Annaleigh Ashford Barks Up The Right Tree On Broadway

Nov 1, 2015
Originally published on November 1, 2015 12:02 pm

Annaleigh Ashford is down to earth. Very down to earth. Sitting in her Broadway dressing room, she talks about all of the people who've inhabited that same space – Denzel Washington, Ian McKellen and, most recently, Larry David, who left a sticker with his name by the toilet.

"Occasionally I like to remind myself, you know, the many fabulous people who have pooped where I am pooping," she says.

"It's disgusting," she adds in a whisper. "But magical!"

Ashford is no first-timer to Broadway. The Masters of Sex actress, who also also has a CD coming out next month, originated the role of Lauren in Kinky Boots, and won a Tony for playing Essie Carmichael in You Can't Take It With You.

But this week she opened in her first starring role on Broadway. And given her role, it's not inappropriate that she's talking about poop: She's playing the title character in A. R. Gurney's comedy, Sylvia. Sylvia is a dog.

Specifically, she's a stray labradoodle who's been adopted by a man going through a mid-life crisis.

Helpfully, Ashford has her own dog — a toy Australian shepherd, who she's been observing very carefully. She watched closely when her pet was in obedience and sheep herding classes last summer.

"You know, I pee at the very beginning of the play and they go, 'Did you do that Sylvia?' " she says.

"And I do that strange thing that dogs do, where they can't look at you ... they have, like, a dead-eye stare where they can't look at you and they look down. And I say, 'I won't dignify that with an answer,' which is exactly what my dog does, when she totally pees in the corner of the room!"

Ashford wears knee pads to romp around the stage, jump on the sofa, sit and roll over. She trades dialogue with Matthew Broderick, who plays the man who adopts her:

"Now sit Sylvia, sit."

"I'm not ready to sit!"

"I said sit!"

"I'm too nervous to sit."

Daniel Sullivan, the director of Sylvia, calls Ashford a "sort of inspired clown."

"We don't have that many highly physical female clowns," he says. "I mean, she is really extraordinary in her ability to keep a thing very true and honest and, at the same time, much larger than life, physically."

That sort of inspired physicality won her that Tony last year in the revival of You Can't Take It With You, where Ashford played a not-very-good ballerina.

New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley says she stole the show — "From an incredible cast, a crackerjack cast," he says. "And she was so good at being bad. I mean, there was a real grace in the character's clumsiness. I could eat it with a spoon. It was just delightful."

It wasn't always easy for Ashford. The Denver native moved to New York at 17 to study acting. She went to lots of cattle calls and never got a callback.

But director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell remembered her and eventually cast her in Kinky Boots, where she played an English factory worker in love with her boss.

Ashford's off-beat charms were noticed by showrunner Michelle Ashford — no relation — who hired the actress to play the prostitute Betty in the Showtime series Masters of Sex.

"She was supposed to be a one-off and we cast Annaleigh, and she was so delightful and such a wonderful energy and so unlike everyone else in our cast that we thought, 'Well, we have to keep her,' " she says.

So the briefly-appearing prostitute participating in sexuality research became a regular character, and eventually the research team's office manager.

From hooker to finally, hound, Annaleigh Ashford says she's learned a lot, from observing people and dogs in those obedience classes last summer.

"Not everybody in the room knew that I was going to be playing a dog on Broadway in the fall," she says. "And so, sometimes I would do really weird things — I would, you know, copy what somebody else's dog was doing physically."

She earned some funny looks, but it paid off. Sylvia runs on Broadway through January. Then, Annaleigh Ashford — and her dog Gracie — return to Los Angeles to film season four of Masters of Sex.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to another woman who dresses up. Though, in the case of several television scenes she's in, it's more likely actress Annaleigh Ashford is dressing down. You might recognize her as the prostitute Betty in the cable series "Masters Of Sex." Annaleigh Ashford now has a new role on Broadway. She stars as A.R. Gurney's comedy - she stars in A.R. Gurney's comedy "Sylvia." Actually, Ashford plays the title role, and Sylvia happens to be a dog. Jeff Lunden has more.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Annaleigh Ashford is very down to earth. Sitting in her dressing room, she talks about all of the people who've inhabited that same space, Denzel Washington, Ian McKellen and, most recently, Larry David, who left a sticker with his name by the toilet.

