Written by Morgan Cormack
With Aisha being just one of three leading roles for Letitia Wright this year, she speaks to Stylist’s Morgan Cormack about her powerful new film and what she hopes the role means for the future of complex Black female characters on the big screen.
When I sit down to talk to Letitia Wright on a grey October afternoon, she immediately clasps her hands together in delight when I refer to her new film, Aisha, as “quietly powerful”. Her words of thanks come quickly, admitting that she loves feedback like this and feels proud of what she, the team and writer-director Frank Berry have created. “I always aim to make projects that feel impactful,” she says.
She leads the cast of this new Sky film as the titular character, a young Nigerian woman seeking asylum in Ireland, who is floundering in a maze of social services and bureaucracy. Aisha is strong-willed and determined, but she’s also alone until she meets Conor (played by The Crown’s Josh O’Connor), an employee at her residence who has a troubled past of his own. It’s a film largely concerned with shining a light on the often-heartbreaking asylum process, but it’s also a tender movie of friendship, hope and community.
The end of 2022 marks a major time in Wright’s career, something she remains humble about. Aisha is just one of the films released in this final quarter of the year that she’s at the helm of, along with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and The Silent Twins. It’s nerve-wracking, she confesses, but explains that Aisha is “an opportunity to show how I’ve grown not only as an actress, but as a woman as well”.
Here, she talks to Stylist about what she’s learned and how Aisha has given her the opportunity to demonstrate the beautiful depths of authentic on-screen portrayals.
Congratulations on such an amazing performance in Aisha. How do you feel about it being released out into the world?
Letitia Wright: I feel good. I always aim to make projects that feel impactful. I feel proud of myself, proud of the team, and proud that we could shed light on something that’s very meaningful.
What were your initial thoughts when you first read the script and were introduced to Aisha as a character?
LW: I felt just moved by the script; I could tell there was a sensitivity to it when I read it. I could tell there was an approach that was one of nurture and care. That’s when I wanted to speak to Frank; I wanted to speak to the person who wrote this. I wanted to understand how he gathered his research and how he developed this character. And I’m with you on that, I’m with you on it being like a quiet but powerful and poignant piece. It hits you in the gut, but you don’t expect it to and it’s without forcing anything.
I got that from the script. I’m quite visual when I read stuff, so I try to put myself in the room, try to put myself into the character. When I could see myself walking through the streets or sitting down in the salon, whatever it is, I knew that it was something I wanted to be a part of.
Aisha platforms a narrative that we don’t often hear from in the media or on the big screen – it centres the voice of a Nigerian woman who’s going through the asylum seeker process. Did you feel like there was a weight on your shoulders to authentically portray that narrative?
LW: There’s always a weight on my shoulders as an artist. You take on characters, whether it’s in fiction or nonfiction – whatever that world is – you strive for telling the truth.
So many people’s voices and stories are intertwined in this movie and story of Aisha. We had a mantra that we lived by on set: “nothing about us without us”. What that meant for myself and Frank is that we weren’t going to make a project without the people who this is about being involved in it. So, from the consultants to the people who were supporting actors on the set, people who were background artists – any aspect of this film – the connection of their experiences was also here.
So yeah, I felt even more responsible because they were watching me going through these scenes and representing them in some way. But when you have the result of the film really touching people’s hearts, and where people are able to have a conversation, you feel like you’ve achieved something.
Aside from Aisha gripping people after they’ve watched it, what would you hope – in an ideal world – that people would take away from the movie?
LW: Definitely just a connectivity to those that sometimes feel like they don’t have a voice. Definitely a reformed way of thinking about those that could be put in society in stereotypical ways and for these characters to be humanised and to be respected. But also, I’d like people to understand the journey that some have to take to simply just make a better life for themselves.
What roles do friendship and love play in the film?
LW: A huge part. Community holds people together and, in this movie, we see that – how the need for community in order for you to survive is absolutely imperative. What I love about Josh’s character, Conor, and Aisha, is that it’s not something that’s forced upon the audience. It’s not like love at first sight.
