Annaleigh Ashford talks playing the lesbian prostitute on “Masters of Sex”

 
 

One of the best characters on Showtime’s Masters of Sex is Betty DeMilo, a prostitute who sleeps with men for her job but has a female lover named Helen in her personal life. On this week’s episode, “Standard Deviation,” Betty decided to leave Helen for Gene, the Pretzel King, because he promises her a life she would never be able to have as a lesbian in 1950s Missouri.

A sassy, street smart business woman, Betty is the only woman who was able to get what she wants out of Dr. Masters (Michael Sheen) by allowing him access (for his sex study) to the brothel where she works. Sadly Betty’s time on the show is done, as actress Annaleigh Ashford is busy on Broadway, starring in Kinky Boots eight times a week. A musical theater vet who has also played the lesbian character of Maureen in RENT, Annaleigh is also well known for her role as Margot in Legally Blonde: The Musical and Glinda in Wicked.

We spoke with Annaleigh about Betty’s strength, doing her research on lesbian roles and her new part in out filmmaker Ash Christian‘s comedy Franny.

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AfterEllen.com: When I was at TCA this summer, show creator Michelle Ashford said the show would only have you for three episodes. So we won’t see you the rest of the season?

Annaleigh Ashford: Yeah, I actually—the way the filming worked out for scheduling, I had already signed my contract for Kinky Boots on Broadway. We started rehearsal the first week of February so I literally filmed my last scene with Masters and drove from the studio to the airport, got on a plane and took a redeye back to New York to start rehearsal the next morning.

AE: That’s such a bummer because we love Betty. Do you think there’s any room for Betty to return if there’s a second season?

AA: You know, I hope so. The way that Michelle decided to write Betty leave, when she left, I think it gave us options in a way that there’s totally a possibility that she comes back. I mean, as long as somebody doesn’t die, there’s always a possibility of them making a return. So hopefully we’re putting it out there. That’d be amazing.

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AE: Our recapper said she loves your accent on the show and wants to know how you perfected that.

AA: You know, when I first auditioned for the show, I auditioned for John Madden and Michelle Ashford and I originally auditioned for the part that Heléne Yorke played. And I left the room and I walked all the way to the train and they called me right before I got on the train and said, “Could you come back and read Betty?” Which, when I read the script, I loved Betty but I knew they were kind of wanting to go older with her so I was like, “Oh, I’ll come back right now!” And I cold read the role and when I read her the first time around, I gave her kind of a Brooklyn accent. And then when we decided, when we were filming, John was like, “What do you think about—I love her having an accent, but we’d have to explain—we have to kind of figure out why she’d be in St. Louis for her to have that kind of an accent.” And I said, “Absolutely, I totally agree with you.” Because in the ’50s people usually didn’t travel like that, especially at that class level. I said “What about Chicago? It’s so close to St. Louis.” In other parts of Missouri there is kind of a Southern twang happening—that was a big possibility but I said, “You know it’s totally possible that she would have come to a smaller market, as they say, to get more business, to come from Chicago.” So yeah, that’s what we ended up with and I think it’s an important. I think it’s part of the soundscape of that part of the country in that era. I think it’s interesting.

AE: Is there anything specific you would do to get into character?

AA: I thought about the women of that era, especially you see in the third episode but you see in every episode, I think Virginia—Lizzie Caplan does a beautiful job of it, creating a woman and a character who is authentic to who she was historically and also kind of giving a perspective on a woman who has power in a time when women didn’t have power. The only area where they could have power, quietly, would be the bedroom. Especially a hooker—she had no power but in this one area and in the area of sex she had power. That’s something she knows more about than anyone else in the room that she’s with. That’s such a constant thought for me. A woman like that was constantly trying to claim her power in every scene, fighting for it. Not just with Masters and then men that she’s around, but with Virginia and women who are more educated than her. It took her a long time to give people her trust.

Masters of Sex … Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson and Annaleigh Ashford as Betty.

AE: We never get to see your lover, Helen. Is it hard to play that when you don’t have someone specific in mind?

AA: From the first time I read the pilot, and I knew I was going to be working on it, even when I auditioned for it, I created somebody in mind. I was so curious, if I would have gotten to do more episodes—and you don’t know where the story’s gonna go—but I always create someone specific in my head. And then it kind of helps keep things real if you can see somebody in your mind. Me and the costume designer talked a lot about that.

It was kind of an interesting area, the costume design, because I was on kind of another area of a social world in that decade, there was more creativity and there was more of an option to wear pants during the day and things like that. This is kind of most women occasionally wear pants—you would have worn them all day long until you had to put on a dress and start making money for the night.

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AE: She’s such a fun and different character. What did you like most about playing her?

