If you’ve watched TV or movies with any regularity over the past 20 years, you’ve probably seen Ashlie Atkinson. If you’ve gone to bars with any regularity in Central or South Brooklyn over the past 20 years, you’ve probably seen Ashlie Atkinson. She may have even poured you a drink.
A character actor with an IMDB page about a mile long, Atkinson just wrapped the second season of “The Gilded Age,” the HBO, er, Max show that chronicles the lives, loves and pettiness of ultra rich high society New York at the end of the 19th century. Atkinson plays the party-throwing Mrs. Fish, based on the real-life socialite Mamie Fish, wife of railroad man Stuyvesant Fish.
If you haven’t seen Atkinson on “The Gilded Age,” you may have caught her on “And Just Like That,” the “Sex and the City” reboot. Or “American Horror Story.” Or “Mr. Robot.” Or “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.” Or Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” or Spike Lee’s “Inside Job.” And so on.
This week for the last new episode of “Brooklyn Magazine : The Podcast” episode of the 2023, I had the pleasure of talking to Atkinson, who, yes, has poured me a drink. Despite the steady work, she still picks up bartending shifts around the borough. Follow her on Instagram to find out when her next shifts are. And follow along with me as we talk about her career, “The Gilded Age” and the real life Mamie Fish, playing horrible people, becoming something of a gay icon, body types, Brooklyn bars, growing up in Arkansas, women in the film business and more.
“There is something to the idea that there’s a certain amount of invisibility that can be foisted upon you as a middle-aged woman in this culture,” she says. “A lot of my time as a performer has been resisting the pull to be invisible.”
The following is a transcript of our conversation, which airs as an episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” edited for clarity. Listen in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
This is a rare Brooklyn Magazine After Dark™️ podcast. This is the latest I’ve ever recorded a podcast. It’s 9 p.m. We’ve each got our drinks, right? Cheers.
Cheers. It’s my pleasure, and it really does feel like, I can’t say “the days of the pandemic,” because we’re still in a pandemic. The days of the observed pandemic.
Yes, the locked down pandemic. We’re talking, this episode will come out on Monday, the day after “The Gilded Age” finale, which I have not seen, there’s no screener, and you have told me you’re not going to tell me anything.
Oh, it’s killing me.
There are no spoilers in this episode, so if whoever’s listening hasn’t finished the season, we’re not going to give anything away.
You’re fine, but let me tell you, buckle up, bucko, because it is a fun, fun episode. So much happens, it’s incredible how much the writers have managed to cram into eight episodes.
There’s so many storylines that are happening parallel and intertwining, I guess. It’s been really fun to watch. I want to say also, before we really get into it, we have had a drink before, because you are, I don’t know if you still bartend there, but you would bartend and at least just hang out at Mama Tried.
Yes, absolutely. I pick up shifts there every now and again. And I host karaoke there sometimes. Isn’t that a great bar, man?
It’s amazing to me that you do still pick up shifts. You’re 20 years into a career thereabouts, give or take. You look great for 25.
[Laughs.] I was the Gerber baby.
You’re still picking up shifts. You’re just keeping it real or is “The Gilded Age” not as gilded as all that?
Or am I just historically very bad at money management? It’s maybe a mix of all three. You have to remember that I’m not a series regular on “The Gilded Age.” It’s a great deal, but it’s also a deal that allows me a lot of flexibility, and sometimes that flexibility is so that I can go do things. Like I did the first of a fundraising project for Little Rock, Arkansas. The 24 Hour Plays Little Rock, which is licensed from the 24 Hour Plays New York, which I’ve been part of since 2004.
You’re from Little Rock originally. I’m from Little Rock and we had a terrible tornado come through in the spring. There was still a lot of damage, a lot of displaced folks, and we were really trying to get people back in their houses and get the blue tarps off the roofs, or get people re-homed when we could. That’s going to be a yearly thing, and so I really like that. I really like being able to have the flexibility to go and come back. It’s wonderful. Also, Brian, to be completely honest, I don’t think I’m alone in this among actors. Maybe I’m alone in how I cope with it by picking up bartending shifts, but I just really feel like I’m going to get caught any minute now and somebody’s going to be like, “You’re not real.”
