Actress Annaleigh Ashford is sitting down in the lounge at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to talk about Season 3 of Showtime’s MASTERS OF SEX, Sundays at 10 PM. However, the Colorado-born actress has just won a Tony Award for Actress in a Featured Role in a Play for her work as Essie in the Broadway revival of YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, so there’s discussion of that, along with her starring gig as the title character in the upcoming production of SYLVIA.
Although MASTERS OF SEX centers around the real-life characters of pioneering researchers Dr. William Masters (played by Michael Sheen) and Dr. Virginia Johnson (played by Lizzy Caplan), series creator Michelle Ashford (no relation to Annaleigh) has done some dramatic invention for the series. Among her creations is Annaleigh Ashford’s character Betty DiMello, who is first introduced in Season 1 as a prostitute who helps Masters organize his first study. In Season 2, Betty married tycoon Gene (played by Greg Grunberg) and underwent futile fertility treatments with Masters. Gene was willing to adopt, but divorced Betty when he discovered that she was still in love with Helen (played by Sarah Silverman).
In Season 3, Betty has become the office manager for Masters and Johnson, as well as running the office building Masters owns. It’s fair to say that Betty has been through as many changes as her complicated employers over the run of the show and, with Season 4 on the way, she and Ashford are nowhere near done yet.
AX: Did you ever have moments of alarm about Betty’s future on MASTERS OF SEX – “Okay, they’re not studying with the prostitutes any more, where’s my character going, Betty’s getting divorced from Gene, where’s my character going …?”
ANNALEIGH ASHFORD: That’s kind of one of the magical elements of the storytelling in our show, is that there’s always been a fascinating way for us all to come back together. I think Betty is actually an example of some of those people in our lives that we’re connected to, we always somehow find a way to come back to each other. I feel like Betty and Dr. Masters have always been that way. She was the first person to tell him that he needed a female partner in that initial study, she was the first person that said yes to his studying her. She’s always known that his work was important and they’ve always been connected and have such a dynamic relationship that’s always found them coming back to each other. She’s like his great secret-keeper for all of these years. Both of them. She’s kept the secrets of Masters and Johnson for the last seven years.
ASSIGNMENT X: When did you do YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU in terms of the MASTERS schedule?
ASHFORD: We started rehearsing YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU our second-to-last week of shooting MASTERS. So I went to New York for the whole week, and then the last week, I rehearsed on Monday in New York, took the last flight out to L.A. after rehearsal with a giant suitcase, because I still had to move out of my apartment in L.A., then I showed up for filming Tuesday morning, and then took the red-eye out Tuesday night to show up to the rehearsal on Wednesday morning in New York. It was crazy. And then I did the same thing for the Friday, and then we wrapped that Friday. So I had overlap of two weeks, and then three weeks later, we started previews. So it was kind of a crazy time and an overlap. And then I got a month-and-a-half off before we started filming Season 3. SYLVIA will kind of be the same way. We [wrapped on MASTERS August 26] and I start rehearsals on September 1.
AX: SYLVIA is …
ASHFORD: SYLVIA is actually the A.R. Gurney play, about Sylvia the dog. Sarah Jessica Parker [played the role off-Broadway] in the Nineties, and now I’m reviving it on Broadway. I’ll be playing Sylvia and Matthew Broderick will be playing Greg, who is married [in real life] to Sarah Jessica Parker, so we’re kind of keeping it in the family. And also, Julie White will be with us, and a great actor named Robert Sella.
AX: Are there similarities between Betty and your CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU character Essie and/or Sylvia?
ASHFORD: They are all completely, completely different. Which is kind of a gift of my career in the last couple years. Betty has been a polar opposite to Lauren in KINKY BOOTS and Essie in YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU and now Sylvia in SYLVIA. She’s a strong, independent, tough woman who has come from nothing and created a life for herself with the help of Dr. Masters. The commonality between all of these women that I’ve gotten to play has been their strength and their tenacity at achieving the goal that they’re pursuing. So it’s been an honor to play such strong women. But Essie Carmichael was a sweet girl in the 1930s trying to make candy and become the best dancer that ever lived. But she had no idea she was terrible at both – well, she’s okay at candy-making, but dancing, she just didn’t have it, it was never going to happen. But she believed that it could and that’s all that matters [laughs].
[Sylvia is] loyal, but like a dog, she ranges in emotions from moment to moment, second to second. And her main objective is to please her owner. But sometimes her curiosity gets in the way of pleasing her owner. She pees in the corner of their apartment in the first fifteen minutes of the play. She can’t help it – she got too excited. We all know what that feels like.
AX: Do you feel that Betty starts out with innate belief in herself, or that her belief in herself comes from getting into a situation and seeing that she can master it?
ASHFORD: I think that when she starts out in an unfamiliar endeavor, for instance, working in the office, her confidence is probably a false confidence, it’s all on the surface, and she works so hard and does everything she possibly can to educate herself and become as proficient as she can. So by the time that we see her in Season 3, she has become adequately proficient to run the entire office, because opportunity and knowledge have married, and now she’s thriving.
I think Betty is incredibly intelligent, always has known that she’s incredibly intelligent, but she had zero opportunities in life. Growing up in the late Forties/early Fifties as a woman with no opportunities, she had no viable way to excel academically, and therefore she was kind of thrown into the depths of social status. So with the opportunities that Dr. Masters gave her, she capitalized on that. Even in the second episode of the first season, we see how smart she is. She takes care of the books for the brothel. She’s managed to get by and scrape by in a world where she could have become a drug addict and died. She had that kind of upbringing, that kind of life. So I feel like her arc and her journey has been so profound because it’s an example of giving somebody opportunity that had none and what they can do with it.
