Annaleigh Ashford’s Dog’s Life as Broadway’s Sylvia

Annaleigh Ashford’s Dog’s Life as Broadway’s Sylvia

Annaleigh Ashford

Annaleigh Ashford makes the transition from supporting player in You Can’t Take It With You, the show that won her her 2015 Tony Award, to lead actress in A.R. Gurney’s comedy Sylvia, which begins previews Oct. 2 for an Oct. 27 opening night at the Cort Theatre. Sylvia is a role that Ashford can definitely sink her canine—pun intended—teeth into because Sylvia is a dog. A stray dog who puts the cat among the pigeons (so to speak) when she is taken in by a middle-aged, upper-middle-class married Manhattan couple. We had to know what that journey’s been like for the versatile actress.

Q: You’re only 30, but what an incredibly varied résumé you have. Betty DiMello, the prostitute in Showtime’s Masters of Sex, would be enough to put you in the hall of fame. But look at your Broadway range: Glinda in Wicked, Margot in Legally Blonde, Lauren in Kinky Boots, Essie in You Can’t Take It With You. Where does Sylvia take you as an actress?

A: The wonderful thing that all these women have in common is their strength and determination to attain whatever goal they are trying to achieve. Sylvia is also a strong woman … dog, determined to attain her goal of pleasing her owner [played by Matthew Broderick]. As an actress, I am both excited and terrified to explore the physicality of creating a dog in a human’s body. It is not often in your career that you are asked to play an animal, so I welcome the creative challenge.

Q: What makes Sylvia tick (perhaps an unfortunate choice of words)?

A: I have been reading a myriad of books about dog psychology in my preparation for the play. I recently read that dogs are the only creatures in this world that love others more than themselves. This concept is the key to my character. Sylvia’s objective in the play is to please and love her owner. The obstacles to loving her owner are both created from her environment and her impulses as an animal. Sometimes she can’t help it, and she just has to pee on the floor no matter how much she loves her owner. I get that! Sometimes I really have to pee, too.

Q: Has playing an animal helped you understand more about what it means to be a human?

A: Learning more about dogs and the way they think helps you understand how much power there is in your behavior as a human. We are so unaware of our body language and the energy that we create for those around us by our physical actions. Dogs love us so unconditionally that it reminds us to love each other unconditionally.

Q: You’re playing a lovable pooch, but do you love animals? Are you a dog owner?

A: I have always loved animals and have had special bonds with dogs. My very first Broadway show, Legally Blonde the Musical, required me to work with a dog named Chico, who had been rescued by the brilliant dog trainer Bill Berloni. During my time with Bill and Chico, I learned so much about how gratifying and empowering our love towards animals can be for them and for us. My own dog, Gracie, is a Toy Australian Shepherd with two blue eyes and a blue marle coat. She looks like a hyena and acts like a big puppy. We have loved each other from the first moment we met.

Q: How does Gracie affect your life?

A: Gracie makes me laugh every day and snuggles with me when I’m sad. I just want to give her as good a life as she is giving me.

Q: It sounds like she’s the perfect scene partner.

A: We’ve been taking obedience, agility and sheepherding classes together. Both of us have learned so much about behaving better. I have become so knowledgeable in my research that there may be a future for me in dog training. Gracie has gone to sleep many nights with a belly full of treats for her great behavior. This has been the most fun research I have ever done for anything.

Q: So, aspects of Gracie may seep into Sylvia?

A: One of the most brilliant elements of Gurney’s writing in Sylvia is that he has created a dog that is full of love and imperfection and represents every dog. I’m sure that my own dog’s behavior is going to impact the physicality of Sylvia because she is my greatest and closest canine companion. She is my child with a fur coat on.

Sylvia, Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., 212.239.6200, www.sylviabroadway.com