Oh, yeah. I mean, I think about this Reductress headline all the time that said, “Are you even good enough for imposter syndrome?” And it’s really how I feel constantly because to have imposter syndrome, I would have to not be an imposter. I think I just feel so lucky — I’m cringing inwardly just talking about it — but I never really thought I would be able to make a living at this, and so the fact that I was able to make a living at this makes me deeply distrustful that it will last. And so, I always feel like I need to keep my hand in because the world needs bartenders.
I have a friend who owns a bar, has owned several, and he said, “The world could be over, if there’s an empty room, you turn on a light and put a drink on the table, someone will walk in.” The world needs bartenders.
Totally. The same as telling a story. It might be honestly a little pathological at this point. I got sent home from the set of something else that I’m working on, another television show, yesterday because one of the other actors in our scene was sick and they couldn’t shoot around them. And I got picked up for work at 5:30, I was home by 9:30 after going through hair and makeup or whatever, and so I was like, “Well okay, I’m going to take a nap.” And then I got a call that a bartender at another bar I used to work at had the flu and they were like, “Do you want to pick up this shift tonight?”
You were bartending yesterday?
Yeah, yesterday. And I put it on Instagram as a Mamie Fish meet and greet.
Well, let’s talk about Mrs. Fish. The show is campy, it’s fun, but she was a real person. Without giving anything away, are you in the finale of the season?
Yes. Mamie’s just there to enjoy the drama, always, always.
Well, she was a real person and she was a socialite who called herself a “fun-maker.” And she threw these crazy parties and so your job is essentially to play someone who throws parties, which is not a bad gig.
It’s really not a bad gig. As soon as I read about her, the first book I read about The Gilded Age that mentioned Mamie, the first page she was mentioned on, the writer, which was of the time period, that was looking back at The Gilded Age from the early perspective of the 1920s or something. They said that no one person was more responsible for the downfall of culture at the time than Mamie Fish. And I was like, “Hot damn, we got ourselves a party. Let’s do this thing.”
I was just reading about her online. She died in 1915, so that would have been a couple years after she passed. But my favorite story that has popped up on a couple websites, probably they just all took it from the same Wikipedia article, she threw a part in honor of Prince Del Drago of Corsica, and told people to come in costume and honor the prince. And when people showed up, it turned out to be a well-dressed monkey that she was throwing a party for.
It’s a great story, but it was also a hotly contested thing that happened because the monkey dinner and the dog party were the two things I think majorly that led to people saying things like, “Mamie Fish is responsible for the downfall of society.” The papers lost their minds. There were all these quotes in New York papers saying that if Mamie Fish becomes the leader of The 400, we will have nothing but monkey dinners and at that time, there was a vacuum in the leadership.
The 400 is the high society organized by Mrs. Astor, John Jacob Astor’s wife.
Yeah, Caroline Astor decided that there were only 400 people worth knowing which I’m sure it’s a complete coincidence that that was exactly the number of people that she could fit in her ballroom at her house at the time, go figure. She had retreated from society to a degree, stepping back, and there was a vacuum at the top which ended up being occupied by Mamie Fish and Alva Vanderbilt and Tessie Oelrichs, so there was a little triumvirate that stepped up to replace her. But yeah, people were like, “Absolutely not Mamie. It’s monkey dinners.” And she says that that was not her dinner but she knew about it and the monkey did sit between her and her buddy Harry Lair. Harry Lehr was this man who we know about for lots of reasons, one of which is because his wife in name only wrote a whole book about the time, Elizabeth Drexel Lehr. And she’s very clear that Harry came to her on their wedding night and was like, “I will never touch you.”
Most likely gay?
Yeah, he loved dressing up in drag, not that that makes you gay, but it was something that he loved to do and that he and Mamie… I figure, okay, this is Brooklyn Magazine, I can talk about this. You know “High Maintenance?”
Sure. Great show. Fantastic show.
