Few actors light up the stage and screen like Annaleigh Ashford. After four seasons as lesbian prostitute-cum-office manager Betty Dimello on Showtime’s Masters of Sex, the Tony-winning actress returns to Broadway this month opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. Can she finally consider herself a friend of Dorothy?
I know you’re a married woman, but how dreamy is Jake Gyllenhaal in person?
The dreamiest, and I get to look into his dreamy eyes all the time.
He knows how to work a beard.
He sure does, and it’s a luxurious, good-smelling beard. We hugged the other day and I asked, “Did you put some product in that beard?” He said, “No, it’s just naturally like this.” But what really makes him so dreamy is that he’s a brilliant actor with a beautiful singing voice and a beautiful heart. He’s everything you want him to be.
Because it was filmed for PBS, many fans have seen the original 1984 Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with Bernadette Peters as Dot, Seurat’s mistress and muse. How do you reinvent the role in that curly red-haired shadow?
I like to think of it more as a beautiful blueprint she’s left behind. Bernadette is authentically vulnerable, and that energy is all over Dot. We’ve found new things, but we’ve also realized that it’s important to honor some of her original choices. They were brilliant, so why would you do anything else?
Looking back at your roles in shows like Kinky Boots, Wicked, and Legally Blonde, it’s almost as if your agents are a group of gay guys at brunch.
[Laughs] Listen, when I was little, the first show I ever did was Ruthless! The Musical at the Theatre on Broadway, a gay theater in Denver at the time—and my grandmother was played by a drag queen. I learned what it meant to be a “friend of Dorothy,” and I remember, at 9 years old, asking, “Can’t I be her friend too?” Even as a little girl, I saw that this was a group of people who wanted to be loved and accepted. I wanted to be a part of that.
Your cabaret show and live album, Lost in the Stars, serve a full-on gay disco fantasy. Is that what you were going for?
Yes, because I live my life in a gay disco fantasy. If everybody could be a part of what’s happening inside my mind, there’d be a lot more love, glitter, rainbows, and the occasional unicorn. That’s how I want to see the world.
Masters of Sex recently finished its four-season run. How much did Betty Dimello rub off on you?
If you were a woman like Betty in the ’60s, an era where you weren’t accepted, you had to be fearless. I try to be fearless as an actor, but I wish I could be more fearless as a person. So, just like Betty, every year I try to be more and more fearless about using my voice in the world as a woman who can create change through love.
From Masters of Sex to musicals like Rent and Hair, you seem drawn to projects with important social messages.
Absolutely. Working on Kinky Boots, for example, we always knew we were telling a story that needed to be told. “Just be who you want to be,” we sang. “Celebrate yourself triumphantly.” Then we did the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and people went crazy on Twitter, criticizing the show and NBC for putting drag queens in the parade. It was heartbreaking. But then we showed up the next day at the theater, invigorated, because it was a reminder that we still had work to do.
You also played Columbia in Fox’s Rocky Horror Picture Show remake, which brought even more queerness into American living rooms.
Yeah, I think the theme of “Don’t dream it, be it” really came through in our production, and hopefully it changed the life of some little boy or girl out there.
While in college, you were a go-go dancer on the downtown New York club scene, running in the same circles as Lady Gaga. How did that inform the rest of your career?
My time on the go-go circuit was really performance art. We were just dancing for the love of dancing, and I knew that’s what I wanted all my art to be like. And it taught me how to put together a good outfit.
Back to those Kinky Boots queens, what tips would you give a queen who wanted to do Annaleigh Ashford?
Go big with the wig. I’ve always dreamed of having a wig big enough to keep my phone in.
Sunday in the Park With George begins previews February 11 and opens February 23 at the Hudson Theater.