Annaleigh Ashford stands out in two primetime projects this fall, although it’s fair to say viewers won’t be seeing double.
Ashford returns as blonde, devil-may-care Gina Dabrowski in the second season of CBS' “B Positive” (Thursday, 9:30 EDT/PDT), this time in the lead role, in a major makeover of the sitcom. But she goes much darker, in mood and hairstyle, to play real-life Bill Clinton accuser Paula Jones in FX drama “Impeachment: American Crime Story” (Tuesdays, 10 EDT/PDT).
Ashford ("Masters of Sex," "Bad Education"), a celebrated Broadway performer who won a Tony in 2015 for "You Can't Take It With You," shapeshifted constantly last year, filming "Impeachment" episodes during breaks from "B Positive."
"I was playing both women at the same time. I put on my Paula shoes when it was time to play Paula and put on my Gina shoes when it was time to play Gina and relied on all the work I walked in with to guide my way," she says.
In Season 2, Ashford's Gina becomes the main focus of the Chuck Lorre sitcom as it pivots after balancing its first season between her caring but careless character – a bus driver for a seniors' home who becomes a kidney donor – and the uptight recipient, high school classmate Drew Dunbar (Thomas Middleditch). The season ended as the temperamental odd couple went into surgery.
After resolving medical matters early this season – they're OK – the show shifts gears when Gina inherits a fortune from a resident of the Connecticut retirement home where she works. She ends up buying the place, Valley Hills, which is populated by residents played by a who's who of veteran stars: Jim Beaver, Hector Elizondo, Priscilla Lopez, Jane Seymour, Ben Vereen and Linda Lavin, who's now a series regular. Middleditch's Drew remains, but the transplant story that launched the show is in the rearview mirror after the first couple of episodes. (Last March, as "B Positive" neared the end of its first season, Middleditch's personal behavior drew attention when a woman accused him of groping her at a club in 2019.)
Ashford, 36, sees plenty of future pratfalls for inexperienced Gina. "I think there's still a 'Lucy' quality about Gina in which she is probably going to mess things up."
To complicate matters, Drew, who will provide therapy to some of Valley Hills residents, thinks he's in love with Gina, a feeling some real-life transplant recipients have experienced.
The transplant plotline had a limited shelf life, says Lorre, who also reconfigured "Two and a Half Men" and "Mom" midstream – likening the tactic to "fixing a helicopter while flying." His experience exploring issues of aging on Netflix's "The Kominsky Method" inspired him to shift the focus to the assisted-living facility. (Creator Marco Pennette, whose kidney transplant inspired "B Positive," has left the show.)
"The heart of Season 1 was a character who finds out the greatest happiness she’s had in life was when she did something selflessly for another human being," Lorre says. Upon her inheritance, "she quickly comes to understand that buying things doesn’t come close to the joy and satisfaction she had by giving. She decides to give to the people she cares about in this assisted-living facility by buying it and making it a great place for them."
In "Impeachment," Ashford faced a wholly different challenge, depicting a real-life figure whose accusations against a sitting president helped prompt an impeachment. Beyond the physical transformation, helped by four dark wigs and a prosthetic nose, she portrays Jones' vulnerability wading into a pool of legal and political sharks after she sues President Bill Clinton, claiming sexual harassment.
"I hope that we give the audience a chance to have a great sense of empathy for Paula Jones," says Ashford. (Jones told "Inside Edition" that most of her depiction was "inaccurate. It was almost kind of cartoonish-y.")
Lorre, a fan of Ashford's Broadway performances, isn't surprised she can portray such different characters and is confident she can handle the sitcom's shift toward Gina. "She has the range to do anything," he says. "She's able to command the theater in the most remarkable way."
Ashford has a sparkling Broadway résumé that includes "Wicked," "Sunday in the Park with George" and a Tony-nominated performance in "Kinky Boots." Her small-screen breakout role came in the Showtime drama "Masters of Sex" (2013-16), and she showed off her musical skills in NBC's "Smash" and Fox's 2016 adaptation of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
Ashford, who's married to actor Joe Tapper and the mother of 5-year-old son Jack, has a built-in "empathy and compassion" that infuses her acting, says Lorre, and will serve her well as Gina deals with residents facing "normally unthinkable" subjects for comedy, including terminal illness and dementia. (Lorre also found ways to tightrope difficult subjects in "Kominsky" and "Mom.")
To make use of Ashford's song-and-dance skills, she sings the theme song, "The More You Give," co-written by Keb' Mo' and Lorre, in new Broadway-style opening credits in the third episode, when the big story transition occurs.
"The opening credits are going to be a delicious, old-timey Hollywood musical number, just super fun and joyful," says Ashford, who proved a trouper joining the renowned Aquadettes, a team of senior synchronized swimmers, in the pool.
Ashford already has a long-established musical bond with her co-stars. Besides her connection to Vereen (both appeared in "Rocky Horror"), she remembers singing Lopez's "Chorus Line" gem, "What I Did For Love," and Lavin's "Gypsy" number, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," as a tuxedoed, tap-dancing child on the "nursing home circuit" in her hometown of Denver.
“I did jokes, impressions and I would sing 10 to 15 songs, which was a very unusual thing for a 9-year-old to do, but I loved it,” says Ashford, connecting the "B Positive" retirement home reworking to her youth. “It was not only an act of community service, but it fed my soul and it fed these beautiful people in the nursing homes' souls.”
That’s sweet by itself, but there’s a kicker worthy of a Lorre sitcom.
“I had quite a loud voice when I was a little girl. I was really belt-y,” she says. “I would start with ‘Tomorrow’ and just see everybody turning down their hearing aids.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Annaleigh Ashford: Broadway star's TV turn 'B Positive,' 'Impeachment'