Having interviewed the double trouble duo, Matthew Smith and John Rezaj (director, and lead actor) of ‘Albanian Gangster’, prior to the Pristina premiere last week, this week it was time to catch up with leading lady Ashley C.Williams.
Born in Boston, Ashley graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City in 2005. A recipient of the Charles Jehlenger Award for excellence in acting, she immersed herself into theatre and artistic, independent movies. During her career, she appeared in ‘The Human Centipede’, ‘Empty’, and the horror film ‘Julia’, which is where she fell in love with her husband, Matthew, the director of ‘Albanian Gangster’.
We met in LaVeen, Tirana, the same place where I got tipsy with the other members of the team one week earlier, and upon arriving we both ordered a glass of wine to stick with tradition. Ashley is petite and impeccably dressed, with long brown hair, incredible bone structure, alabaster skin, and violet, incredibly expressive eyes. Hauntingly beautiful and with something very Zoey Deschanel-esque about her, she is quick witted, friendly, and easy to talk to.
My first question was to ask what she thought of Albania, she smiles and looks around;
“Well, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed. After being in Pristina, and finally coming to Albania after being immersed into this world of Albanians through the movie, and now finally being here, it’s taking some adjusting to.”
But she loves it here. We decide that the word “spirit” is a great one to describe the atmosphere in Tirana and she says that despite a few frustrations about struggling to find vegan food, she thinks she could live here. That is good to hear as Matthew seemed dead set on moving here with dreams of filming more movies to tell more of the amazing Albanian stories that deserve to be shared with the world.
“I did a lot of research before I came here, sort of about the journey that Albania has been on and this is something Matthew will tap into in his next films, it is a story that hasn’t been told and that needs to be.’
She tells me how much she loves the quaint little cafes with impeccable interior design and the way that everyone takes so much pride in their appearance.
“I don’t really wear makeup and I am ok walking down the street in sweatpants, but everyone here looks so fabulous all the time; so coordinated, so much style, so well put together, it is really something!”
A mother as well as a successful actress, she filmed Albanian Gangster and the follow-up film (which is both completed and top secret for now) whilst being pregnant with and giving birth to two children- an impressive feat by anyone’s standards. But she tells me that it was an extremely tough experience- being pregnant, having young children on set, being at home whilst Matthew was hanging around with real-life gangsters to research the movies, it was not the easiest journey, but it was worth it.
We shift the topic to the content of the film and I ask her what I asked Matthew and John, the question of how she felt working on a film that could be construed as giving Albanians a bad name.
She explains that whilst the title “Albanian Gangster” conjures up images of a certain type of movie, prone to pushing negative stereotypes, the reality of the film is very different. Talking passionately about the film, she explains that it is designed to be a piece of art, a cinematic story that smacks of reality and truth, even if that truth makes viewers uncomfortable. These are real stories and characters based on real people. The events of the film may or may not be based on fact (I will let you draw your own conclusions on that), but they could apply to any number of people be they Albanian, English, Italian, Russian, or any other nationality. She explains that these are the stories of people on the streets, people that have to fight to survive, and that whilst it might not be a pleasant reality, it is a reality nonetheless.
The conversation shifts to one of the more controversial scenes of the film, where Ashley’s character is mistreated by Leon the protagonist. Whilst she agrees it is a problematic scene, as a feminist she explains that it is a part of the story and that whilst showing his abuse on screen might upset some, the fact that she walks away and refuses to comply with his demands is an important message.
“I just love my character; she is so strong. She could be any woman; tough, knows what she wants. She is the light to the dark of Leon and she has the power to put him on the right path, but at the same time, she won’t compromise herself for him. She has an interest in him but she holds back because she knows what kind of person he is; he has to make a choice.”
Ashley speaks with so much passion when she talks about her career and she explains to me the way that she becomes her characters. Immersing herself completely into that person and mindset, she thrives on playing dramatic roles with depth and darkness inside of them. She tells me she would rather play these artistic roles that a more commercial role with no substance.
We talk more about what it was like to work with her husband, and she assures me that as two professionals, they know how to differentiate between work and their relationship. Also, having worked with him before they got together (the fell in love on the set of ‘Julia’) Ashley knew what to expect; she knows there will be no script, she knows the concept will evolve as each day passes, and she knows that to succeed, they all need to fully immerse themselves into the project.
I ask what it was like to work with a man like John- someone who has had no professional acting training but that has excelled at the school of life and hard knocks in the Bronx. A contrast to her stage school education and background in theatre and professional acting, was it frustrating to work with someone so off-the-cuff? She tells me “no” and that it was an incredible experience to work with someone like John.
“John is just amazing, and you can see that just from looking at him. His face has soul, it tells a story, he just looks the part, he is the part, it is amazing to watch him.”
The whole film was improvised as the script was thrown out of the window on day one, certain scenes were written the same day that they were filmed and learning to roll with the punches and react in the same way that the character would, was the key to filming being a success.
“John was his character in so many ways; the way he talked, the friends he had, the life he knows- all of these experiences made it so easy for him to improvise and adapt.”
With less than 48 hours (at the time of the interview) until the premiere, I can feel the excitement radiating from Ashley- this unexpected journey that has taken her to the depths of the underworld, to different continents, and made her fall in love with a completely new culture, is about to come to fruition.
Whether I like the film or not remains to be seen (I have a sneaky suspicion I will love it), but I admire the passion and the love that everyone involved has for this country. I started out as dubious as to the intentions behind the film, but as I have spent time with the actors and director, I have begun to understand the necessity of showing this reality. This film is not designed to paint an entire nation of people in a negative light, it is designed to tell the truth about a very real struggle and the people that have, do, and will go through it.
I wish ‘Albanian Gangster’, Matthew, John, Ashley, and everyone else involved, the very best of luck for tomorrows premiere and I hope that the film gets the success and recognition it deserves, in proportion to the immense love that has been put into it.
Follow The Balkanista!