Written by Claire Stern with Photography by Pierre Crosby
Breakout actress Ashleigh Cummings models fall’s eco-friendly designs and discusses filming The Goldfinch, parallels between the film and her childhood in Saudi Arabia and committing to sustainability with Claire Stern.
“New York is a wild city,” Ashleigh Cummings muses over dessert at the Whitby Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, a stone’s throw away from Bergdorf Goodman. “It’s ethereal and gritty at the same time. There’s a distinct business aspect, but art and history run heavily through it.” The observation is even more fitting when you take into account the last time the actress was here: on location for The Goldfinch, the highly anticipated adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, directed by John Crowley (Brooklyn).
The 700-plus-page tome tells the story of a boy who is taken in by an affluent Upper East Side family after losing his mother in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cummings plays Pippa, the red-headed object of his unrequited desire from the moment he spots her before the blast that fateful day.
The tragic event is a familiar one for the 26-year-old Australian newcomer. Born in Saudi Arabia to hospital-worker parents, Cummings was forced to flee the country after a post-9/11 attack on her school. “I felt very connected to Pippa because I had an understanding of mortality from a very early age,” she explains. “It deepened my empathy muscle.”
Growing up in the Middle East, Cummings says, “I would go on adventures to neighboring compounds. I had a multitude of cul- tural influences around me constantly.” She joined an underground theater group that put on dance performances featuring Disney characters to flex her creative muscles. “It was all on the down-low,” she says. “You couldn’t talk about it. It was like Fight Club.”
Cummings’s appetite for art ultimately prompted her to take a runaway trip to New York at age 14 in pursuit of acting opportunities. “I stayed in a friend’s penthouse suite and, on the flipside, atop a local pizza joint with some homeless street kids. It was an incredible look at a multifaceted city with so much rich- ness within it.” She thoroughly enjoyed exploring on and off set while filming, including a requisite pastrami sandwich outing, even though she doesn’t eat meat. Her passion for animal welfare and the environment extends to fashion as well—every piece she wears at our photo shoot is sustainable. “We’re so flippant about the small destructions we make in everyday life,” Cummings says emphatically. “I think we have a duty to care for our surroundings. It’s hard, but every little bit counts.”
She goes on to cite designers making “incredible efforts” to better the planet, notably Stella McCartney, who refrains from using leather, skin or fur in any of her products, and Maria Cornejo, who sources eco-friendly materials like biologically degradable viscose made of wood pulp for her Zero Maria Cornejo collections. “It’s really important to stop wasting,” Cummings says. “You don’t need to throw everything out.”
Despite landing a key role in a buzzy movie, Cummings, like her sense of style, exudes an earthy and laid-back vibe. During breaks between projects, she’s decamped to the Moroccan Sahara, worked at a chimpanzee orphanage in Zambia and lived with a Masai tribe in Kenya, all of which keep her decidedly detached from the Hollywood bubble.
“I feel so fortunate for all the incredible opportunities I’ve been given so far,” she reflects, savoring the last bites of her strawberry tart. “I don’t want to get too caught up with an idea of who I am. Sometimes, it’s nice to touch down somewhere completely foreign, where no one knows me, and focus on the betterment of the world around us.” She pauses to glance at a neglected food spread left over from catering. “Do you think we should take that to-go?”