It’s a great show, and so there are those asshole characters, the two that go around bumming smokes and being shitheads, including my friend Max Jenkins, who then has that great turn later where he discovers himself and goes on a spiritual journey and is not an asshole anymore.
Yeah, he realizes he’s an asshole. And he’s a great Instagram follow too, Max Jenkins.
Max is a delightful human being. I have not gotten to spend as much time with him as I wish I had, but he’s wonderful. Anyway, I feel like Harry Lehr and Mamie Fish were the 1883 version of the assholes, just going around and everything and everyone is just fodder for their own entertainment and nothing has too high of a stake and they’re forever just starting shit with everyone, historically, to the point where there’s a great story. There was a guy named Mr. Van Alen, not to be confused with Mr. Van Halen. He had a big party and he invited Mamie Fish’s husband who never went anywhere.
Stuyvesant Fish and Mamie were very much in love but he was not a party guy. He would eat corned beef sandwiches and hang out in the kitchen while she entertained. And then invited Harry’s wife, who I mentioned, Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, but not Harry to this big party, and Mamie and Harry got very upset about it and Mamie confronted Mr. Van Alen and he said, “Well, I’m having performers do a show and you and Harry will be too loud and you’ll be disruptive and you’ll ruin the show.” To which Mamie was like, “Well, you can do whatever you want, but if you don’t invite us, Harry and I are going to tell everyone that your cook has smallpox and then no one will come to your party.”
That’s so bitchy, it’s great.
She’s so petty. It’s fascinating to me that she’s both so petty and you also get the sense she wants to burn it all down.
Do you feel like you get to bring that to the show? You definitely have a twinkle in your eye whenever you’re in the scene.
Oh, it’s real fun. I’ve really gotten into the scenes where I don’t talk very much. It’s so fun to just sit there and watch two other people go at it, because also, the Mamie Fishness of it all aside, as Ashlie Atkinson, I am in these rooms with a caliber of actor that is absolutely wild. To watch Donna Murphy and Carrie Coon square up on each other, I’m just that GIF of Michael Jackson eating popcorn. It’s a masterclass. It’s the most entertaining thing you could ever ask for. It’s not difficult to sit there and look interested and titillated — because Mamie’s a little titillated by the proceedings I think — because there’s always this heightened feeling around it for her.
Has it been re-upped for season three?
I really hope that happens. I know that our sets are still up, but there has not been an order, so I don’t know. They also held this season for almost a year. It was ready to go by February of last year or something like that, is when we stopped shooting, I want to say.
I do feel like, and it’s totally anecdotal, but I watched the first season and I feel like it has found its fandom in the second season, so maybe it’ll pay it off.
I think so too and I think that’s pretty common with shows that are this big and have that much historical world building to do. You build the relationships and now that season two is airing, you can go back to season one and be like, “Ah, they planted that seed in episode three of season one, but we didn’t get back around to it,” and that’s when I think re-watches become pleasurable.
And the costumes, do you love it, wearing those outfits? Is it a hassle?
I do love it. I love it even as I’m having a panic attack. I definitely had, and I’m not overstating, it was a minor short-lived, thankfully, full-on panic attack one day, season two. It’s like a muscle being in those things. You learn how to reroute your breathing—
Because you’re wearing corsets and everything?
In the corsets and also in the bustles, you learn how to manage bathroom trips and how you’re going to do all that, your water intake. We get out of them every lunch and then get laced back in, so you take off everything and have half hour, 45 minutes to decompress and get your blood flowing again, and then you’re back in them. My first or second day back of season two, I’m wearing this ballet pink number. It’s at the party where Winterton and Bertha face off, finally. I could not get it together, in terms of just waiting. The waits are so long in the hurry-up and wait game. I just had a moment where I just felt like I couldn’t breathe. And Kelley Curran was there who, despite playing a delectable villain, is one of the kindest human beings known to man, and she caught my eye and she just started breathing with me and she talked me down a little bit off of it.
