Originally printed in the September 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
“I didn’t fit into any of the boxes,” says actor Aiysha Hart about her childhood. Born to an English mother and Saudi father, her exotic, dark looks used to make her stand out at her school in Surrey, England – for all the wrong reasons. “I was one of the few non-white girls, which wasn’t something I had thought about until other children pointed it out to me. The girls would never play with me or let me be involved in their games, so I’d often just sit alone. At the time I took it to be a personality flaw, but now I realize they were just kids.”
Those kids are probably regretting their actions now, with Hart set to become a familiar name in Hollywood. This fall, she’ll star as Polaire in the biographical drama Colette, alongside Keira Knightley and Dominic West, and as Miriam Shepherd, a 2 000-year-old vampire geneticist in the TV series A Discovery of Witches, based on the fantasy trilogy of the same name.
The two diverse roles not only highlight the breadth of Hart’s range, but also the strength of her personality – it’s that individuality and refusal to conform that have become her strongest assets. Well, that and her enviable brows. “It’s strange,” says Hart, appreciating the irony. “The things that used to make me a weirdo and an outsider are now the things that people are so interested in.”
Raised in Saudi Arabia until her parents moved back to England when she was three years old, Hart struggled to feel like she belonged. Then a teacher introduced her to the stage. “Suddenly, I could be someone else, and that saved me,” she explains in her soft British accent. “I was also finally told that I was good at something, at a time when I was struggling academically. Getting into drama school was the first indicator to me that the dream could become a reality.”
After studying English literature at King’s College London, Hart joined drama school at 22. A year later, she landed her first leading role in the independent film Honour (2014), alongside award-winning actor Paddy Considine. Fast-forward seven years and several theater, film, and TV roles later – including the political play Occupational Hazards, Dubai-based horror movie Djinn, and award-winning UK series Line of Duty – and she’s the name on everyone’s lips.
Also in matters of style, she has certainly blossomed. She arrives for the shoot in a simple jeans-and-vest combo, her hair loose and her face makeup free. She radiates natural beauty, with that indefinable star quality that you either have or you don’t.
She’s enthusiastic about the changes happening in her father’s homeland. “While living in Saudi, my mother found it difficult not being able to drive. It was an obstacle to the functioning of daily life. With no pedestrian system and no safe form of public transport, seemingly simple tasks like going to the shops meant waiting for a driver, or for my dad to come home and take us.”
As a feminist, she’s equally passionate about the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, the gender pay gap, and discrimination in the entertainment industry. “That’s what attracted me to Colette,” explains the politically conscious 30-year-old. “The movie’s release is very timely. Ultimately, it’s a coming-of-age story about a woman taking ownership of her career.” The biographical movie tells the story of pioneering writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) who writes books under her husband’s name (Dominic West). When Colette pens a semi-autobiographical novel about a witty and brazen country girl named Claudine, it becomes a bestseller – with her husband taking all the credit. “The theme of female authorship is at the core of the movie’s narrative,” she says. “It won’t be lost on a modern, ‘woke’ audience.”
Hart plays Polaire, a French-Algerian actor and singer known for her 40cm corseted waist and eccentric style. When Claudine is adapted into a play, Polaire takes the lead role and is catapulted to fame. “She was such a fabulous character to research,” enthuses Hart. “A child runaway, she fled from Algeria to Paris where, as an outsider, she grafted a career for herself from scratch. Starting as a singer in cafes, she later became one of the biggest celebrities of her time and a star of early cinema.”
Starring alongside the award-winning Knightley could’ve been intimating, yet Hart used the experience to help hone her own acting skills. “She’s an absolute joy to work with,” she says. “She’s so lovely and down-to-earth. When an actor has that much experience, the best thing you can do is watch and learn. I admired the way she conducted herself on set, she’s got the perfect balance between professionalism and affability.”
While Colette will raise Hart’s profile, Discovery of Witches will thrust her into the spotlight. “Fans of the book are super-eager for the show to come out,” adds Hart in a manner so calm, it’s evident she isn’t aware of what this role will do for her career. “I think it’s a pretty popular genre and will hit the right note with audiences. It feels exciting.”
While success is imminent, Hart’s parents will keep her grounded. Even though their hopes of a lawyer daughter may have been dashed – Hart was going to study law before switching to English – they are supportive of her career, while being readily on hand to ensure she avoids the pitfalls of stardom. “I don’t think that will be a problem,” Hart laughs at the suggestion. “My family and most of my friends aren’t in the industry, so it’s easy to keep a sense of reality.” With an endearing self-deprecating attitude, it seems unlikely Hart will succumb to the cautionary tales that celebdom can deliver; in fact, the actor doesn’t even seek major fame. “Of course I want success, and I’m a very ambitious person, but I also appreciate having a sense of anonymity and being able to integrate into society and everyday life,” she shares. “I think it must be difficult as an actor to have to portray real people when you yourself can no longer function within the real world. There are lots of great actors who retain their privacy and normality despite their success. I respect that.”
With exposure comes the responsibility and added pressure of being a role model, which is something Hart doesn’t take lightly. “By virtue of being a female in the job that I am in, you automatically become a role model in some way, whether you choose that or not. I’m careful of the things I advocate and the message I put out there,” she explains. “In a world of Instagram and selfies, I hope I can offer young women something beyond the aesthetic and demonstrate that power comes from a realm outside of the patriarchal gaze. I’d rather offer something relatable than something unattainable.”
Her five-year plan includes working with a new generation of inspiring and talented people. “I want to play roles that challenge me creatively as an actor but also personally as a human being. I aspire to be involved in projects that say something and have meaning beyond just entertainment. And I hope to be part of a much more self-aware, equal, tolerant, and inclusive industry, where stories from the colonized and not just the colonizer are being told.”
Photography: Philip Sinden
Style: David Nolan
Hair: Mike O’Gorman
Makeup: Michelle Dacillo at Caren
Shot on location at The Chess Club, London