On the hit Showtime series Masters of Sex, actress Annaleigh Ashford gives a pitch perfect performance as Betty Dimello, a brash prostitute with a frank understanding of her own sexuality, who married a rich man (Greg Grunberg) to get her out of the life she was leading. From the beginning of Dr. Masters’ (Michael Sheen) sex study, Betty allowed him to observe her and the other girls in her brothel, becoming both a friend to Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) and one of the few women who keeps Masters in line.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, Annaleigh Ashford talked about how she came to be a part of this show, learning about Betty as she got each script, her reaction to learning the real history between Betty and her husband, working with such a talented cast, getting into the headspace of a woman like this, in this time period, what a treat it is to play someone who unabashedly tells it like it is, that she would ultimately love to see Betty happy, working with such high caliber directors, and how socially relevant many of the show’s plot points still are today. Check out what she had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
ANNALEIGH ASHFORD: For the first audition, I was in New York. The original pilot was shot in New York. I was doing Rent off-Broadway, at the time, playing Maureen, and Bernie Telsey called me in. Originally, I went in for the role of Jane, which Heléne Yorke ended up playing. The first time I read the script, I was like, “The role of the hooker is so interesting. She’s such an interesting, strong woman.” Also, I think it had a different point of view for a lesbian, at that time in history. There were just so many things that were strong and interesting about her. So, I read for Jane, and I left the room and felt like I did a great job, but the take that I had on that role, I felt like was maybe not what they had in mind. By the time I got back to the train, they called me and said, “Can you come back up and read for the hooker?” So, I went back and did a cold read. From there, I tested for the show and ended up getting it. It was really crazy! It happened really fast. It was written in the stars, in a weird way. I can’t believe it was written in the stars for me to play a hooker, but I think God for it. The thing that’s most interesting and most compelling about her is that she really speaks her mind in a time when women weren’t allowed to, but because of her social status, she was free to. That’s one of the things that’s really interesting about Virginia, as well. She was a woman living ahead fo her time.
How much were you told about Betty and what her journey would be? Did you find out on an episode by episode basis, or were you given an overview of where her story might go?
ASHFORD: When I first did the pilot, we didn’t even know if she would be a recurring character. We were just going show by show. And then, when the show got picked up and went to series, I was already doing Kinky Boots on Broadway, so I was only available to do a couple of episodes. So, every time I got to work on the show, I was afraid that it would maybe be the last time because it’s sometimes hard to find your way back into a storyline. But one of the most exciting things about television right now is that the format of TV is growing so much, even in the last couple of years. So, storylines can really come back, in a way that they didn’t always have the possibility of before. I can’t believe that I’m a series regular on the show, when I look back at my audition, three years ago. It’s such a testament to our great writing and the fearlessness that Michelle Ashford has, in exploring different kinds of humans, in a different era. All of the characters, through the last two seasons, have taken a journey and the circumstances that they were put in were true to the era, but also compelling enough to keep watching, wanting to know what happens to them. But I have no idea where we’re going next season, and I’m so excited to find out. It’s been fun to watch this last season back because you work so intensely on filming and sometimes you forget little details of other people’s storylines. You read the script, and then you forget all of these magical little things that happen, so it’s been really fun to watch the show, every Sunday night.
ASHFORD: Oh, my gosh, when I read that first script and found out that he knew who I was, the whole time, it knocked the wind out of me. It shocked me. And I remember when we worked on the scene, I wanted to learn my lines and not really memorize his cues as much, so that what he was saying would be really fresh to me. It had such an organic impact on me, so I wanted it to be really fresh when we actually shot it because it did surprise me that deeply. It was like Christmas, opening that script. It was so heartbreaking. This is a man who was willing to overlook so many of her mistakes and shortcomings and her past, but ultimately, she still could never love a man. She can only love a woman. That’s so heartbreaking, for him more than even her.
What was it like to share those moments with Greg Grunberg?
ASHFORD: Greg Grunberg is so beautiful and charming and funny and heartbreaking. I think he did such an incredible job. In real life, he is hilarious. He’s a dad of three, and he has some amazing charities. He’s just an incredible human. That’s helpful.