Like it was always going to happen …
LW: Yes exactly. It was like, ‘I don’t know you, you don’t know me.’ He’s trying to understand this world he’s working in, he’s trying to understand what type of man is part of this. As he’s working it out, Aisha’s really hitting him with real questions. You just see their relationship and friendship growing nicely, like a slow burner. We show that once you gain that trust and connection, how friendship can be like a handout to help you and, when you’re in a dark place, it can help you move forward.
But also, [it acknowledges the] ways in which you feel scared of investment. So many people experience this; so many people have lost so many friends. It’s like making a friend can mean losing them the next day, so you don’t want to invest too much of your heart into that friendship. That’s what we see with Aisha and Conor – her hesitation to even make a friend because she’s thinking, ‘Who’s the next person I’m going to lose?’
Time is so precious in the film because tomorrow is never promised and that’s the sentiment you’re left with when it finishes – it doesn’t really have a grand finale. How did you feel about how the film ends for your character?
LW: I loved it. I thought it was so real because as we spoke to people who live this experience, some people are still in limbo; some people still don’t know if they’re going to get the opportunity to move forward. It was a conscious decision for Frank to leave it like that because it’s easy to say that she got everything sorted and everything’s fine.
But we leave it for you to decide and that’s the reality for so many people. I think leaving that with you guys, leaving that with the audience, allows people to see the reality of what people go through and feel that uncertainty.
We’re in an age of cinema where the narrative of the ‘strong Black woman’ on screen is increasingly being given time and thoughtful consideration to demonstrate a breadth of experiences. Even so, do you feel like Aisha fits into that trope?
LW: Yes, but also, it’s hard to put a label on Aisha. She’s complex and what I love about Aisha is the opportunity for myself, as a Black actress, to show the complexities of being human… sometimes we’re just seen as one thing. We are multi-layered, we are human and we don’t always get the screen time to showcase different emotions.
I’m excited for people to see movies like The Silent Twins as well, where you see two Black sisters. They’re complex, they’re not just one thing, they are striving to be bestselling novelists. And here you have Aisha, who is a beautiful woman trying to work out her trauma. She’s trying to find joy, but she’s also trying to figure her way in life, like: ‘How am I going to get from point A to B?’
We haven’t and don’t get those spaces to just exist on screen so I think it’s a beautiful time.
Do you think that we finally are at a tipping point for more movies to dutifully showcase Black women in more than just stereotypical or trauma-based roles?
LW: That answer for me would definitely be 100%. I would love to think that’s where we’re at. We’ll only know as years go by, but I think so far, seeing movies such as The Woman King, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, The Silent Twins or Aisha, you see so many different opportunities for diversity on the screen, of what we can be and what we can represent. So, you can only hope that that will continue.
And for me, trauma is not a bad thing. When I say that, I mean, movies tend to show things that are sometimes difficult to talk about in society and movies provide a way for us to tap into a section of the world – or a section of someone’s life – that is a bit painful so we can learn from it. But with that, you want there to be joy, creativity and multi-layered roles. I think a combination of everything together is a great example of us moving forward.
You’ve got three major films about to be released. It feels like a very quick burst of time for such amazing, thought-provoking films of yours to be coming out. Do you feel nervous at all?
LW: It feels great. I spent two years locked away just doing these projects. After two years of learning through each character more about myself and I’m really proud that these projects are coming out. I’m really proud of myself for taking on leading roles and holding my own on screen, so it feels good. It feels like I’m able to contribute to that narrative of Black women being able to be multi-layered, complex and beautiful in so many different ways on screen.
You get nervous all the time, though, because if you’re not, that means you don’t care. You’re always nervous because you want people to receive it and accept your work. Art is subjective so people can either like it or not but you have to be willing to be comfortable with that.
I always walk away knowing that I’ve done something that meant something to me.
Aisha, a Sky Original is available in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from 17 November.
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