And I think a lot of us have those moments where all of a sudden you’re like, “This is crazy, my organs are places they shouldn’t be. I need to do this.” But you do get used to it. I mean, it really helps with the acting too. You don’t have to act nearly as hard. I was very worried about walking in a manner that was appropriately patrician.
You have no choice. You’re so stiffened up.
It is funny though because I’ve never played someone this high in socioeconomic status before, and it did take a little work to do it, but it’s really fun. And that accent, once you get into talking with that accent, it’s impossible to get out of. I come home and my friends and my husband are just like, “Could you knock that off please?” And I’m like [in a patrician accent] “What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Well, you’ve been busy across the board as well. I mean, you are in the recent, was it both seasons? You were in the recent season of “And Just Like That,” the “Sex and the City” reboot. You’re Sarah Jessica Parker’s book editor. Another show with no shortness of camp to it. Oh my God, it’s so fun. And I’m really grateful that I got to come back for season two because I was like, “Well, the book’s going to be done, I guess me job is done.” I’m going to assume it was a combination of my friends in the cast and my friend Samantha Irby, who is writing some of the episodes, but they were like, “audiobook.” Thanks gang, I really appreciate being back on.
It was a useful device too to get those characters to interact. I’m trying to remember what happened.
Oh, it’s great. Yeah, I’m there when she’s recording her audiobook and it was also really fun because I got to be in an episode with Sarah Jessica and Rachel Dratch at the same time.
Oh, that’s right, because they were writing partners early. She is so funny.
Yes, and then she’s working for Widow Con, which you’re not supposed to call it. That episode was directed by Cynthia Nixon who in addition to being my friend, directed me in a play in 2016 and we worked together in 2011 and 2008.
And she’s in “The Gilded Age” too.
Yeah, I know. I’m so lucky to be on both the Cynthia Nixon shows right now.
Imagine if she had won the governor’s race; it would be a very different cast. She’s a real smart lady. I just really like her.
She’s clearly been working as well. Something that came across my screen recently which I thought was very funny — it’s maybe no surprise given “And Just Like That” and “Gilded Age” — was you’ve become something of a gay icon. You were mentioned recently in a tweet or a hilarious Grindr conversation where someone put out, “I’m getting a group of guys together for some fish play. Interested?” And it turns out “fish play” has to do with watching you.
Yes, performing a very specific act every time I come on screen. Barring completion. Yeah, it’s really exciting. I knew there was a reason I was still on Twitter. There have been a trio of conversations that have been really exciting. I don’t know how explicit I can get in here.
You can be as explicit as you want.
Perfect. @RoseDommu wrote — I’m paraphrasing, but the critical phrase will be intact — “I just know that Mamie Fish is the OG Nancy Reagan throat G.O.A.T.” Ah. For those who don’t know, Nancy Reagan —
It was in a profile or a book or something.
Yeah, it was in a book that somebody had written that was all about how —
She was saying no to drugs, just the drugs.
Oh, I love it! This person said that Mamie Fish has Nancy Reagan throat G.O.A.T. vibes, which I really appreciate. The only way in which I would ever want Mamie Fish to be compared to Nancy Reagan, though unfortunately historically, there’s probably a couple more ways than that in which she and Nancy were alike. I’m not saying she’s not problematic, historical Mamie Fish. But there was that one and then there was the gooning whenever Mrs. Fish is on screen one, which was also very exciting. And then recently there was a list of whether characters on The Gilded Age know what gay people are, which I really enjoyed as well, that my friend Pete sent me and it said, “Mamie Fish, of course she does. She’s running the Studio 54 of 1883,” which made me really, really happy. I get really tickled about it. I really like that Mamie has somehow entered briefly the cultural conversation.
The internet zeitgeist.
Yeah, the two-and-a-half minutes of fame.
And these are different characters, the book editor and Ms. Fish, than you’ve historically played. You’ve played a lot of villains. You’re a villain in Mr. Robot, you’re very notably in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” just a very convincing garbage human.
That’s how I describe her.
Do you enjoy that or tapping into that, or is it a relief not to have to be a trash person?
