes, personalities and intellect, a woman’s currency too often depends on her physical appearance. Why should women have to fit a beauty ideal? And who even decides what that beauty ideal is?”
“For me, actor Yara Shahidi is the ultimate heroine of the new generation. For someone so young, she seems so wise beyond her years. I particularly love the way that she doesn’t just present a glossy, superficial image to the world, rather she has something to say. She’s intelligent, and she’s sociopolitically galvanised. She also celebrates her mind, not just her body, which is rare in this age of social media. I also admire [Saudi director] Haifaa Al-Mansour. I loved her debut film Wadjda, which was the first feature ever to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. I really admire how she’s broken through in such a difficult and male-dominated industry to become Saudi’s first female director. Her work and international success are empowering for other young female creators, particularly from the Middle East, including myself. When I’m feeling disillusioned, I often watch interviews with the poet, Maya Angelou. As a woman, she was such a source of empowerment and positivity, and her advice is transcendent. I’m also going to throw in Polaire... Researching her for Colette was so inspiring – I hope I can make a film about her life one day.”
EXPLORING DIFFERENT CHARACTERS
“I find it liberating and enlightening taking on different characters. I learn so much from the women I embody, not just about myself but others too. And at its core, acting is about truthfully exploring the human condition and empathising with the ugliest and most beautiful incarnations. To explore parts of ourselves that we often repress is such a privilege, and it is why theatre, film and television can be such powerful tools for social change.”
TRANSFORMATION THROUGH COSTUME
“I have a strong relationship with clothes, and I’ve always been interested in exploring costume as a way to embody the psychology and physicality of a character. Most of the costumes in Colette were originals from the late 19th and early 20th century. Wearing something that contains that much history in every thread it’s made from changes the way you inhabit your body. Polaire was famous for her 16-inch waist, so I too was tightly laced in corsets. The physical discomfort and external transformation played a part in helping me inhabit the body and psyche of Polaire.”
FASHION AS A TOOL FOR EMPOWERMENT
“I wouldn’t say that fashion defines me but I like to use it to compliment my mood. Fashion is, by its very nature, demonstrative and performative so it can be whatever the wearer wants it to be. I also believe style is as much about attitude and energy as it is about the actual garment. I dress to empower myself and I wear what makes me feel good and confident, so that I’m able to walk into a room and express my mind as opposed to my body. My mother was my first icon. Everything she wore always fitted her perfectly and she had such an elegant and poised style. I’m pretty low-maintenance with my own style and I have a very eclectic wardrobe. I’ve been influenced by the power tailoring for women at the end of the ’80s – think Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford in broad shoulders, high-waisted trousers, roll-necks, tailored jackets... It makes me think of assertive women in positions of power, women who were walking into a room and taking control. Women who were dressing like men, rather than dressing for men.”
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
“My last trip to Saudi was a few years ago, but when I go back I just enjoy catching up with my family. I love watching the calm, pink sunsets and dusk is my favourite time of day there. Hearing the call to prayer ring out always makes me feel nostalgic.”
THE FEMALE GAZE
“I wanted to be photographed by a female photographer for this cover shoot because I wanted to be seen through the female gaze. Firstly, and creatively, because I find what women find attractive and captivating in other women isn’t necessarily the same as what men are drawn to, as I believe for women it’s often more about the essence of a person rather than their physical image. And secondly, because we have to practice what we preach when it comes to equal opportunity. For so long we’ve had men primarily behind the lens, but also as directors and men calling the shots when it comes to employment. There are so many amazing women working in every industry who are often overlooked because of their gender. I believe that it’s time to start levelling the playing field and I want to contribute to positive change.”