The Strays’ Ashley Madekwe: “There’s pressure for women to be defined by motherhood”

Written by Holly Bullock

Netflix’s chilling new thriller The Strays takes on themes of race, grief, class, motherhood and the politics of hair. Stylist talks to its star, Ashley Madekwe.  

If you’re a fan of a thiller with searing social commentary and moments of deep, deep stress, Netflix’s newest offering The Strays, should be on your watch list this weekened. Ashley Madekwe (County Lines, Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, Revenge) stars as Neve, who abandons a difficult life in east London for an almost idyllic life in the suburbs as a mum, wife and deputy headteacher – “You’re practically one of us,” says one of the mums from school.

It soon becomes clear that Neve can’t run from her past for long as two familiar faces reappear and her carefully manicured life starts spiralling. Also starring Bukky Bakray (Rocks) and Jorden Myrie, this is a powerful debut film from writer-director Nathaniel Martello-White about the inescapable scars differences of class and race can leave. 

We sat down with Ashley to find out more…

Jorden Myrie and Bukky Bakray in Netflix’s The Strays

The Strays feels like a film that could only be made now. What do you think it says about where we’re at in 2023?

It’s interesting: this film comes from a nugget of an idea of a play that Nathaniel wrote a few years ago. I think everything happens at the time when it’s supposed to happen, maybe this is when people are more receptive to having these conversations. He wants people to have conversations about identity, race, culture, colourism, impostor syndrome, and all of those things.

Horrors – which is one of many genres this film sits in – typically have a monster at the heart. What is the monster in The Strays?

I think the monster changes depending on the act and perspective. I think the past is the monster for Neve, the entities she’s seeing in the first act are the monsters. And for those entities, Neve is the monster. She’s become this grotesque caricature of a mother to them, she’s almost like a witch-like figure in a fairy tale. And nobody makes what I think is a sound choice in the film. It’s hard to fully empathise with anybody.

You mentioned Neve being a grotesque mother figure. What do you think that says about women’s identity?

I think that there’s a lot of pressure for women to be defined by motherhood: that the most important thing a woman can do is have a baby. Chelsea Handler did that [satirical] video recently about how great her day was because she didn’t have children: I thought it was hilarious, but it got people heated in the comments. How dare she enjoy her life without children?We demonise women who do that. There’s a line where Neve says, “I did what fathers do all the time.” And I think it’s interesting because we do look at it differently when men leave behind a family. I’m not saying what she did was right. I’m just saying it’s a different expectation when it’s a woman. Parenthood is different for women. 

Ashley Madekwe and Bukky Bakray in Netflix’s The Strays

We see Neve code-switching through the film, what is the cost of that?

Well, she obviously has no Black friends because her wigs are terrible. So that was a huge cost. I think on a serious level, it’s emotionally draining to never be truly yourself. And she always comes across as a slightly unravelled. She’s never fully centred in her being. I think it must be exhausting to never really, truly be yourself. From my perspective, I know I’ve definitely experienced code-switching. There’s a person you are at home with your family, the person you are with your friends and the person you are in your professional workspace. And I think that can be true for people who aren’t people of colour as well, but I think it can be heightened sometimes for people of colour, especially when they’re in spaces where they’re a minority.

Earlier you mentioned the wigs, and hair is such an important part of the film. Can you tell me a bit more about?

On a purely practical level she’s almost in hiding. And so the distance she creates from her heritage is a distance from her past. I think that it’s not so much that she that she hates her Blackness, more that she hates where she came from. And as a result of that, she’s hating on her heritage.

It seemed like a commentary on the ways that hair is politicised. What do you think about who defines what hair isn’t, in inverted commas, beautiful’ in society?

There’s a lot of power in hair. And we’re told what hair is professional and what hair is is considered groomed and what hair is considered beautiful. And I think over the last five years, there’s definitely been an awakening and people embracing the natural texture of their hair. But I’m also seeing a shift now where it’s like, we felt like we had to embrace the natural texture, so everybody knew that we were celebrating ourselves. And now we’re like, you know what, maybe I want to blow my hair out. Maybe it’s easier to blow my hair out on Sunday and keep it straight all week. Rather than having to really refresh the curls every day and feeling confident in that. I think there’s definitely a shift towards acceptance with our hair in whatever capacity we want that to be. 

What has your own relationship with your hair been like?

It’s definitely been a journey. I have naturally curly hair. My mum is white of English descent and my hair texture was drastically different from hers. This was not a hair texture she knew how to deal with. And she had to learn, and I had to learn with her, to be honest. Now I know my own hair better than anybody. I’m always very vocal about it on film sets or photoshoots. I’m like, let’s talk about my hair. This is what I know about my hair. I think early on in my career, there was a lot of defensiveness surrounding it. But I think that there’s been a shift in that people are more open to having the conversation and there are more people of colour working in those departments, which is really important. I was spoilt when I started because my first job was a film called Storm Damage, and we had a Black hair department and Black make-up department on that film. I thought that was the norm. And it wasn’t. It was years before I got to work with an all-Black team again.

Finally, are you a horror or thriller fan when you’re on the sofa at home?

I wouldn’t say I’m a horror fan, but that’s not because I don’t appreciate the genre. It’s more because I have an overactive imagination and I get scared really, really easily. I definitely enjoy leaning more into the thriller aspect. The Silence Of The Lambs is one of my favourite horror films. Is that a horror film? I guess it is – he wears dead people. I quite like the zombie genre; I love 28 Days Later, that’s actually one of my favourite films of any genre. I remember my parents watching A Nightmare On Elm Street. I was in bed upstairs, but I could hear it and I was terrified. I’ve never watched A Nightmare On Elm Street because of that. 

The Strays is on Netflix now 

Images: Netflix 

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