“Filmmakers are like roaches – we’ll always find a way to survive.”
There is something about Gingers. We either love ’em or hate ’em for those fiery locks. Sometimes, we even make fun of ’em or just run in the other direction. Is it because they stand out in a crowd? Or does it ignite something primal in us? Or are we just straight up you know – jelly? In red head Ashton Swinford‘s case, there is a ton to love and admire.
Ashton Swinford is an amazing and respected actress, writer, producer and comedian who hails from NYC, by way of LA. Now she exists in Chicago, tearing up the comedy town.
Her on camera credits include FOX’s New Girl, Chicago P.D., Unleashed, and a series regular role on The Onion’s A.V. Club Hosted by John Teti, (Amazon Prime) on which she was also a producer. She recently directed two short films, as well as wrote, produced and starred in the Media Literacy web series Miss Information that was featured by the U.N. for international Media Literacy week.
Reel 360 had a chance to chop it up with Ashton and discuss her upcoming projects as well as how she approaches acting, producing, comedy and you know that redhead thing.
Ashton, you’re funny AF. Where does your comedy originate from?
Mental health problems? 🙃 No, but seriously my community of comics all share the trait of being able to find the light in the dark, even the very very very dark. It’s a gift and a curse of a coping mechanism, especially if you ask my therapist. But always a good time. Life’s too short to take yourself too seriously. Plus it’s more fun this way!
Who or what inspires you as an artist?
Trying to human properly and never quite getting it right. People fully expressing themselves without judgement. Dancing in public with strangers. Using what hurts to create something beautiful. Multi-hyphenate artists like Phoebe Waller Bridges, Taika Waititi, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Wanda Sykes, Maria Bamford, Sarah Silverman (side note: I used to live in Sarah Silverman’s old apartment in LA – and once brought her old mail to one of her shows. Let’s just say it didn’t go well, but it did became a great standup bit!).
I’m also inspired by physical comedians like Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton. Watching their work I’ve never felt more seen – too bad I’m 60+ years too late. Also, I love artists that push boundaries. I had the pleasure of working with Bob Zmuda early in my career in The Tony Clifton Show musical review at The Comedy Store.
His work may not fly in this current environment, for good reason, but I appreciated Andy Kaufman’s edgy work that Zumda has kept alive. That and the fact that in the 2+ years I worked with Bob Zmuda, he never once broke from his Tony Clifton character. Every phone call, email, rehearsal, appearance – never. A true legend!
Also, I had the opportunity to perform with the incredible performance artist Marina Abramović at MOCA in LA in a 5+ hour performance piece which was such a transcendental experience. Her work pushes the boundaries of what the human body can do in a performance state, and the power of sustained eye contact as a tool of spiritual connection. I sat on a lazy Susan and stuck my head through a hole in a table making eye contact with patrons while you ate – it was my favorite performance to date.
Unfortunately footage of me in that performance was used out of context in a propaganda film a la pizzagate to say Marina is a satanist which is entirely NOT true. 100% FAKE NEWS. She pushes boundaries to shake people from their status quo and engage with themselves and the work on a deeper level. It’s bound to make people uncomfortable, but making up lies to make ridiculous conjectures?
C’mon! Media Literacy people – think more critically about what you’re creating and consuming. This was just one of the inspirations behind my project Miss Information. But I digress….
Compare comedy in NYC to comedy in Chicago?
Wow – those are entirely different beasts. Comedy in NYC is pretty damn cutthroat. So many people are vying for so few spots which makes for a ton of competition. If I could compare it to anything it’s like the Tiger King of stage time – go ahead + put your hand in, but you just might lose an arm.
That being said, if you can survive it, you have some homies for life in the trenches with you. LA comedy scene is like that too.
It is similarly competitive for the best stages, but if you can hang – everyone will invite you to their backyard open mic, give you edibles, and even will show up to the hospital when you’re in a car accident and forfeit your first Roast Battle match. (True story!)
Comparatively, comedy in Chicago is easier to find a good stage, but harder to get people out of their winter induced comas. If anything standup in Chicago is like getting ice cream from Jeni’s in the winter. There’s still a line somehow, but you’re going to get some no matter how cold it is.
