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10Qs: Annaleigh Ashford on Puppy Love, Sarah Silverman's Genius & What She'd Do to Matthew Broderick

10Qs: Annaleigh Ashford on Puppy Love, Sarah Silverman's Genius & What She'd Do to Matthew Broderick

Annaleigh Ashford in Sylvia on Broadway
Photography by Joan Marcus

The Tony-winning actress has been giving her best pooch performance in the Broadway revival of Sylvia.

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Since appearing on Broadway, the comic actress Annaleigh Ashford has stolen the show in Legally Blonde and Kinky Boots (she was my favorite part of the production when it opened), and won a much-deserved Tony in the revival of You Can't Take It With You. This fall she's been starring in a revival of Sylvia, about a New York couple (played by Matthew Broderick and Julie White) who adopt a stray dog. Ashford plays the dog (a role originated by Sarah Jessica Parker in its 1995 Off-Broadway premiere), and she--with her adorable bark--has been the glue that has kept the production on track (Sylvia on Broadway ends January 3, 2016). "It's taking place in 1995, when the play was originally produced, and there's something wonderfully nostalgic about the love-letter to New York," Ashford explains. "It's pre-9/11, and it's a time in New York that was different. I think that's a lovely part of the play."

At the same time, she's been playing a recurring role on Showtime's Masters of Sex as Betty, the girlfriend of Sarah Silverman's Helen, and this past season the pair were trying to get pregnant. "I just think it's amazing they stayed together," Ashford explained earlier this summer. "She could have not gotten back together with her after she left Gene but it just showed the power of the love Helen and Betty have for each other that they got back together and are sticking it out, and now are trying to have a baby and a family."

We caught up with Ashford, one of the funniest young actors on stage or screen at the moment, to ask our 10 most burning questions.

Out: You're supposedly playing a mix of the smartest dogo and the most lovable and loyal dog, which seems perfect for you, and I'm sure you have some sexy kneepads to make it all work?

Annaleigh Ashford:

My gosh, my body hurts so bad every time. I feel like someone punched me in every muscle in my body. At first I said, "I'm not even doing anything that crazy." And I couldn't figure out why it hurts so bad. Then someone commented: "You're playing a dog!" That's been the most complicated element--finding a physical language to let the audience understand that I'm a dog, but it can't be too literal. I'm not walking around on all fours, it's too distracting and that's now how it's done. So I found a physical language that is dog-like and representational. They walk on four legs and we walk on two. They see with their nose, we see with our eyes. So finding the marriage between them has been one of the greatest challenges of my career. But it's extremely rewarding and you couldn't ask for a better challenge for an actor.

A.R. Gurney wrote the play after he rescued a Labrador, it wasn't a Labradoodle as he has in the play, exactly. But unless it's some sort of purebred with papers, you never know what's going on in the breed. So there's a mysterious element: We don't know who her prior owners were or her breed make up. I've been lucky to use my own dog Gracie as inspiration. She's a toy Australian shepherd, and she has a lot of the same personality traits. They're very loyal; they're very loving; and love to follow you around to every room. But basically, my aim in life in the play is to please.

Your last two stage roles, you've been applauded for your physicality. But does this feel like it's just at a higher level?

This is the piece de resistance of the whole physicality on stage! It really is creating an un-human character. That's what is so interesting about one of the elements of the play that people are drawn to: the mysterious language we have with dogs, and other animals in general. We have an unspoken communication with them, and A.R. Gurney has given words to it. That has been one of the most interesting themes of the play for me.

All of your roles, including Betty on Masters of Sex, you've had very distinct hairdos. What do you think of Sylvia's?

Oh my god, I love that you've noticed my hair! I put a lot of time and thought into my hair and the people I play. I feel like you never find your character until you put on your wig. I wish that was true of life: I wish I could just put on a wig for the day. I probably will when I get in my sixties. I will start wearing a wig as a hat, because a hat is also one of my favorites.

My hair for Sylvia starts out kind of messy because I've been homeless. I am a homeless New York chick. Then after I got to the groomer in the first act, I get that wig change. It's kind of an evolutionary thing.

