Ashleigh Cummings always wanted to be an actor and with her dazzling turn as a young Cheryl West in the Outrageous Fortune prequel Westside, it’s fair to say the Aussie actress is doing a stand-up job.
But, chatting to the Weekly from Los Angeles, Ashleigh jokes she should take a job in transtasman tourism as well as she has played not one but two iconic Kiwi characters in a year.
Before she stepped into the leather-and-leopard-skin-clad shoes of Cheryl, 25-year-old Ashleigh took on the lead female role made famous by Claire Oberman in last year’s remake of the 1981 classic Goodbye Pork Pie.
“I watched interviews of Robyn Malcolm to pick up her accent for Pork Pie but I didn't click onto the fact that she was in Outrageous Fortune,” she tells.
“So it was full circle when I got the audition for Westside.
I thought, ‘I know this woman really well! I even know the way her mouth moves!’”
Despite being aware of the pressures taking on the much-loved character of Cheryl would bring, Ashleigh reveals her less-than-ordinary childhood prepared her for almost anything.
She was born in Saudi Arabia and spent the first 12 years of her life there, a place she regards as “one of the most mystical places in the world”.
Ashleigh’s parents – a radiographer and sonographer – worked for the Saudi royal family.
Thanks to their privileged position, she and her family were sheltered from the wars and turmoil that plagued the area for years.
One of her strongest memories is the intense heat that would melt her toys on the concrete.
“My parents would come home with bags of gold chains for payment, or some of the princesses’ dresses,” she says.
“We’d often get hand-me-downs and we’d have a big chest full of costumes. Living there was one of the best gifts they’ve ever given me and to have had that exposure to the different facets of the world has contributed hugely to the person I am.”
Her upbringing in Saudi Arabia meant Ashleigh had little awareness of the Western world, which, she acknowledges, makes her career choice all the more astounding.
“Oh no, I never thought I’d be an actress at all,” she laughs.
"I thought I was going to work for the United Nations and do humanitarian work. But I loved performing and I loved dancing – we used to dance at an illegal underground theatre in Saudi. I guess I just didn’t understand acting was an option because in Saudi there were no films, none of that was available.”
But that all changed after the family moved to Australia when Ashleigh was 12 and she started to pick up minor roles.
“At 14, I ran away to America. I bought the plane ticket before I told my parents but they were amazing, still letting me go,” she laughs.
“My parents always said when I was younger that I was like a dog with a bone. I think that gave me a thirst for independence and adventure.”
So far her career has seen her darting between Australia, New Zealand and the US – thanks to winning the prestigious Heath Ledger Scholarship – but her time on the Westside set is particularly special due to a poignant connection with the late Outrageous cast member Frank Whitten.
“What really sticks with me is the energy around the set. It really is like a family. We had the older generation of actors passing down the stories of the West family. I enjoyed talking to Antonia Prebble and others about Frank, who played Ted West. I didn’t know him for very long but my first theatre job was his last role and he died shortly after. I felt close to him so I loved hearing stories about him. I never had a grandfather growing up because we lived overseas but Frank felt like a semi-grandfather to me,” tells Ashleigh.
It certainly appears her connection to the role was in the stars, as in it she also works closely with her co-star Reef Ireland (24), who plays a teenage Wolfgang West. She worked with him on the Australian show Puberty Blues.
And coincidentally, while she was filming Westside in Auckland, her actor beau Aaron Jakubenko (28) was filming fantasy series The Shannara Chronicles just seven minutes down the road.
“What are the chances?” she laughs. “I kind of have integrated myself into the Kiwi community and I hang out with a lot of Kiwis.”