Ashleigh Cummings Promises She's Not Being a "Diva" About Sustainability
"It's not about me at all. It's about our world," The Goldfinch actress says.
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Just a few months ago, actress Ashleigh Cummings was completely off the grid, living in Morrocco. Not for a film or TV project or sponsored, influencer-esque vacation — just for herself.
"My job revolves around telling stories about the world, and so it's really important to me, in my down-time, to go back out into the world and integrate myself into other environments that are unfamiliar, and to educate myself in as broad a scale as possible about different people, different experiences, and different lives," she tells InStyle whilst in the midst of a global press tour for the highly anticipated adaptation of Donna Tartt's novel, The Goldfinch. (In other words, the opposite of her life just weeks prior.)
Cummings says she lived with a local family, went to college, and did service learning, which is "basically like volunteering, but you do it with critical engagement and writing essays every week," during her stay. You could say that the 26-year-old Australian actress is accustomed to a global life experience — she was born in Saudi Arabia where her parents lived and worked, moved to Australia at age 12, and relocated to Los Angeles when she was 14 to pursue her acting career.
And even when she's not living off-the-grid, Cummings is making an effort to live as eco-consciously and sustainably as possible. She's written essays for Eco Age and The Frontlash (a magazine founded by her stylist, Laura Jones) about the importance of protecting the environment, regularly supports conservationist causes on her Instagram, and is passionate about sustainability in fashion.
"My biggest difficulty at the moment is, even today, being in a makeup test or costume fittings and they have to use leather or use products that aren't entirely eco-friendly, and it's really hard for me to speak up," she says. "Everyone's doing their best and there are certain limitations within this industry. But I am trying to really, kindly, ask for things."
She admits that advocating for sustainability can sometimes make her feel like a "diva" — "but it's not about me at all. It's about our world." And it's an effort that the rest of the world is only just trying to catch up to.
A week after our first conversation, Cummings and I meet up at a cocktail party thrown by Bergdorf Goodman in N.Y.C. after a screening of The Goldfinch, one of the first times she got to be around audience members who had just seen the film — an experience she called "surreal." As thrilling as the moment is, Cummings doesn't get too long to relax and swap stories about costars Ansel Elgort and Nicole Kidman. As soon as the party's over, she's right on her way back to Rhode Island to perfect her motorcycle riding skills for the new season of NOS4A2, the AMC horror show on which she stars alongside Zachary Quinto.
Ahead, we spoke to the actress about her nailing her American accent, how she prepared for The Goldfinch, and her undying celebrity crush: Elton John.
InStyle: You were born in Saudi Arabia and moved to Australia and then to Los Angeles — tell us a little more about your journey and how you got to where you are now.
The creative art aspect [in me] was ignited in Saudi by an Australian woman who set up an illegal underground theater group for the kids and some parents. My dad played Barney and Bob the Builder and all kinds of people. He's a very talented voice artist actually. So yeah, that's where it all began.
I was predominately a dancer, though, and I moved to Australia when I was 12 and spent a lot of energy dancing, but kind of rapidly fell out of it when I was about 14. I was quite an emotive human being and felt things very deeply and didn't feel I could have come up with the rest of myself in the ballet world ... at the time I felt I needed to burst out of myself in a way. So I booked a trip to America with money saved from writing or dancing competitions and babysitting. I came out here and knew one person who was in the acting world, and that's how I was introduced to things and very quickly, my passion redirected.
Was The Goldfinch your first time working in an American movie production? What was that like?
It's still extraordinary to me, I can't quite believe it. The scale of things, the magnitude of the production and the people attached [still] don't really sink in, in a big way, for me. It was creatively a very precious and rare, unique, world to enter into. And you don't get many of those gemstones in your life. And I just feel so fortunate that I was able to be a part of it. It kind of felt like I was stepping into a Rembrandt painting or something.
The little differences of course are just like the huge budget and the amount of time that you get to spend doing one scene. The vocabulary's different from Australian and New Zealand to be sure, I did spend a little bit of time getting used to that. But, really it was just the pacing. That was the biggest difference — and craft services, of course, which I'd never encountered. I had so many sugar crashes throughout filming!
How familiar were you with the book before you got the script?
I had it on my shelf. I'd been meaning to read it because I had heard all about it and loved the premise, but I didn't read it until after my first audition. I skimmed it for my first audition and then when I got the call back, I read it completely. And I just fell in love with it and became one of its largest fans.