It’s funny, I started working in, my first job was in January of 2004, and there have been these phases. 2004, 2005 were very much — and I’m not kidding, this was more than one character — “cute girl but she’s fat, can our protagonist date her?” which feels very dated now, but was very real. 2006 until 2010 was my civil employee era, like bank teller, police officer, public defender, that sort of thing.
Doing a lot of things that were a few scenes, small parts in big movies, big parts in small movies, I guess is what I would say. And then I went squarely into the best-friend-good-guy phase, and I would say that lasted right up until “BlacKkKlansman.” And “BlacKkKlansman” was absolutely the moment where Spike decided to show the weaponized white kindness of a character for the perniciousness that it can have. I was really pleased, honored actually, to get to do that. I had worked with Spike before. I really enjoyed his stuff. You’re saying these things and you know you don’t mean them, but you’re working with people that have had language like that weaponized against them before, but you can’t on camera apologize with your body for what your face is saying. You have to be in for a penny, in for a pound while the cameras are rolling.
Well, it’s called acting, and presumably if you’re with actors, they know it’s acting, and you’ve got Spike Lee’s stamp of approval. But I get it. Something feels unnatural.
Yes, and I mean, I had that moment. There was a moment when we were in scenes and there would be actors that we hadn’t met before that were wearing Klan hoods or whatever, and I’d just be like…
You made a face.
Yeah. It is a look of skepticism and quizzical of concern. I like being bad guys. Mr. Robot was super fun. Sam Esmail is a genius. Spike Lee is unparalleled. The quality of people that I’ve just been getting to work with has been —
Scorsese’s on that list too.
Yeah, Spielberg is on that list. It’s bonkers.
Did you learn anything from either of those, or did you learn something specific from Spike Lee, from Scorsese? What was the Spielberg role?
Spielberg was “Bridge of Spies.” I have a teensy role in that that was supposed to be bigger, and part of it is that one of the things I learned from Spielberg is you can’t let the idea of your movie get in the way of the movie that’s actually happening.
Oh, interesting. You have to trust the process.
Yeah, certain scenes took their own direction and I really felt like for all the careful work that you could tell that he had done in pre-production. There was a moment wherethere was a young girl who was one of the background actors. As we’re showing this terrible film, which by the way, Spielberg watched as a child about how to prepare if nuclear war happens — it’s the infamous turtle film. So he decided to make a bunch of little kids watch it as a way of processing his trauma, and I say that with so much love.
All these kids are watching this in this movie and Spielberg is showing what that was like back in the day and how terrifying that film was, and there was just this little girl sitting just so still and just tears just pouring down her cheeks, and he was like, “Okay, all right, can we bring a camera in? We got to run this again. She’s too perfect.” The scene shifts slightly and the focus of the scene shifts because he sees something undeniable. Part of his brilliance is that he’s not going to let that escape.
You can’t be too precious.
There’s the thing you set out to make and then there’s the thing you make, and in between there’s a whole lot of process.
Yeah, anyone who’s made anything probably has had that experience. I’m no Spielberg, but you start writing a story, article, whatever, you’re like, “Oh, this is taking me in a different direction. I have to pivot.”
I think that all the time about painters. You look at something, like I went and saw “Water Lilies” when I was on a tour, and it’s huge. And you go, “How do you know when you’re done with something like that?” When do you set down your brush and be like, “Okay, that’s exactly what I wanted”? Because we’re always under time constraints, and there’s always another eye on us. As a theater actor, you go, well, previews start and you work on it and you work on it in front of audiences and you keep working until the show is over and then you stop working on it because you’re not being paid anymore. And in film and TV, there’s always another eye telling you, “No, let’s go again. No, I need this,” because there’s assembly involved. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the sole arbiter in charge of when my work is done.
You mentioned, or I mentioned, or we both mentioned, that you grew up in Little Rock. What was young Ashlie like? I’ve been in a room with you, talking to you now, you have a presence.
Oh, thanks. I hope it’s not obnoxious, like “strong gas smell is your presence.”
Not currently. I read early on you wanted to be a journalist, you had a gig at the Arkansas Times?
Yeah, I sure did.