You're currently working with Julie White, who is a funny lady. And you've worked with Sarah Silverman, who is a funny lady. And you're absolutely a funny lady, so tell me what it's like when funny ladies get together. Are you cracking you jokes or super serious and professional women when together?

I've had the great blessing of being around funny people all year long. You Can't Take It With You was a group of 20 funny and talented actors. And not only is Sarah Silverman one of our most genius comedians, I think she is one of the most important female comedians in the 20th and 21st centuries. I feel like she is one of the few bold female comedians who has continued to create and explore as a storyteller. I went and saw her stand-up that she does monthly at Largo in L.A., the first time I got to see her live, and it was such a reminder of what a genius she is.

Then working with the brilliant and hilarious Julie White, she makes us laugh all day long. And Matthew Broderick is hilarious. He makes us crack up, and is very dangerous on stage because he just does that dry, subtle sneaky smile and you're already laughing. And Robert Sella has to play a man, woman, and a gender-question mark person in the play. It's a naturalist play with absurdist elements--so there's a lot of laughs to be had.

masters of sex Showtime Sarah Silverman Annaleigh Ashford

I noticed that when I google your name and Sarah's together, it comes up on some salacious sites due to the nude love scenes you've had in Masters of Sex. Is that a weird phenomenon for you to experience?

Yeah, that is so crazy for me. The other part of being on Masters of Sex, is having to share with people what the show is when they don't know what it is. So I explain about Masters and Johnson and their research to discover the physiological and biological parts of sexual activity. I also have to explain how beautiful the storytelling is and that most of the sexy in the show is very clinical. One of the coolest parts of my storyline with Sarah is that it's not clinical, it's just true love. But it's in a time when two women can't express openly the love they have for each other, so it's important.

Was it the first time you were cast in a role to play a lesbian?

No, I played Maureen in Rent! This is like my third or fourth lesbian character. Every time I examine myself and see where I am in detail, not that you can do it, but when you're exploring characters that are so interesting and strong, like Betty, you also want to explore how she figured out her sexuality, and makes you wonder when you figured out your own sexuality. You know, when you discovered who you thought you'd be in love with.

You can't choose who you love. And playing Betty the last couple of years, it has been such an incredible opportunity because how far we've come in the last few years. The morning that marriage equality was passed, Sarah and I were filming a scene together that day and my husband was in town. We were so happy, we cried. Then filming a scene about two women trying to have a baby together in 1966, which sounds impossible at that time. Now it's possible! It's now possible for two women to say, "Yeah, we're getting married." And everyone goes, "OK, great, we'll see you there." It's unbelievable. It's a miracle! There's always more work to be done but, my god, what a beautiful opportunity our children will have to love who they want.

I see that you're going to be in a movie titled Stereotypically You, which I assume is a rom-com, that stars Aaron Tveit. What do you play in that film?

Oh yeah! Aaron is great. I play a disgusting angry bitch. Great! I love to play strong characters. We had a great time.

And he's going to be in Grease: Live in January, so I wondered: What character you'd want to play if you were cast in a production of the musical?

I actually played Sandy at the Country Dinner Playhouse when I was 16 to get my Equity card. But I think in Grease: Live, I'd want to play the role of Frenchie. Really, my dream was always to play Rizzo, but get real. Rizzo is way cooler than I am.

So I have two bonus questions I want to ask you. First: What is your spirit animal?

Is it bad to say a unicorn?

No, not at all!

You know why? The first theater I worked at was the gayest one ever in Denver, called the Theater on Broadway, and my grandmother was played by a drag queen. Therefore, my spirit animal is me as a unicorn that Judy Garland is riding, and I fart rainbows.

And now for the even harder question. If we were to play fuck, marry, kill--and this is a total fun fantasy one--but since you are costars with Matthew Broderick, which of his characters would you do: Ferris Bueller, Leo Bloom from The Producers, or Jim McAllister, the teacher from Election?

Oh my god! Such a good question! I would totally fuck Ferris Bueller, are you kidding me? I would marry Leo Bloom because he got rich and he'd let me do whatever I wanted. And I'd kill the guy from Election because he's got anger issues.

That's great, very well-reasoned. Can't wait to see you stage again in your next role!

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