Broadway actress is leading a dog's life

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NEW YORK >> For her latest Broadway role, Tony Award winner Annaleigh Ashford took acting lessons from someone very close to her — her dog.

The actress' toy Australian shepherd Gracie was invaluable help as she prepared to play a pooch in A.R. Gurney's whimsical canine comedy "Sylvia."

Ashford plays the high-spirited title role, a part-Labrador, part-poodle that comes between a husband and his wife and threatens to destroy their marriage.

During rehearsals, Ashford noticed her own dog was acting bored and bought her a pig toy. Gracie soon brought it over to Ashford in her mouth but the dog was only teasing.

"She did this sassy thing with her head that was like, 'No, you can't have it! You're not going to have it,'" said Ashford. "I immediately wrote it down to try onstage."

Ashford, who is on Showtime's "Masters of Sex" as Betty DiMello, won a supporting actress Tony this summer as an overly eager ballet dancer in "You Can't Take It With You."

Tony Award-winning director Daniel Sullivan saw her in that show and she made an impression. "I don't ever remember laughing as hard in a theater in my life," he said.

Sullivan, who directs "Sylvia," compared her to Bill Irwin. "She is a great clown, aside from being a wonderful actor," he said. "She has that same kind of, 'Just throw it up there. Keep trying. Finding it and refining it.'"

Typical of Ashford, she threw herself into her new role, which had previously been played in New York in 1995 by Sarah Jessica Parker, who was dating Matthew Broderick at the time. Now Broderick is playing Ashford's master.

The role is tricky, since it can turn into camp quickly. In the play, Ashford starts out most doglike and gradually morphs into a 24-year-old woman. She chases a cat, scratches and sniffs, but wears street clothes.

"It's been the biggest challenge of my career, trying to make it specific but not literal," she said. "I don't get on all-fours at all just to help the audience get their brains ready to use their imagination."

Ashford's previous stage credits include the musical "Kinky Boots," playing a blue-collar love interest, and "Legally Blonde," where she portrayed a sorority sister who talked to a live Chihuahua. "Apparently I was foreshadowing later in my career," Ashford said, laughing.

One of her most far-reaching roles required only her voice: She played a troll in "Frozen," with two lines — "Kristoff, Kristoff, you're back!" and, singing, "Or the pear-shaped, square-shaped weirdness of his feet?"

Ashford had a busy day after she won her Tony. She left her apartment over a Thai restaurant in Brooklyn and set off to personally return all her borrowed items. She gave her dress back to designer Zac Posen and walked her jewels back to Fred Leighton. She even dropped off her Tony to be engraved.

The Denver-raised actress then found herself at an entrance to Central Park and decided to cross it to meet her husband, actor Joe Tapper, who was having an audition at Lincoln Center.

It was the same walk she did when she graduated from college and was working as a hostess at a cafe, so broke she couldn't afford a transit pass. The memory now made her cry.

"It was one of those magical New York moments that you're reminded that you can move here and literally have nothing and not get callbacks to anything and then get amazingly honored by this special award," she said. "It was kind of like one of those great days."

There have been great days since then, one of which was related to her new role. Ashford has immersed herself in all things dog, including taking obedience and sheepherding classes with Gracie.

She also read nine books about dog behavior like "Animals in Translation" by Temple Grandin and "The Other End of the Leash" by Patricia McConnell.

Recently, her husband complained that Gracie was being bad on their walks, putting her nose too close to the ground. Ashford soon joined them to see why.

"I corrected it in half a block," she said, proudly. "He's like, 'How'd you do that?' I was like, 'Well, now I know.'"


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