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Ashleigh Cummings: Living for the Future

Ashleigh Cummings, who plays Pippa in the cinematic adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, takes the idea that we are responsible for on-going destruction of the planet seriously. This is not some au courant attitude of oh-I’ll-post-an-Instagram-about-the-Amazon while sipping expensive bottled water. Instead, Cummings actively eschews the conveniences offered to her as a newly minted Hollywood actress (ie. troves of designer clothes) in exchange for a moral commitment to extend the livelihood of the planet, and all humans who exist. If you haven’t read her piece on Eco-Age, you must (click here). This means that she will only wear sustainable clothes (i.e. second-hand, brands that are produced through environmentally-sound and fair labor practices), only hires stylists, make-up artists, and hair stylists who use eco-friendly products, and always thinks twice about her own consumption. Lively and passionate, she makes a convincing case for why you need to buy a Guppyfriend, if you don’t already own one, and how #buyingnothingnew is the first step in saving the planet.  

 

 

My parents didn't shy away from opening themselves and opening us to the fullness of life. I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia until the age of 12, and we were there because my parents wanted an adventure. Everyone always assumes that I'm an army brat or something, but they worked in hospitals. There was a lot of upping and changing within that time, we traveled for six months at a time, and when you're a kid, sometimes you get upset about that, because you're missing out on the sports' carnival or something. But, ultimately, instead of learning about the Tudors in the classroom, in remote Saudi Arabia, you're learning about them whilst you walk through the castles. It was the greatest education I could have ever hoped for both on an intellectual and emotional level.

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(cover) DRESS  Ronald van der Kemp
JEWELRY Ashleigh's own

(above) DRESS Rentrayage
LACE BLOUSE Buffalo Exchange
HEADBAND Jonathan Cohen
JEWELRY Ashleigh's own
SHOES Ashleigh's own

 

My mum is an extraordinary woman. She was the one who wanted to go to Saudi. She came from poverty in Australia, with an alcoholic father and moved from house to house. She went to something like 21 different schools, and somehow she knew that she just wanted to explore the world, even though that wasn't part of her upbringing. It was the exposure to all of these different versions of life, these different communities, and people that, alongside my parents' attitude toward them, and the love, and willingness to be curious, and to involve us in that curiosity, that really lent itself to an expansion of empathy and my own willingness to remain curious, adventure, explore, and play in the world. 

Initially, I was a dancer, and that was the majority of my life outside of school. It took up an immense amount of my time. I was a perfectionist in every realm, and it was between 29 to 30 hours of dancing a week, and full-time school. 

I had a lot going on inside of me emotionally, and my own kind of personal makeup is such that I'm rather sensitive, and feel on a big level, which is a wonderful thing and also a tricky thing, if you haven't learnt how to manage or channel it which you don't really at age 12. 

All the pressure that I'd put upon myself with dancing, school, and everything was just too great, and I got very ill and decided that I would move to America at age 14. I told my parents and went off on this three-month escapade across America, which was a completely foreign environment to me because I'd grown up in the Middle East, and spent all my childhood rumbling around the more earthy corners of the globe, and not Western civilization. 

I knew one person in LA, and she was an actress, and once I met her, I started to feel like I was really seen and understood, and everything that she was doing in her work and her craft really resonated with me. I came back to Australia and enrolled in a diploma for film immediately. 

It's just been in inherent calling, I suppose, from that point. I did do a little bit of performing arts when I was in Saudi. It was at an illegal, underground theater. The creativity, the storytelling, and the use of imagination was always present because you were inside compounds, and the kids would run around and make up worlds of their own—that was all you had. We didn't have a lot of TV, we didn't have any Internet, we didn't have a lot of computer games, or whatever in the limited environment we had, so we had to create environments.

DENIM JACKET Triarchy
CROPPED SHIRT Mlaed
BLOUSE The Break

 

My experience [working] on The Goldfinch was mostly magical. To bring that particular text, and Pippa herself, to life on-screen is still surreal to me. I spent an exorbitant amount of time with the book and it reminded me of working on a great play in that way. I got to really live and breathe New York, which is almost a character in and of itself in the novel. It was one of the greatest privileges of my professional life to be involved in that film and to watch the extraordinary magicians of the filmic craft work around me. John Crowley and Roger Deakins—by virtue of their acute and vast talent—managed to create a sacredness on set that had the same ineffable quality of the book and the painting. In my 12 years of working as an actor, I can count with three fingers, the scripts, stories, characters that have moved me so indelibly with their unique, intangible alchemy and The Goldfinch was one of them. So I feel just inordinately grateful to have been involved with it.

In the film industry, waste is very prevalent. There's a lot of waste because we need things to be cheap and convenient because we're working with such large casts and crews that it's just about getting the job done, and it's survival. 

On The Goldfinch, Mari Jo Winkler-Ioffreda, the executive producer, was responsible for making my first ever green set. They didn't print out call sheets, they'd email the call sheets, and they would include facts about the environment on the call sheets. I wasn't laughed at for saying, "Do you mind if I get it in this bottle?,” “It's okay, I'll wait for lunch because I don't want a takeaway container." But those guys on The Goldfinch, because the head of production was responsible for filtering the message through on so many different levels, it became part of the fabric of the environment, and it wasn't questioned, and everyone was working toward that goal. 

I'd never seen that before on a film set, I was very fortunate to see Mari Jo at the helm of that, and I really would encourage people at the top to start making those changes. It implants seeds in people's minds, and it's bigger than asking someone to go to the actual water fountain which is maybe a couple of rooms away, instead of just picking up a plastic bottle from the cooler. It's all about education, and empathy. 