First of all, you dodged a bullet by not going into journalism. Not that acting is any safer, but what were you like?
I was pretty bossy. I was just as loud. I was actually even louder than I am now, I think. I was pretty militant about certain things, but completely naive about others. I was very concerned about things that I was right to be concerned about, like world hunger, war, big picture concepts, and I didn’t understand why everyone around me wasn’t doing more, because you have no power and a lot of energy.
And the conviction of your beliefs.
Yes. And what I realize now, which I think is a shame, is that there was a time when I feel like there were people in my life, a lot of people, not necessarily personally close to me, but just as a societal function, that told me that I wasn’t old enough to know what I was talking about — until the moment that they told me I was too old to be relevant. This idea that people in their teens and 20s haven’t experienced enough life to have conviction, and then there is something to the idea that there’s a certain amount of invisibility that can be foisted upon you as a middle-aged woman in this culture. And I think a lot of my time as a performer has been resisting the pull to be invisible. And also, exploring how that invisibility, especially in the bad guys that we’ve been talking about, how that invisibility benefits someone playing a bad guy. Motivates them, it helps them work under the cover of darkness right out in the open.
I meant to ask this earlier, after the “BlacKkKlansman” role, have you ever been recognized on the street? Sometimes people conflate the actor with the role that they’re playing. Have you ever gotten people been like, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
No, except for friends of mine have been disturbed. We were always able to talk it out and I’m really grateful that we’ve been able to talk it out. My friend Ray, I think half jokingly, barred the door at the bar he was working at after he had seen it. We had talked about it before I filmed it and he was asking me if there was a certain word I used and I was like, “Ray, that’s not even in the top five worst things that I say or do in that movie. But yes, a lot. I say it a lot.”
But yeah, not always friends of color. I saw that movie, when it came out, I watched it in Pittsburgh when I was filming a show called “One Dollar” that was on Paramount Plus with a lot of people that became really close friends of mine who are performers and directors. Craig Zobel, Allison Estrin, Sturgill Simpson, Josh Bitton, Chip Kreager.
I heard you gave Sturgill Simpson Covid. I’m interrupting a story which was an interruption of something else, sorry.
I mean, I feel like this is just how this is going to go. This is what Brooklyn Magazine After Dark™️ is all about. Drink up, buddy. I might have, truth be told. I had Covid for the first time before it was cool. I was one of the first, I believe, definitely 5,000, but possibly the first thousand people in New York City to have Covid. We were fully sick by March 8th of 2020, my husband and I.
Early adopter, yeah.
Unfortunately, that happened right on the heels of us going everywhere and doing all the things and it had culminated with, we had gone back to Pittsburgh because Sturgill was on a stadium tour.
Sturgill Simpson, country singer for people who don’t know him. Excellent stuff.
He’s pretty special. Love that guy. He was on a stadium tour and my husband Leon had never gotten to come and hang out in Pittsburgh. He had really wanted to, but his father was ill and then passed away during the time we were filming, so he was not able to come and chill with us. But we had taken some trips as a group after filming. We’ve stayed in good touch with each other. And so a few of us, my friend Josh Bitton and I, flew into Pittsburgh to see Sturgill’s show and Leon came with me. We were on the tour bus and I was really excited to see Sturgill and so I was giving him smooches all over his face like a proud mama and pinching his cheeks, making him sit in my lap, and probably smoked a joint or two or three, and we were all just white on ricing in that tour bus. And then two days later, I’m like, “Oh, I don’t feel good. I feel really terrible.” And then about five days after that, Sturgill got really, really ill.
You were talking about invisibility, and especially in middle-aged women. You’ve always been pretty open about your weight — you’ve mentioned it as well earlier on — and representation. You were in “Fat Pig” by Neil Labute, which must have been a huge break, his stuff is very deliberately challenging. But I wonder if you can talk about weight especially as a working actress and how much you still think about it, or don’t as much, or how that relationship has evolved?