Chicago is really known for its improv scene, which (since we’re doing bad similes) is more like a kumbaya circle around the fire with some really really good musicians, and someone just handed you a kazoo.
Where did you grow up in New York and what made you move to Chicago?
I was born in Astor Place in Manhattan, and lived there until we moved to the burbs of Westport, Connecticut – literal Martha Stewart-ville (before she got all cool). I moved around a bunch before getting sent to boarding school outside of Boston, Massachusetts where I learned the art of not getting caught, after failing at it many many times prior.
Karma got me back pretty hard though, and I was pretty severely bullied my senior year. I was really into soccer growing up, which got me recruited to play for the University of Minnesota. When I was in MSP, I came to Chicago a few times and found it to be a cleaner, more beautiful New York.
But it wasn’t until I went back to NYC to train at the Stella Adler Studio, moved to LA to continue acting and started writing/producing, THEN I got a call to move to Chicago to produce a TV show for The Onion called The A.V. Club hosted by John Teti (now on Amazon Prime) that I actually moved to Chicago.
That was 3 years ago almost to the day. Since then I’ve been writing, acting and freelance producing as well as working in commercials as a Production Coordinator and Manager as well as an Art Dept Coordinator for projects like Jeep’s Groundhog Day spot with Bill Murray + Travis Scott’s Franchise Music Video, while I develop my own scripts and productions.
Since I’ve been in Chicago I’ve directed + co-wrote 2 short films, sold a pilot, and created a 5-part infotainment satire series Miss Information, while I’m co-writing and producing a dystopian sci-fi project that I’ll also be starring in filming fall of 2021 with Director Layne Marie Williams.
Gun to head, Chicago or LA? (Don’t lie 😊)
That’s easy – Chicago! But if Chicago was summer all year round 🙂 No, there is something that makes Chicago people tougher because they can stomach the cold. I feel like we are a lot less whiny here. At least about the weather. Primarily because we live in an Ice box 60% of the year, and polar vortexes are a normal thing we deal with.
Regardless of weather, Chicago has everything you need – a supportive film community, good hearted people, awesome crews, great quality of life, beautiful architecture, and less-saturation of film people. I mean who wants to get pitched a project from a barista while you’re trying to order your morning coffee. Jeeze – I’m terrible at getting out of awkward situations. So cringe.
What energizes you about productions?
Everything! I love every stage of production from the planning, to the fast-paced high-stakes decision making on set. I like to say my favorite aspect of filmmaking is making order of the chaos – and making it look gorgeous. I also love the fact that we’re all singularly focused on THIS moment and being in it, and since we’re immortalizing it forever everything has to be just right.
I enjoy doing the impossible with folx – coming up with creative solutions, and always finding a way, no matter what. But I’d have to say the best part of it is working with high functioning teams of talented people. It’s always super inspiring to see people do what they do best.
But honestly my favorite part is the relationships – hanging with the team after wrap, and working with them on our own creative projects afterwards.
We’re in a time of transition with pandemics etc, how does that affect you?
The pandemic has been rough for our industry, but filmmakers are like roaches – we’ll always find a way to survive. Things are ramping back up now, but the slow down really makes you go inward, find stillness, and simplify – which overall is a very positive thing. For me although my time on set has slowed down, there’s still so much to get done writing wise, with 2 features and an episodic series living rent free in my head. They won’t leave me alone till I write them.
Interestingly, I had gotten the grant to shoot Miss Information prior to the pandemic, so there was a lot of bobbing and weaving that needed to be done to make it happen, including that I had to shoot a lot to it myself – something I had never done before.
It was a fun challenge, even though I almost pulled my hair out on a few occasions. Even now, if anyone ever says “we’ll just fix it in post” I have a mini freak out. Filmmaking is hard AF! Also, I had to re-shoot two whole days of filming including jumping into Lake Michigan fully clothed. Luckily it was during our 2 weeks of summer.
What do you envision as our new normal?