What was it like to also add Sarah Silverman into the mix, and play the history between your characters?
ASHFORD: Oh, my goodness, she is such a brilliant star. It was really exciting to get to watch her do something more dramatic. She’s such an honest and hilarious comedienne, and all of that honesty followed her, in her work on our show. As a human, she just couldn’t be lovelier, funnier, sweeter and more magical. She was great to work with, every day. And watching the episodes back, the day that I see her again, me and her and Greg Grunberg were in this crazy old house in Highland Park, and we had a blast. It was such a fun day. She was a great person to have on set, and she was beautiful on the show. We had a great time together.
Because this show takes place in such a specific time and place, is there anything that you do to get into the headspace of a woman like this, in this time period?
ASHFORD: I did so much initial work on the character for the pilot that I go back to the basis of that work. I also find it so helpful, whenever I’m doing any sort of period piece, to watch interviews and talk shows from that era. For a woman like Betty, who’s a really blue collar woman on the bottom of the social sphere, I watched as many interviews as I could from people of that time. Unfortunately, nobody was interviewing any hookers, so I had to do a lot more research online about that. That was a little bit trickier to find anything about. One of the only people studying and talking about women then was Dr. Masters. But Dr. Masters found out, really early on, that he couldn’t use hookers because they were so sick and had so many biological problems. They didn’t have access to medical care, back then. One of the interesting things about coming back for Season 2 was that Betty made such a huge shift by marrying up. By marrying a man, she was able to have nice clothes and nice things. The costume designer, Ane Crabtree, calls her New Money Betty. She was able to go to the beauty shop, every week. She’s a woman who made people listen to her when she needed it. The only power that she had was the power that she had over a man, so it’s interesting for her to have power with money.
ASHFORD: I wish that I had more Betty in me, every day. Sadly, I never really tell people what I think. So, it’s a real treat to play a woman who’s able to speak her mind, unabashedly.
Betty is such a loud personality while Dr. Masters is so internal. What’s it like to play that dynamic with someone like Michael Sheen?
ASHFORD: He’s such an incredible actor that it’s always a treat, getting to work on set with him, every day. I always know that whatever he comes back with, it’s going to be interesting and right.
What’s it like to get to wear such incredible wardrobe? Do you ever wear anything you wish you could sneak off the set with?
ASHFORD: Oh, my gosh, all the time! I wish I had my entire wardrobe because it’s beautiful and luxurious. Ane Crabtree is such a genius. It’s all in the details, and she’s so brilliant. She’s just the best.
If you had your way, what would you like to see happen for Betty?
ASHFORD: I would love to see her be happy, and I do think that means she would find love. She’s a woman who’s lived her entire life fighting so hard for it. We’re getting into territory where Masters and Johnson are beginning to help people with sexual dysfunction, and I think that’s something Betty could be an aid with, with her knowledge.
What do you enjoy most about getting to explore a character over a longer period of time on a TV show, and never really know exactly where she’s going to end up?
ASHFORD: It’s such a challenge, every day, because we never know where we’re going. But one of the best things has been not knowing what’s happening next, and taking each script as a new script and trying to live as we do, in our lives. We live every day as it comes.
ASHFORD: We’ve had an incredible list of directors, starting with John Madden, who is beautiful and outrageous. One of our most used directors this season has been Michael Apted, who couldn’t be lovelier. He’s just the sweetest. He’s been such a joy. Adam Arkin was not only a guest star, as an actor, but he directed two episodes this season, and he was incredible. Everybody that we worked with this season was just top notch and top tier. We were really taken care of. It’s really challenging, coming to set with a new episode every week, with such touchy subject matter and strong storylines. So, to be taken care of the way we have, with our directors, has been a real gift.
When you do a show like this, it really does show us that no matter how far we think we’ve come, with women’s rights, homosexuality and race relations, there’s still further to go. Have you been surprised by how similar some things still seem to be, no matter what the time period is?
ASHFORD: Absolutely! It’s interesting, so many of the plot points that have been social have been so relevant in our present day. We do have so much further to go, with issues of homosexuality, race and sexuality, in general.
The Season 2 finale of Masters of Sex airs on Showtime on Sunday, September 28th.