I think about it more as a person than as an actor at this point. I hope everyone knows this, but fat people, like other groups that can be marginalized, are not monolithic. The way that I feel in my body is not representative of how anyone else feels in their body, despite their size. But I certainly, as a 46-year-old, am sometimes like, “Ooh, my back hurts.” And I don’t know if my back would hurt as much if I were smaller. I don’t know. A lot of it is me trying to stay physically active and present in a larger body. I feel in some ways, being an actor who has existed in a larger body for an entire career has insulated me from some of the slings and arrows of this industry. I certainly never felt like I had to run the beauty race.
I have friends that are also in larger bodied and they do feel like they have to do that, that they need to look beautiful on camera. They are beautiful. They are beautiful and I love that the industry, to a certain degree, has been forced to acknowledge that there are beautiful women who exist in larger bodies and create work, or allow them to create their own work in those roles. But I never felt like I was doing that thing. I think if I had lost weight, I would have felt like I needed to fix my nose and that I would have needed to fix my teeth and that I would have been worried about how old I am and that I would have been worried about how low my voice is.
It never ends. Yeah.
I feel, and I hope this doesn’t come back to bite me in the ass, like it’s going to be 10 years down the road, we’re going to be like, “Well, that quote aged poorly,” but see what I mean? This is why I bartend. I do think that I can see the next couple of decades of my life with excitement and I think there are a lot of incredibly talented actors, female actors, actresses, that are my age that are fearful about what their opportunities will be and whether they feel like there is a ticking clock on their relevance, and I never had to feel that way.
Well, that’s great, and you’ve worked consistently. Just looking at your credits, there are no huge gaps in your resume, I’ll say. I’ve read you booked your “Law & Order” first gig when you didn’t even have representation.
Yeah. That’s true.
You moved to New York 10 days before 9/11. What was that early time like? Because it feels like, I don’t know if that’s fair to say, but you’re hitting a stride, leveled up, whatever, now. You always hear about [actors’] struggles, couldn’t get a gig, but it feels like you were in it right away.
At the time when I went to The Neighborhood Playhouse, you couldn’t act while you were a student. There’s two years where I was a nanny to a great two-year-old, and I was a overnight waitress at a 24-hour vegan vegetarian diner called Veg City Diner on 14th Street and 6th Avenue.
It’s legendary, isn’t it? I’ve heard of that place. Have I heard of that place?
Yeah, it was owned by the Burritoville people. It was around for quite a while. Celebrities came in just because it was delicious vegan food. Q-Tip was in there, Alicia Silverstone was in there. Real cool people, but it was 24 hours, so I would work overnights on the weekends, and sometimes during the week, and go to class completely busted ass tired. For the first three years, even though I was working, I didn’t really make any money. Part of that was having to join three unions right off the bat.
No. And also, “Fat Pig” was an incredible launching pad and I got to go on The Today Show and the Jane Pauley Show and get interviewed by all these really cool people and the press opportunity was astonishing, and the work opportunity was astonishing. But it paid $355 a week.
Oh, was that it? Interesting.
My manager took 15 percent of that, and that was before taxes. Well, I say that was before taxes. I went in, I remember, to file in 2005, and realized that I had made $9,000 that year.
Period. And they were like, “Ha, ha, ha. Go home.” And I was like, “Well, I’m worried about how much I need to pay.” And they were like, “Girl, absolutely not. You’re clearly eating at art openings,” which is exactly what I was doing. “Go home.” There used to be a thing called openbar.com, do you remember that website?
Yes, I do. I do. That’s a throwback.
Yeah, that’s how you know people have been in the city and scraping by. We were all scraping by at the same time if you know openbar.com.
Do we know for a fact it doesn’t exist? It must not exist anymore.
I don’t think it exists anymore. I really hope there’s a handful of Gen Xers out there that just went, “Oh, man, openbar.com.” Because it’s where they would list the art openings and all of the events and they would tell you if there was going to be food and if there was going to be wine and if there was going to be drinks, and you could go and we would take Ziploc bags in our purses and we’d just shovel cheese and crackers and cookies into our purses and then drink a bunch and then leave.
I definitely hit the Chelsea gallery crawl open bar situation a number of times.
