We chatted with Tony Award-winning actress Annaleigh Ashford on tackling her first canine role in the revival of Sylvia, the challenges of playing a dog, and where she likes to hang out in New York.
Fresh off her stellar performance as wisecracking Betty in Showtime’s Masters of Sex, Annaleigh Ashford, who won last year’s Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a play, hits the stage again in her titular role in Sylvia. The play centers on Ashford, who plays a walking, talking dog alongside costars like Matthew Broderick and Robert Sella. We caught up with the actress to talk about the challenges of playing an animal on stage, what it's like working with such a starry cast, and what she loves about her home in Cobble Hill.
You’re playing a dog named Sylvia. Explain this role to us. ANNALEIGH ASHFORD: Sylvia is a dog that has been abandoned in Central Park. When we first meet her at the top of the play, she’s homeless and looking for someone to bring her home. She meets Greg [Matthew Broderick] who decides to bring her home and eventually keeps her. Greg and Sylvia fall in love, in the way that dogs and humans do, and it’s really hard for his wife Kate [Julie White]. It becomes a sweet love triangle that Kate tries to deal with for the rest of the play.
Was this your first non-human role? AL: This is my first time playing a non-human. [Laughs] I remember auditioning for college... and sometimes they have you do a movement portion of the audition, where occasionally they would have you be an animal. I remember I tried to be a cat and there was another girl across the room who was a cat and she went a little bit farther in her cat-like behavior. I remember her licking herself for a long time—she really went for it. As [for] Sylvia, she’s written as more doggy-like at the beginning of the play, but as she and Greg become closer, she becomes more and more like a New York chick and loses her dog.
How difficult is it? AL: It’s been a real challenge to find the essence of the dog but still keep the audience connected to my language and me. Dogs see with their noses, we see with our eyes; they walk on four [legs] and we walk on two. The marriage of the two species into one person, as an actor, has been the biggest challenge.
Do you have pets? AL: I do, I have a dog. A six-year-old Australian Shepard named Gracie, and we did a lot of research together.
What is it like working with such a stellar cast? AL: Oh my goodness, Robert Sella is just wonderful. He’s also doing sort of an abstract character within this play. He’s playing a woman and a gender-neutral psychiatrist, and he’s brilliant and fabulous. Julie White is hilarious, warm, and endearing. She has to sometimes play the villain of the piece, but because she is such a gifted actress, she makes her so warm and rounded. So, you know exactly where she is coming from and you understand exactly why she doesn’t want a dog. Matthew Broderick is charming, endearing, and heartwarming, and we’ve been having a ball together. He’s just wonderful to play with.
Do you live in the city? AL: I live in Brooklyn, Cobble Hill. I have a line in the play when we’re out walking in Central Park where I say, “Excuse me, Greg, I have to check my messages,” and then I sniff around. Where we live in Brooklyn, there are so many dogs, and if Grace could talk, she would tell you that there are a lot of messages to check, each one. This morning she spent a lot time checking messages and it was like, “Girlfriend, we have to get on it!”
What do you love about Cobble Hill? AL: I feel like there is still such a sense of being part of the city, but Brooklyn [also has] a neighborhood feel. There are some cool people in the neighborhood who have been here for generations, and that’s a thing that is getting lost in parts of Manhattan because of the way real estate is going. There is something nice about having a train ride every day—you feel like you’re getting away from it all when you come home at night.
What are you favorite spots in the ‘hood? AL: One of my favorite bars in New York City is the Clover Club. It’s such a perfect cocktail bar. We’re also right down the street from Van Leeuwen [Artisan Ice Cream], if you want some ice cream.
What about any hidden spots near Broadway? AL: It’s crazy because I haven’t really been on the east side of Broadway for a while. I’ve played the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, I’ve played the Longacre Theatre, but I haven’t played this side of Broadway for eight years. When you're doing a show, you become extremely familiar with the options in your walk. Right now... I’m really close to The Little Beet. I’m a gluten-free person, but for real, not like one of those people who say, “I feel bloated.” So, I go [there] a lot. We’re close to Rockefeller Center, too, so if I want to have a fancy night of steak and lobster, I have City Lobster across the street.