ANNALEIGH ASHFORD: Occasionally, I like to remind myself the many fabulous people who have also pooped where I'm pooping. It's disgusting but magical.

LUNDEN: Actually, talking about poop is not inappropriate given the fact that Ashford is currently playing a stray labradoodle who's been adopted by a man going through a mid-life crisis. It also helps that Ashford has her own dog, who she's been observing very carefully.

A. ASHFORD: You know, I pee at the very beginning of the play. And they go, did you do that, Sylvia?

LUNDEN: Ashford watched her toy Australian Shepherd in obedience classes last summer.

A. ASHFORD: And I do that strange thing that dogs do where they can't look at you. They have, like, a dead-eye stare where they, like, can't look at you. And they look down. And I say, I won't dignify that with an answer, which is exactly what my dog does when she totally pees in the corner of the room.

LUNDEN: Ashford wears knee pads to romp around the stage, jump on the sofa, sit and roll over. She trades dialogue with Matthew Broderick, who plays the man who adopts her.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SYLVIA")

MATTHEW BRODERICK: (As Greg) Now sit, Sylvia, sit.

A. ASHFORD: (As Sylvia) I'm not ready to sit.

BRODERICK: (As Greg) I said sit.

A. ASHFORD: (As Sylvia) I'm too nervous to sit.

BRODERICK: (As Greg) Down, Sylvia.

A. ASHFORD: (As Sylvia) I'm worried about where to sleep. Do I sleep on this couch?

DANIEL SULLIVAN: She's a sort of inspired clown.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SYLVIA")

A. ASHFORD: (As Sylvia) Ouch.

LUNDEN: Daniel Sullivan is directing "Sylvia."

SULLIVAN: We don't have that many highly physical female clowns. And she is really extraordinary in her ability to keep a thing very true and honest and, at the same time, much larger than life physically.

LUNDEN: That sort of inspired physicality won her a Tony last year in the revival of "You Can't Take It With You," where Annaleigh Ashford played a not very good ballerina. New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley says she stole the show.

BEN BRANTLEY: From an incredible cast - a crackerjack cast. She was so good at being bad. I mean, there was a real grace in the character's clumsiness. I could eat it with a spoon. It was just delightful.

LUNDEN: It wasn't always that easy for her. The Denver native moved to New York at 17 to study acting, went to lots of cattle calls and never got a callback. But director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell remembered her and eventually cast her in "Kinky Boots," where she played an English factory worker in love with her boss.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "KINKY BOOTS")

A. ASHFORD: (As Lauren, singing) Why not? Women have been making bad choices since the beginning of time. Are you going to be another one of mine?

LUNDEN: Ashford's offbeat charms were noticed by showrunner Michelle Ashford - no relation - who hired the actress to play a prostitute in the Showtime series "Masters Of Sex."

MICHELLE ASHFORD: She was supposed to be a one-off. And we cast Annaleigh. And she was so delightful and such a wonderful energy and so unlike everyone else in our cast that we thought, well, we have to keep her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MASTERS OF SEX")

A. ASHFORD: (As Betty DiMello, burping) OK, I'm going to be honest with you but only 'cause I like you, and you seem real dedicated about your project and your penguin suit and all with the charts and the timer. But seriously, if you really want to learn about sex, then you're going to have to get yourself a female partner.

LUNDEN: From hooker to, finally, hound, Annaleigh Ashford says she learned a lot from observing people and dogs in those obedience classes last summer.

A. ASHFORD: Not everybody in the room knew that I was going to be playing a dog on Broadway in the fall. And so sometimes I would do really weird things. Like, I would copy what somebody else's dog was doing physically. And then I'd remember that people maybe thought that I needed to take my meds or something (laughter).

LUNDEN: "Sylvia" runs on Broadway through January. Then, Annaleigh Ashford and her dog Gracie return to Los Angeles to film season four of "Masters Of Sex." For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.