Oh, yeah. I mean, when I did “Inside Man,” which was what, 2006 maybe?
The other Spike movie, yeah, yeah.
The other Spike Lee movie that I’m on camera for. I’ve worked with him a couple times. I did some background voices on Miracle at St. Anna’s. He’s a very loyal man and he will make sure that you’re working and he will hire you over and over again.
Yeah, it’s like those directors that have their coterie of go-tos. Preston Sturges, Scorsese.
I’m proud to be a rehire for both Spike Lee and Craig Zobel who are two directors that I love and respect a great deal. In that first movie, the craft services guy would always bag up the bagels at the end of the day because they couldn’t reuse them, and so he would give them to me because I guess it was evident that I was a broke-ass 28-year-old-kid, and they would just give me the bagels and I would bring them home and we would freeze them so that we would always have bread to eat. Buy some butter and a jar of peanut butter or something and live on that for a while. It was never not worth it. Sometimes it sucked but luckily, I never had any major health issues. It always felt like it was going to pay off, and even if it didn’t, the fight for it seemed in some weird-ass way noble to me at that time.
I don’t think this is too hard of a sidebar, but it’s back when people used to be more ashamed to be rich, there was a time where it was like there was a real pride that was prevalent in being somebody who is working class or being an artist.
You don’t think that exists anymore?
There’s been a trajectory. This is me having some prosecco. Prosecco, too, which is hilarious thing to be drunk on and then railing against the haves.
I’m having a vodka soda, for the record. That’s the working class prosecco.
Oh, yeah. It’s La Marca, it’s like $13 a bottle. Let’s not think I’m too fancy. When I was coming up, and I don’t think this was particularly a healthy view either, but we were excessively concerned with people being sellouts, and it was the worst thing you could accuse someone of being.
And now the goal is to sell out.
Now it’s branding. You’re not selling out, you’re branding yourself. It’s sponsored posts, and I’m really dating myself, and I sound really old even to myself, except I do wonder about that pendulum swinging back because I think it’s got to at some point. I think it’s got to swing back the other way. I remember being in New York when Paris Hilton was dancing on a table with a T-shirt that said, “Stop being so poor.”
Since we’re talking about that time 20 years ago, and this is a cheesy Barbara Walters question, but what would you tell the Ashlie who just arrived in New York all those years ago?
I would say that the people who are encouraging you to be silent that you’ll encounter in all aspects of your life, you need to start examining whether it’s because you’re taking up space that they need to amplify, or whether they are in a level of power that doesn’t benefit from you addressing any of your concerns. And I mean that in an artistic sense, I mean that in a political sense. I think I was very cowed about having a perspective and I think I was told a lot that my perspective would not be interesting to anybody.
Speaking up for yourself and occupying your space.
Yes, I think I was very afraid to take up space, and I think that’s not an uncommon thing in women of my age and women and femme presenting people in general, being told that we don’t have anything interesting to say. And I wish that I had started to take up space sooner, and then I could seed it amplify things that are truly important.
Well, you got much more than 20 years left, so you can take up all the space you want. Do you do a lot of voice work? You have a great voice.
No, I don’t. I think it’s because I have a, it’s not a lateral lisp, I have a something. My S’s are weird. I tongue thrust. I’m just going to say everything that I think is wrong with my voice is why I don’t do voiceovers.
But weird voices are in.
Yeah, they are. I think people thrust into gender confusion when they hear me and they don’t see me, which I think is delightful.
You can play a 10-year-old boy.
Oh, I would love to. I would absolutely love to play a 10-year-old boy. I think there’s a certain level where people need to pin a gender on a voice, though I think that’s going the way of the dinosaur hopefully. But, no. I’ve done a couple audiobooks, but no actual commercial voiceover at all. It’s funny, for all the work that I’ve gotten to do theatrically in film and TV and theater, I am not a commercial kid. I’ve done two commercials my entire 18-year career. They’re just not going to use me to sell soap, and I’m fine with that.
You could sell …
Liquor and dildos. That’s what I would sell.