A few weeks before I interview actress Erica Ash, I meet her at BET’s Leading Women Defined conference. She’s speaking with fellow industry mate Regina Hall at the black girl magic-meets-sister circle gathering of women in Miami, and easily commanding the crowd. Ash ebbs and flows from serious and spiritual to crass and hysterical in a matter of moments, then hits the post-interview lip sync battle and belts Cardi B with the rest of us. I had to learn more.
When she arrives at the ELLE.com offices I’m surprised by a few things. That saying that it gets greater later? Ash is proving it. Slender and poised with arms that rival Michelle Obamas, I make a mental note to do more push ups and drink all the water moving forward.
On a less superficial note, it turns out the that actress has a similar origin story to a few others I’ve heard: Success can be found in business if you just hide what you actually want to do from your parents for years. “I went to Emory and I was pre-med, but it wasn’t really my dream,” Ash shares. “I’m smart and I can do it but does that mean that I should? There’s nothing worse than an apathetic doctor.”
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
That led Ash to pull the old I’m Going to a Take Year Off, but ‘Circle Back’ to Medical School trick. “We had already picked it out, it was it Xavier or Columbia,” says Ash. But after landing background singer and modeling jobs early into a year-long stint in Japan, she knew there was no turning back. “The money was rolling in because I was enjoying myself and I feel like God blesses you when you’re walking in your dharma–that means life purpose for those who are not yogis. I also made sure to bring my mother and sister over to visit me during a really busy week so they could see me at work.”
Ash continues to reflect. “I’ve had a very seasoned life. Growing up an Army brat, you’re moving every three years so it’s always new friends, new people—you’re sort of always reintroducing your insecurities to a new group and trying to figure out how to deal with them,” she says. “It took me a long time to realize that I was just looking for validation from all the wrong places. Once I started to figure that out, I started realizing I had all the wrong friends.”
After quick chameleonic changes between strong, goofy, and sultry poses, we get into a conversation that covers everything from friend breakups to how the criminal justice system is failing people of color.
How do you do a friend breakup?
Oh, I didn’t do a friend breakup, I did a friend dump. I was like “This is great. Bye.” Once I realized I didn’t need validation from outside, I didn’t worry about how they felt. I wasn’t ugly with them but it wasn’t like I needed to coddle because here’s the deal: When you go to someone and you’re like, “I’m not going to be your friend anymore,” it becomes “Why?” “Well, because of this is this.” And they’re like “No it’s not,” And you say “Yes it is.” I don’t feel like having those kindergarten conversations. People are too grown for you to tell them stuff they should already know. So I decided for me first, but also for the both of us, that it was better if we all went our own separate ways, not in hate but just really in love because the love for myself started growing and I was like I deserve better.
Did you ever look back?
Maybe one or two people. When you’re in the midst of a huge dump the way that I was, it’s like everybody has to go. A couple of the friends that I tried to break up with ended up coming back around, but I think what was needed was time apart and that’s what the breakup gave us and so when we came back together, I had grown, they had grown and we were able to make a new kind of friendship.
Tell me about your character on In Contempt, Gwen Sullivan.
She is a very head-strong, very feisty mouth public defender who believes everyone deserves a fair shake and it’s frustrating for her having to deal with a system that doesn’t offer that. In a country where justice is supposed to be for all, she doesn’t see that’s happening so it’s really her passion and life’s mission to give, at least for the clients she has control over, some of that fair justice and she’s willing to do absolutely anything it takes to make sure her clients get that. Sometimes that means riding a very, very fine line between legalities—she’s not afraid to get arrested, she’s not afraid to go to battle, she’s not afraid to get up in faces and say what she needs to say. And she has some addictions: Flame bolts and shopping. Flame bolts is her energy drink—they’re probably like a distant cousin of Red Bull, like a third or fourth cousin removed from Monster—but she thrives on those because she’s up at all hours of the night trying to figure out how to win. She’s human. I think the through line with her and all the characters I’ve played from Bridget to M. Chuck to Gwen now is sass and mouth-iness. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s written or because Ash is a mouthy sass pot. I’m pretty mouth, always been.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
How has playing this character affected the way you see our justice system? Has it made you more critical?
I don’t think it’s made me more critical, it’s just given me a plethora of knowledge and backup for my criticisms. Before I was like, “You’re wack!” and someone would say “Why?” and I’d be like, “Because you’re wack!” Now, I’m like, “Well [the system is] wack because what you’re doing is setting people up. You’re allowing them to come into a system where you know they cannot afford bail and you know that your system is backed up so because they can’t afford bail, they have to actually go into prison and wait for trail. Which in essence is serving a sentence, for a crime they may or may not have committed—Kalief Browder—and then they end up being in jail or prison in his case for weeks up to years. He is just one in a myriad cases of people who are in jail because they cannot afford the bail to wait for their trial outside of jail. By the time they finally get to the trial, it doesn’t matter because they’ve already paid the price. You’ve messed up their minds and now they feel like the system doesn’t work for me any ways, what’s the point?
This show’s also given me information. In order to make any significant change, you need all of the information. So it validates my anger but it also makes me want to take action. How can we set up a fund to support people who can’t afford to make bail, but we believe are innocent? So that they don’t have to lose their livelihoods and lose their lives while waiting for trial.