AA: I like how strong she is. A woman who can’t read and write and who has had socially nothing going for her, everything going against her, yet she still finds a way to outsmart this brilliant doctor and to be that strong in the first scene with him I think, as an actor, there’s nothing better than getting to play strong characters, especially in another era. I think even though she’s a prostitute she has more of an opportunity to speak her mind as a woman than most women did back then because of where she was in the social stratosphere.

AE: You’ve also played Maureen in RENT. Did you borrow anything from that experience?

AA: It’s so interesting, too—I was thinking about RENT the other day because a friend of mine, Margot Bingham, is actually on Boardwalk Empire now and we did RENT together. and she came on the screen and had a love scene and I was like “I kissed those lips every night for six months.” One of the most incredible things I learned from playing RENT was not something that I “learned”… but I’d never gotten to play a gay woman before doing that show and I have so many beautiful gay friends in my life and it was like, I was kind of like—it was a new experience to investigate lesbian culture because I think we’re so immersed in gay male culture. So that was wonderful, kind of beautiful. I wanted to make sure she was authentic, so I did a lot of research on what was happening in the early ’90s, in that time. It’s an important perspective when you’re playing a period and especially a gay character in an era because our world is so different than it was five years ago, our world is so different than it was 10 years ago, and our world is so certainly amazingly different than it was in the ’50s. I think it’s really important to examine what was happening in gay culture to indicate how much the character you’re portraying was allowed to show of who they were but it was part of the world they grew up in.

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And I think Masters of Sex does a beautiful job of that. [The gay male escort this week] is kind of another—his relationship with Beau Bridges’ character is another that’s fascinating. I think Far From Heaven, the film Far From Heaven, does a really great job of examining the underground world of gay culture so I thought about that movie. Also I’ve seen Stonewall: The Documentary multiple times. Also the Harvey Milk documentary is amazing. What I love about the Harvey Milk documentary is there’s such an array and diversity of the homosexuals community. That documentary does a great job of showing all the different kinds of people that were in San Francisco at that time.

I try to really do my research what is happening at the era. The gay women I’ve played have been in a very specific time and place and that indicates their behavior and how much they’re allowed to show of who we are, and it also makes me grateful that my children will grow up in an era where, if they are, they’ll stand up being a gay man or a gay woman and won’t be so confined, they’ll be able to be who they want to be. The show I’m doing now, everyday, there’s a line that says, “You can change the world when you change your mind.” Every single day we say it you can feel it hit the back of the room.

AE: So many of the shows you’re a part of are LGBT-friendly. Is that important to you?

AA: Amen, Hallelujah! I think it’s amazing. Before I called you I was like “how amazing is it that the last three projects I’ve done have been LGBT-outrageously friendly. LGBT Promoting! Like live your life, be who you were born to be! WHat’s beautiful about Betty is she really is living who she was born to be as at a time when people couldn’t. The line I say to Virginia before I leave—I can’t remember the exact line but basically I kind of express to her we live in a world where you can only get anywhere with the help of a man and how sad that is, it’s very true of that era. Women were so dependent on men and because of that many gay women didn’t get to be who they were. It’s a sadness that happens at the end of my storyline but I think it’s really important that this story is told.

The Cast Of Broadway's "Kinky Boots" Performs On NBC's "Today"

AE: Definitely. It’s not like they were on TV at the time! It’s just now they’re being explored.

AA: That’s another thing I love about that Stonewall documentary because they have such an array of humans who were homosexuals in times we don’t talk about and they talk about what the underground culture was like and how people… how there was an accessibility to it through fiction and there was the major cities, but it was really word of mouth and stepping out in a limb for people to meet each other. It’s just so sad to me that years and years and years of people being so quiet and so secretive. So it’s interesting to look at it from a historical perspective.

AE: What can you tell us about your new film, Franny?

AA: We filmed it while I was doing RENT. Frances Fisher plays my mother. I play the most disgusting girl who ever lived and Frances is my most disgusting mother. My sister, played by Jen Ponton, gets caught up in a bank robbery and is forced to drive across the country by hostage. And we follow her and try to find her, not because we want to help or save her, but because we are so disgusting and we can’t live our lives without her. We play the most awful human beings. It’s a really interesting film and I can’t wait to see it. They’re doing some final edits. It’s really interesting and funny!

AE: And you’re still doing Kinky Boots.

AA: I have eight shows a week. I have two shows today! I literally just walked off the stage singing “You can change the world if you can change your mind.” It’s amazing. I’ve played so many fabulous beautiful lesbian women. Maureen was kind of a sassy bitch but Betty’s way sweeter.

You can get tickets to see Annaleigh Ashford in Kinky Boots at kinkybootshtemusical.com. Masters of Sex airs Sunday nights on Showtime.

 
 

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