I think we’ll pandemic proof our ideas, industry, projects, scripts, and we’ll think more about diversity, equity and inclusion – which is long overdue. Additionally, I think we’ve learned that Media Literacy, or thinking more critically about what we create and consume, is something we all need.
And even smart people get duped by internet propaganda and misinformation. Technological advancements have made it incredibly easy to influence us, and as such, our resolve and pursuit of the truth has to be unwavering.
Fact checking and verifying truth should become second nature, however inconvenient. Also I think we’re all going to become mini-germaphobes, which for some of the bachelors I know – is definitely for the better.
When you’re reading a script what are the things that make you say, “Fuck yeah I want to be that character?”
It’s different for every character, but well-written, nuanced, imperfect and strong female characters that pass the Brechdel test. And none of this “strong female characters” that just act masculine. Sure that’s a thing, but let’s get more creative and have strong female characters that act like their own version of strong.
There’s a lot of ‘em in society, hell even in our vice presidency, let’s give them some representation. Also let’s write some more non-binary and trans women characters that aren’t just one sided please, and cast them with people who are actually those identities. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.
Do people hate on you for being a ginger?
Ha, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard I don’t have a soul, or been warned it’s kick-a-ginger day. To that I say, only a ginger can call another ginger – ginger.
Thanks Tim Minchin! Nowadays it’s more fetishized than anything. But hey it’s better than getting kicked.
How many tats do you have and where? Also, what are their meanings?
I have 2 tattoos – coincidentally they are both stars, probably because I like shiny things. I’m like a crow. The first one I got with my entire college soccer team when I was 17 (yes I used a fake ID) on my hip which was the smallest tattoo I could find in their book.
It happened to be a starbust. We where playing a tournament in Fargo, North Dakota and wanted to commemorate the moment with team tattoos from a rather sketchy biker tattoo shop. Luckily we all made it out hepatitis free, some people with wonky looking soccer balls.
Of course I picked the smallest tattoo but got it tattooed on my hip bone, which if you don’t know is INCREDIBLY painful. There’s still a mark from when I jumped in pain.
My second tattoo was done with a bit more intention and purpose. I have a Merkaba tattooed on my left forearm. In sacred geometry the Merkaba is the shape of the spirit which looks like two intersecting pyramids, or a three dimensional Star of David. It is said that by envisioning your spirit in this shape, and spinning it in your mind’s eye clockwise while meditating you can have out of body experiences.
I have it to remind myself of the greater context of life, and that there’s a realm beyond this reality. This version of reality is a temporary gift I get to experience, so better use this meat suit to fulfill my highest purpose while I can.
What the hell is Miss Information?
Miss Information is a 5-part Media Literacy satire hosted by Miss Information – a former pageant queen attempting to cling to relevancy in a post-pandemic world.
She is joined by Reginald Wilkins (Whitman Johnson), a golden retriever in human form, who serves as her reporter in the field. Guest appearances are also frequent, ranging from the notorious Q of QAnon to extraterrestrial hand puppets.
The project was created by myself and a former colleague from The Onion, Nick Moore, and produced by myself and Whitman Johnson. For more on the project visit MissInformation.tv + youtube.com/c/MissInformation or on instagram @MissInformationShow .
This project was part of Definitely Real’s digital immersive experience “Dared My Best Friend to Ruin My Life” based on the popular Reddit post. The project marks the first ever Alternate Reality Cinema, an evolution of alternate reality games that have been growing in popularity on the web.
Through the larger project, players interacted with multiple projects and characters and followed along with a core narrative that teaches about the dangers of doxxing, deep fakes, and internet privacy, as well as disinformation, and polarization. For more information on the larger project visit DefinitelyReal.com or TeamZander.com
I’ve got a few more exciting things on the horizon, including our dystopian sci-fi project Wizdom, shooting 2021 which is currently fundraising, and am always open to new opportunities.
For more information you can visit my site www.AshtonSwinford.com or follow me on instagram at @AshtonSwinford.
Oh, we’re going to follow you, Ashton. The Reel 360 team loves their gingers!