AX: Do you enjoy the scenes where she’s running the building and telling the tenants, “You need to pay the rent”?
ASHFORD: Yes, of course. Betty has a way with words that’s quite direct and it’s a result of being a prostitute for all those years. So it’s always a treat to work with the various guest stars that we’ve had. And also, every time that Betty has a chance to tell Dr. Masters how it is, it’s always a treat.
AX: How would you describe Betty’s fashion style in this part of the Sixties?
ASHFORD: We [Ashford, the producers and costume designer] always talk about Betty’s fashion and look back at her lineage throughout her life. She’s always been a girl who’s looked to the front cover of the magazine to figure out how to dress, because she’s always trying to put on a front. When you’re a hooker, you have to just look like they do on the cover of a magazine, so it’s going to be like the saddest version of that. When she married Gene, she was trying to cover up the fact that she’d just come from a prostitution house, so she tried to look like the front cover of the magazine, she tried to look like Marilyn Monroe. She was very nouveau riche, so she’d pick out the gaudiest thing that they had in Neiman Marcus, but she was still trying to look like the cover of a magazine. And now when we see her in 1967, she’s still fashion forward. She’s still covering up the fact that she’s living with a woman at home and dressing like the fashionable woman of the time.
AX: What do you think Betty’s feelings are about Virginia Johnson?
ASHFORD: She loves Virginia. She’s dear friends with her. Also, in the third episode of the second season, as she was being wheeled out of the hospital with Greg Grunberg, she stopped Virginia and said, “I can see that you’re in love with him [Masters].” She’s the one who’s seen it from the beginning, and that’s why I always say she’s their great secret-keeper. This season, there have been a couple of great moments where I’ve gotten to stick up for her and take care of Virginia. I remind Dr. Masters that [Virginia] has three kids, one who’s a baby, one who is having problems in high school and the other one who is in a war thousands of miles away. And I think she’s the great softener of Dr. Masters and reminder of how tough Virginia’s life is.
AX: Sarah Silverman is back this season as Betty’s lover Helen …
ASHFORD: We get her for Episodes 307, 308 and 309. She’s just wonderful and brilliant – we’re so happy to have her back, we have such a great time together, and our storyline is really special and beautiful. And then I also have a really lovely scene in Episode 310 with Scully [played by Beau Bridges, whose character is gay and closeted], which I think was such a lovely comment on how challenging it is to come out, not only to the world, but to come out to yourself. And the writers did such a beautiful job of sharing in words what is so hard to share with words.
AX: How was working with Beau Bridges?
ASHFORD: Oh, Beau Bridges is just lovely. We had a scene together that was so special to me – I just really appreciated the message of the scene. We finished his coverage, and I announced to the crew, “Beau Bridges is really good at acting. It seems like you’ve been doing this for years, Beau.” [laughs] He is one of our great treasures, he’s just brilliant and special.
AX: Masters in reality was unfortunately fairly homophobic. Does that come out in his dealings with Betty? Any more than it has already, where he said some horrible things when she wanted to be pregnant?
ASHFORD: I feel like his position on her homosexuality doesn’t always have to do with her sexual orientation – it more has to do with how the world [of that time] is going to judge her and how challenging it is to help her with that topic in the world. I think they’ve done a beautiful job of navigating what happened historically on his [views] with homosexuality; that was one of the biggest controversial elements of their study. But I think in the character of Betty, we see some resolution and maybe a glimpse of understanding why he was maybe so confused on his thoughts in real life about that topic.
AX: Do you ever make suggestions about Betty to the writers?
ASHFORD: The writers have been so lovely and watching what I’ve been doing with the character through the years and capitalizing on what I bring to the table and what they bring to the table. I try to give as much reality to it, but it’s just been a beautiful collaboration.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on?
ASHFORD: SYLVIA will open at the end of October; we start previews at the beginning of October, and right now, that’s taken over the schedule for the next six months, so I’m really excited. And we just found out [MASTERS] got picked up for Season 4, so …
AX: Are you studying any dogs to help you play Sylvia?
ASHFORD: I have a toy Australian shepherd. My dog and I have been going to agility and obedience classes here in L.A. and we also drive an hour to take sheepherding classes on the weekends. It’s magical how natural their instincts are. It’s unbelievable, it’s thrilling to watch.
And I’m on my eighth dog psychology book, so we’ve been doing a lot of research together, which has been fun. But the great thing about these obedience classes is, I’ve gotten to see such a range of dogs, such a range of breeds. And then I also went home last week to Colorado and spent some time with my family’s dogs. So that was fun – I trained them for like an hour every day in the back yard. I really may have another career as a dog trainer after this project.
Dogs are magical creatures. They’re the only little creatures on the planet who love something else more than themselves, and they love us more than they love themselves, so it’s been a special time of research, to look into the world of the dog psyche.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about Season 3 of MASTERS OF SEX?
ASHFORD: Come watch the secrets be revealed on Season 3.
This interview was conducted during Showtime Network’s portion of the Television Critics Association summer press tour.
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Article Source: Assignment X
Article Exclusive Interview: MASTERS OF SEX actor Annaleigh Ashford on Season 3