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(left) DRESS The Break
HEADBAND Jonathan Cohen
JEWELRY Ashleigh's own

(right) JACKET Studio 189
SHIRT Ashleigh's own
JEWELRY Ashleigh's own

 

I didn't really understand the concept of a celebrity, I didn't understand why we were revered and followed, and our moves were tracked. Not that I feel like a celebrity at all, but if I was going to be on that path in any way, and if I had a few extra decibels to share something, it was important that I transferred my own personal practices to the professional realm, and started educating people on [climate change]. I remember my first meeting with publicists, I said, "I am 100% eco-friendly, and sustainable, and that extends to hair, makeup, and clothes, and I won't compromise on that." And most of the publicists said, "Uh, that's not really done."

I felt I could either lend to somewhat of a destructive influence by perpetuating paradigms about what it is to be beautiful, or axioms or beliefs about success that isn't attainable. Or, I could go the opposite and feel like I was living authentically and really fight for that. I felt that it was important to make something constructive of this industry that doesn't always perpetuate positive ideals. 

It's not easy and everyone around me has been working so hard, like Laura Jones [The Frontlash’s founder and Ashleigh’s stylist]. It was such a relief to find her, because it was such a battle going in to stylist's appointments. Their understanding of sustainability was very different from mine. I'd have people saying, "What about just one sustainable item, and make that the feature, and the rest can be conventional?" And I was like "Nope." 

You feel like a diva, and you feel really guilty because you're inconveniencing people, but inconveniencing the planet? I mean, it's not just an inconvenience, it's an active destruction of the planet, and it's people, on a much bigger level, it's far worse. Asking a little bit more from people around me has become easier the more I think about the women that might be making my clothes, and that it's not just an inconvenience to them. It's factory fires, or it's their livelihood, it's them trying to support their family. I don't have as much of an issue asking these days.

JACKET Studio 189
SHIRT Ashleigh's own
JEWELRY Ashleigh's own

 

My number one tip for creating a sustainable wardrobe is to shop secondhand. Anything new is never going to be as sustainable as something secondhand. Secondhand clothing is the most sustainable option as long as you use a Guppyfriend for washing your clothes with micro-plastics. If your clothes have stretch they usually have some kind of micro- plastics within them, and the bag traps micro plastics and prevents them from washing into our waters. By 2050, we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish. Micro- plastics are killing our coral reefs, specifically, and it's getting into our food, it's completely polluting the ocean and it's a horrific, horrific situation. So if we can prevent those little micro plastics from getting into our waterways it's really important. 

But I think it's really important that we also support companies that are trying something new. It's really about finding specific brands and really doing your research, like I email people incessantly and take the time and get really nitpicky and probably very annoying, but I think it's a really important thing that we educate ourselves in what we're investing in and purchasing.

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(left) VEST The Series
T SHIRT Ashleigh's own
JEWELRY Ashleigh's own

(right) DRESS Ronald van der Kemp
SHOES Ashleigh's own
SUNGLASSES Ashleigh's own
JEWELRY Ashleigh's own

 

A lot of the problem stems from our lack of connection to others, but also to ourselves. We are so outwardly focused, and trained to appease inner discomforts or wounds with external balms, so we purchase a new piece of clothing or we stuff our faces with a burger. If we sit with ourselves long enough and learn to accept and appreciate the grey areas and what’s uncomfortable; if we listen to what’s going on inside and find tools to heal those parts of ourselves, we don’t need all the extraneous comforts. If we can appreciate and connect to ourselves in and of this world, and then extend that connection and gratitude to the things and people around us, we become more conscious of our actions. 

I was speaking to some friends in Morocco who said they would never come to America despite all the privilege and opportunity because everyone spends their entire lives working and stressed, and the essential values of community, connection and appreciation are non-existent. Morocco reminded me to slow down in every way, to savour the moments and to truly look at what is around me—and I try to implement that with my wardrobe too. Feeling the fabric, thinking about what is actually a miraculous formation process: sowing seeds, harvesting, drying, dying, cutting, stitching, shipping. Then, feeling gratitude for whoever created it and wondering about who they might be. Sustainability came to me in the form of harsh numbers and blunt statistics, but it’s turned into something far more transcendent in a way, and has molded me into a better, fuller and ultimately happier person.

I love fashion, I love celebrating it, I love expressing myself, but I'm not defined by it and it took me a while to let that out. But I think looking at an item and just really asking if you need that new thing [is important] because we have such excess in our world.

I'd say my personal style is Elton John meets four-year-old child, colorblind, escaping to the circus, while attempting to scorch people's eyeballs out with clashing patterns and bright colors; occasionally hemp, tie-dye, free-flowing hippie covered in animal shit probably because I'll be out in the midst of nowhere—with a twinge of punk. 

I love adventuring to the middle of nowhere and living with tribal communities in Africa. In between jobs that's often where I go because that's where I feel everything is realigned and my perspective is shifted back into something that feels more fulfilling and it feels more real. And the societal constructs that we build around us like a little internal city just disintegrate and I can kind of connect to the heart of what it is to be human there, I feel. 

Then little things bring me joy: I really like the fluff on top of lattes. Fluff is frickin' great. That brings me so much joy. Canines. I always say and I shouldn't keep saying it, but Elton John, he brings me the most joy ever.

Photographer: Carissa Gallo

Stylist: Laura Jones

Hair: Ericka Verrett

Make Up: Jenna Anton

Words: Sonjia Hyon

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