Baltimore Sun

Ashford funny and vulnerable in same breath

Ability serves actor well in role as Jones on ‘Impeachmen­t’

- By Meredith Blake

Annaleigh Ashford has never met Paula Jones, the woman who accused President Bill Clinton of sexual harassment in 1994, setting off a chain of events that would lead to the exposure of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, a landmark Supreme Court ruling and a historic impeachmen­t.

But as she prepared to play Jones in “Impeachmen­t: American Crime Story,” Ashford returned over and over again to a clip from “Inside Edition.”

In a 1998 interview for the tabloid newsmagazi­ne, host Deborah Norville asks Jones, “With all due respect, why would Bill Clinton care about you?”

The question triggers an emotional reaction from Jones, whose dramatic makeover was making headlines at the time: “That was so rude,” Jones replies, raising her hands in a defensive motion. “That is exactly what

I put up with every day: Why should he care? Why I’m not worth anything.”

The exchange “told me more about her than any sit-down meeting I could have ever had,” says Ashford, 36. “I can’t imagine what it would have felt like to have been thrust into the public eye in a way that she was not prepared for and to be made fun of so ruthlessly about her looks, the way she talked and her education. It must have been unbearable.”

From executive producer

Ryan Murphy, “Impeachmen­t” revisits one of the most exhaustive­ly chronicled sagas in American political history from the perspectiv­e of the women whose lives — and reputation­s — were forever changed by the scandal.

The FX series provides Jones, once a late-night punching bag, with a long-overdue reconsider­ation. Ashford portrays her as an unsophisti­cated but justifiabl­y aggrieved young woman treated cynically by both sides in a ruthless partisan battle. Her performanc­e is inflected with humor as well as compassion, making us laugh at the absurdity of Jones’ circumstan­ces without making her the butt of the joke.

“She was in over head and pushed into a world she didn’t understand,” says Ashford. “There’s a real childlike quality to Paula. And that was always something that was easy for me to access because I am a peopleplea­ser in life. I was raised to make people happy and say yes.”

Ashford is speaking from her dressing room at “B Positive,” the CBS sitcom in which she plays another well-meaning woman who finds herself out of her depth, in this case for laughs: Her character, Gina, donates a kidney to a high school acquaintan­ce and has to get sober to do so.

Though “Impeachmen­t” and “B Positive” are strikingly different in tone and format, both projects play to Ashford’s ability to be funny and vulnerable in the same breath.

“In our greatest dramas, there’s always a beat of relief, and that’s what makes them great. You always laugh harder because you need to let out the pressure,” she says. “Then when you’re playing comedy, if it’s not grounded — if it’s not organic at its base — then it’s not gonna be funny.”

Raised in the suburbs of Denver, Ashford gravitated to age-inappropri­ate pop culture early on, watching “Cheers” and doing impression­s of Linda Richman, the Mike Myers character from “Saturday Night Live,” that were often met with blank stares from her peers. “I didn’t understand why my friends didn’t think I was funny,” she says.

Ashford graduated high school early, moved to New York and made her Broadway debut at 21 in “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” In 2013, she earned her first Tony nomination as a plucky factory worker in “Kinky Boots,” opposite Billy Porter, and played an amusingly candid sex worker in Showtime’s drama “Masters of Sex.”

“B Positive” leans heavily on

Ashford’s deft skills as a physical comedian — in the pilot she drunkenly falls out a window — and her knack for playing lovable eccentrics.

Ashford’s performanc­e as Jones was similarly rooted in physical details. She wore a prosthetic nose, braces and an array of wigs, spending about three hours in the makeup chair each morning. The production tracked down and purchased the exact ensemble Jones wore to the Conservati­ve Political Action Conference in 1994.

“It was so important to the narrative because her physical appearance was pushed and changed by the people around her,” says Ashford, who worked with dialect coach Amy Jo Jackson to master Jones’ girlish timbre and Arkansas drawl.

Ashford is “the only person I imagined in the role and the only person who could play it,” showrunner Sarah Burgess writes in an email. “I felt I could go as far as I wanted in the writing, and she would carry it forward with humanity.”

Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, claimed that Clinton, while governor, had summoned her to a Little Rock hotel room in 1991, exposed his penis to her and pressured her for oral sex. The small-town girl from Arkansas suddenly found herself on the cover of Newsweek.

Like Monica Lewinsky,

Linda Tripp and other women enmeshed in the scandal, Jones became an object of misogynist­ic ridicule. On “The Tonight Show,” she was caricature­d mercilessl­y as a big-haired, trailer park floozy with a Muppet-like fake nose.

“Paula’s lack of control over her case — and the political and personal motivation­s of those around her — allowed many to dismiss her claim unfairly,” Burgess says. “I wanted to plainly depict the ways in which Paula never had a chance to be taken seriously, to challenge our audience to have the same reaction to her and interrogat­e that reaction in an era when we constantly reassure ourselves we have changed.”

Because many of the real-life situations portrayed in “Impeachmen­t” border on farce, Burgess needed someone who could find the emotional truth beneath the tabloid spectacle.

“The tone of the show is so absurd and the kaleidosco­pe of characters around Paula so bizarre at times that I feel I handed Annaleigh scripts that risk feeling like a Jenna Maroney vehicle,” says Burgess, referring to the narcissist­ic actor played by Jane Krakowski in “30 Rock.” “She plays the comedy in Paula’s scenes without losing the almost unbearable vulnerabil­ity of Paula moment-to-moment.”

Jones recently spoke out against “Impeachmen­t,” calling it inaccurate and cartoonish, and slammed its creators for not consulting her. Ashford is not surprised by Jones’ negative reaction to the series.

“It probably feels so uncomforta­ble to have your story told while you’re still around to tell it yourself,” she says, “but I hope that she can see how much love we really gave to her.”

 ?? RODIN ECKENROTH/GETTY ?? Annaleigh Ashford attends the Sept. 1 premiere of FX’s “Impeachmen­t: American Crime Story” in California.
RODIN ECKENROTH/GETTY Annaleigh Ashford attends the Sept. 1 premiere of FX’s “Impeachmen­t: American Crime Story” in California.

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