I treasure that novel, and it's still very surreal to me that I'm a part of it. I often do this. I've done a number of adaptations of books or television series where you become so attached to the characters. And I never feel that I'm ... worthy is the wrong word. But I just never feel like I should play that role. It feels like as much as I relate to the character, as much as I see my own experiences and myself within that character, when I'm a fan of the material I feel like it should be left to someone else because I don't want to ruin it. And I don't see myself as elevated as the characters that exist, if that makes sense.
The Goldfinch deals with the topic of going through trauma as a child — how did you prepare for that aspect of your role?
I rely heavily on the book. You should see my copy of The Goldfinch, It's kind of like a withering mess of a stack of tape sort of holding stuff together.
I was really lucky that I got to hang around in New York for quite a period of time. So I had a bit of downtime, unlike a lot of the other roles that I've worked on. It was a combination of things, just going through YouTube videos, scouring the internet for interviews or films about people who've gone through similar things.
I met a woman who became a real companion to me throughout that whole experience, who had a similar brain surgery and brain trauma [as Pippa] recently, so we became really good friends. I walked the streets of New York listening to [musician] Glenn Gould and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and tried to imagine it was the first time I revisited it after the bombing [in the novel], going into certain rooms and making that the room and seeing a little girl and then imagining that was me.
But I had been around bombings and shootings and that kind of existence in my childhood, so I knew something of it — it wasn't exactly the same, but it all contributes.
You play the older version of Pippa and Aimee Laurence plays the younger, did you two work with each other at all?
We didn't work with each other. John [Crowley, the director] was pretty amazing, he trusted us and felt that we had energetically a similar thing going on, I guess. Whenever she was in the office I would really make an effort to hang out with her. I really enjoyed spending time with her and I definitely noticed little things, like the way she moved her eyes and whatnot. But it's tricky because I wasn't there on set when she was performing, so it could have been a different thing. John just felt like we inherently had something that would link us together, and we didn't have to worry too much. She's a wonderful young woman and actress, I really enjoyed getting to know her.
You performed an American accent in The Goldfinch and NOS4A2. How did you work to nail it down?
I've had both the [American and Australian] accents, which is half because of my upbringing and the versatility of accents that have been around me. I had about a billion accents when I was about five and then a British accent till I was fifteen and now an Aussie accent so my mouth is used to getting around the musculature, and that was helpful.
But they are different accents, the Pippa accent and the Vic [from NOS4A2] accent and there was even one day when I was working on NOS4A2 and they wanted to add a new scene with Pippa. I'd been working as Vic all day and drove to New York that night and went straight onto set. I was so tired that there was one point where I turned around and I saw two of Ansel [Elgort]. I did get a note to open my eyes a little wider because they were slowly becoming closed.
I did notice the difference in accents and vocal quality then, and it was actually quite hard to go back into Pippa's higher register 'cause I'd been working in Vic's lower, Massachusetts-esque accent. It was just quite a stark contrast in that moment and ultimately went into [post-production]. But I had wonderful support around me to help me with all that.
Who have you met that you've been the most star struck by?
Bindi Irwin. There have been people that are arguably most famous that I've met but for some reason I met Bindi and I couldn't speak.
What Instagram account are you obsessed with right now?
Oh, I mean there are so many environmental ones. I'm not good at Instagram. I have had a lot of support and encouragement in terms of posting on it because I'm on a wonderful platform to share important things, but I'm really bad at going on it. There's the Zero Waste Store, which is really wonderful but the Instagram account that's obviously my all-time favorite, because he's my all-time favorite, is Elton John.
If you could only watch three movies for the rest of your life, which three would you choose?
Rocket Man, I've seen that seven times. What are the others? Oh gosh. When I was young, I really loved Atonement. We didn't have films really in Saudi, so Atonement was one of the first ones I saw and realized the creativity, artistry, and acting. And then maybe like one of Werner Herzog films. I don't know which one, I can't choose.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Elton John. I said I wanted to marry him and my parents said, "I don't think that's going to be possible, he's gay." That was the first time I learned about what being gay was and I said, "Is there any way around this?" ... I was genuinely upset. I thought he might be the only person in the world who understood me at that time. So yeah, Elton John, first and last celebrity crush.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.