It’s a sunny Friday morning in Los Angeles, and Aya Cash is hunched in the front seat of her parked car, putting on makeup: a little lipstick, a little eyeliner, a little something on her cheeks to highlight her signature bright red hair. She’s on the phone, too, a seasoned multitasker. She hops out of the car and walks a few blocks to an anonymous mid-rise building where she pauses, breathes deeply, gets set to brush past dozens of other similarly made-up women before finally strutting her stuff for whatever movie or tv show she’s up for this week.
Here we are together, in that brief pause out front — call it a half sigh, a moment of clarity, of deep connectedness with one’s place in the world — when she confides what isn’t, maybe, all that surprising: “I don’t like auditioning,” she says. “I cry a lot. Then I try to suck it up and stop being such a big baby because I live a very privileged life, and everything’s fine.” And for Aya Cash, everything really is fine. You might even be wondering why she has to keep auditioning at all, given the success she’s had over the last few years. She is the kind of person you recognize, the kind of person whose work — and, again, whose bright red hair — is deeply memorable. She steals scenes in supporting roles, like as Leonardo DiCaprio’s assistant in The Wolf of Wall Street or as an Occupy Wall Street organizer in The Newsroom; and she is the definitive breakout star of the non-Wall Street-related You’re the Worst, FXX’s caustic, sometimes-depraved, always brilliant and, for some people, egregiously underrated anti-romantic sitcom.
“I don’t like auditioning. I cry a lot. Then I try to suck it up and stop being such a baby.”
You’re the Worst is not like other shows. For one thing, its two leads — Cash as the publicist Gretchen and Chris Geere as the struggling writer Jimmy — are written as morally questionable, emotionally destructive, and generally unlikeable. The series starts with them hooking up drunkenly — very, very drunkenly — after Jimmy’s ex-fiance’s wedding, and gets ever darker from there. It would be a hard show to watch if not for the irrepressible charm of its two stars. Cash is especially entrancing; her Gretchen is at once cynical and sincere, hardened and soft — a theme she plays for unexpected tears in the second season, during which we see her struggling with bipolar disorder. (The tears are unexpected only because Cash is otherwise so funny and the show otherwise so full of levity.) In You’re the Worst, Cash is put through the debauchery ringer, literally going shot-for- shot with her male counterpart, portraying a character who is just as aimless and occasionally degenerate as Jimmy — and often stronger and more believable. It’s in this way that You’re the Worst really differentiates itself from other cable comedies. It’s not quite feminism, exactly, but it’s also not entirely familiar for television audiences. “There’s parity in their relationship and in their behaviours, which is wonderful,” says Cash. “Gretchen has a lot of confidence, and yet she’s completely broken. I think that’s more real, not just to women. It’s the way everyone is; it’s nice to play a woman who’s allowed to be many, many things, and to not have it even commented on.”
Which brings us back to this audition. Cash isn’t an ordinary actor, either; she aspires to do work that’s interesting, not exploitative. “The audition I’m going for today is one of the first breakdowns I’ve ever seen that doesn’t have any description of how my character looks,” she says. “So that tells you things probably haven’t changed much. Because I still go on auditions a lot, and to see one that doesn’t say “beautiful,” “sexy,” you know, “gorgeous,” “pretty,” is actually incredibly unusual in our business.” But auditioning is just the ugly side of a life in show business, a crucial part of the Faustian bargain that results, one hopes, in money and fame and your face on TV. So Cash stops to collect herself in front of the audition building, knowing that despite the impending awkwardness and potential discomfort, it’s exactly where she’s always wanted to be. “I found my 11-year-old yearbook and I was like, ‘I’m going to be an actor or a singer!’” she says. “But so were 90 per cent of the people in that yearbook, because that’s a thing kids want to do. Which is part of what I like about acting. It is actually play forever. It’s just the in-between moments that can be brutal on the ego.”
That sense of play was always important. Her mother, Kim Addonizio, is a poet and novelist, and her father, Eugene Cash, is a Buddhist teacher; Cash was raised in the arts and taught to be thoughtful, expressive, playful. She thought she might be a writer but dismissed it (“I wasn’t good enough,” she says), instead pursuing a dream that allowed her to travel, meet new people, and explore exciting creative territory. She studied acting in high school, and some more in college, and eventually graduated out into the glamorous world of regional theatre — successful stints at places like the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota; the Roanoke, Virginia Mill Mountain Theatre Company; and the Denver Center. That was the Big Time. “My idols, for many years, have not been people whose names you’d necessarily go, “Oh, that person!’” she says. “They were my teachers or regional theatre actors like Helen Carey, who gave performances that blew my mind. Or Carrie Preston, who back when I saw her was a regional theatre actress. Those are the people who inspired me first.” From regional theatre, it was a short hop to Broadway, then to Law & Order (and, you know, whatever else was filming in New York, where she still lives), then eventually to her own show.
And though Cash has found a nice home in situation comedy — the third season of You’re the Worst premieres this month — she still has a few show business dreams bigger than regional theatre. Sort of. She’d love to work with some of her theatre idols: playwrights like Bruce Norris, Lucy Thurber, and Annie Baker. Only she’d love to have them write plays specifically for her — plays for which she wouldn’t have to audition.
She’s off the phone now. With another breath, she walks into the building and hopes for the best.