'Funny Woman' star explores life as ambitious woman of color in swinging '60s

Clare-Hope Ashitey's "Funny Woman" premieres Sunday. Photo courtesy of PBS
1 of 4 | Clare-Hope Ashitey's "Funny Woman" premieres Sunday. Photo courtesy of PBS

NEW YORK, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- Top Boy and Children of Men actress Clare-Hope Ashitey says she wanted to star in the new dramedy series, Funny Woman, because it let her explore what it was like to be a woman of color in the workplace of another era.

"I'd never done a period piece before, so I found that a very interesting thing to explore, so I was already in a 'yes' mind-frame when I heard the idea," Ashitey, 36, told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.


"Reading the scripts and meeting the whole team and the writers ... it became an incredibly easy 'yes.' These were really kind people, smart people."

Premiering Sunday on PBS, the show is based on Nick Hornby's best-selling novel, Funny Girl, and follows Barbara Parker (played by Gemma Arterton), a London shopgirl who beats the odds to become s star in the male-dominated television comedy of the 1960s.


Morwenna Banks wrote the screenplays and Oliver Parker directed the series, which co-stars Rupert Everett, David Threlfall, Arsher Ali, Alexa Davies and Matthew Beard. It already has been renewed for a second season.

Ashitey plays Diane Lewis, a journalist with a similar sense of ambition and career success in her own field as Barbara exhibits.

"It is harder than people think to make characters that have all of the dimensions that we, as people, have because none of us are one thing," the actress said.

Noting how female women of color characters are often written as "really flat and really one-dimensional" for television, she added that Diane is an expertly crafted exception, a woman the actress likes and understands, even if with whom she doesn't always agree.

"Diane is a young woman and she is a journalist, and she is a thinker, and she is trying to have as much fun as many people did in the swinging '60s in London," Ashitey said.

"But she is also navigating an incredibly difficult socio-political landscape with as much dexterity as she can," she added. "There are all these really interesting strands to her character that the Funny Woman team have woven in really well."


Ashitey described Diane's relationship with Barbara as realistically evolving over the course of six episodes of Season 1.

"At the very beginning, they both seem like women who are very open, very lovely and loving," she said.

"But also do have a skepticism -- I think, sadly -- as many women do have of each other. They recognize in each other quite quickly they are two women who want to make a connection and want to look beneath the surface, and that is the beginning of a really wonderful relationship."

Working on a period film that takes place not in her lifetime, but also not too distant in the past, gave Ashitey a sense of perspective of where the world is today in terms of opportunities and attitudes for women and minorities.

"What was really striking was how much things have changed and how much feels exactly the same," she said.

"Everything looks so different -- the way people dress and the music -- but there are these real crystalline points where you just go, 'That could be today, that could be tomorrow.' That was really interesting and disappointing in a lot of ways."

A passionate reader, Ashitey read several of Hornby's books before taking the role in Funny Woman, but not the one that inspired the show.


"You read something, you build part of the world for yourself and it's very hard to dismantle that world because it is so much a part of you," she said.

"I'm glad that I hadn't read the book because I hadn't done any of that building and was able to come to it completely fresh."

One of her first roles was in the 2006 adaptation of P.D. James' celebrated post-apocalyptic novel, Children of Men, co-starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore.

"I was so young and new to the business and had no idea of the significance of it," Ashitey said.

"I was just turning up at work and doing the best job I could and it was such an intense and immersive experience. It will always be incredibly dear to me," she added.

"Part of me thinks that if I were to do it now, I'd do it this, that or the other way, but I think the place it occupies in my life is exactly where it should be. There was a freshness and a naivete to me that was what the role needed. I'm very proud of that film."

Ashitey said she recently rewatched the movie -- which is about how society might completely fall apart if people become unable to have children -- and thought it seems "terrifyingly current."


"There was a period where certainly I and lots of people had an optimism that we were making, so slow, but some kind of progress toward being better to ourselves and being better to each other," the actress said.

"It does slightly feel now that we were papering over the cracks and what we really needed to do is dismantle the whole house and start again," she added.

"That's kind of bleak and I don't know what the answer is to that. ... But I think there are lots of people doing really good things."

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