The last time we spoke with actor Ashlie Atkinson, it was March 2020 and she and her husband were recovering from COVID-19, making them some of the first New Yorkers to contract it. “Before it was cool,” the Little Rock native joked on the back patio of Four Quarter Bar when we met up a few days ago. Fortunately for Atkinson and the rest of us fans, the virus is far in her rearview mirror, meaning she’s been hard at work on the stage, screen and behind the scenes.
We chatted with Atkinson about her latest performances, why she’s spending a month in Central Arkansas this summer and what she’s learned after nearly two decades in the industry.
Your IMDB page is intimidatingly lengthy. What do we need to watch that you’ve acted in recently?
For the last few years, I’ve been in two seasons of “The Gilded Age” and “And Just Like That…” [The second season of “The Gilded Age” hasn’t started airing yet.]
“The Gilded Age” is an HBO series about the expansion of New York City in the 1880s and the way that there was an explosion of culture and wealth because nobody was getting taxed on anything. These robber barons were making a ton of money and so there was this tug of war between old money and new money in capitalist society. I play an absolutely nutty woman named Mamie Fish, who was a real person. I read in a book that the downfall of culture of that time, as we know it, is directly attributable to Mamie Fish.
She was actually not the richest of these women at all, but she would throw these parties that were lavish and expensive and absolutely ridiculous. For example, at one point, she told everyone to dress for royalty because Prince del Drago of Corsica was coming to dinner. And because, of course, no one had Google to look him up, they were just, like, okay. Turns out, it was a monkey that Mamie had dressed up in a royal prince outfit with medals. She put the monkey at the head of the table, made everyone talk to it and got it drunk on champagne. And then it climbed a chandelier and started throwing feces and light bulbs at the guests. Yeah, that sort of thing.
“And Just Like That…,” which is also on HBO, is a continuation of the “Sex and the City” series. It’s the same ladies minus Kim Cattrall who played Samantha, though she makes a small appearance in season two. I play Sarah Jessica Parker’s book editor. We have a really nice time together.
You’re participating in a screening of Spike Lee’s “BlackKklansman” (2018) in partnership with the Arkansas Cinema Society on Saturday, June 24 at the AMFA. Why’d you pick that film?
With conversations around things like critical race theory, the idea of trying to erase Black history in America because of white discomfort is a very important discussion. I play a hideous, garbage racist in this film. I did that because Spike Lee asked me and I trust that man implicitly. I’ve worked with him a couple of times before. But also, I was honored to be asked to play a role that directly addresses white supremacy.
What’d you learn from playing a heinous character like Connie Kendrickson?
I learned that I really want to be liked by everyone. I realized that me wanting the approval of the crew was something that was taking up time that should be devoted to telling this story. Because one of the things that I couldn’t do was apologize with my body for what my mouth was saying. It doesn’t work that way. That’s not actually respecting the truth of the situation. And when I say terrible words in that film, it’s not about how it affects me, because I know that I don’t mean them. But I’m on a set with actors and camera operators and boom operators who are people who maybe don’t know that I don’t mean those words. And maybe they’ve had those words said to them by people who did mean them. And I’m playing a character who did mean them. And so it has to become less about me personally.
You’re in Central Arkansas for a month. What projects are you working on while you’re in town?
Right now, I’m directing the ACTing Up summer show at Argenta Community Theater. ACTing Up is a children’s theater program, ages 8 to 18. And we’re doing “High School Musical 2 Jr.” with two casts, a main cast and an understudy cast that both get two performances. It’s my first time directing educational theater of that age. And I’ve also never done a musical before. It’s really fun to be there.
What does that kind of work mean to you?
I went to Summer Theatre Academy here at the Arkansas Arts Center [now the AMFA] and that’s what made me realize that I wanted to be an actor. That was age 10 through 14. I still have a lot of friends from that program who are still making art in different ways. And it was important to me when it was offered to try and come back and be a part of that. Not all of these kids are going to grow up and want to perform, but I hope at the very least they have a healthy respect for how it works and how much work it takes and the magical way that a group of people can come together and make something that’s so much bigger than the sum of all their individual skill levels.
You’re also here to produce the 24 Hour Plays at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. What’s that?
Since 2005, I’ve done a thing in New York called the 24 Hour Plays that’s been going on since 1995. The idea is six original short plays — written, rehearsed and performed within a 24-hour period. So we’re bringing it to Little Rock on Monday, July 31 on the main stage at the The Rep.
How does that work exactly?
So there’s a meet-and-greet at 6 or 7 p.m. The actors bring a prop and a costume piece that they won’t necessarily wear, but they throw it into a communal pile in order to inspire the playwrights and directors. And then they say a little bit about themselves so the playwrights know who they’re writing for. The actors leave and the playwrights and directors pick their cast. Then, the directors leave and the playwrights write at the Rep all night long. They turn in their scripts at 6:30 in the morning, we photocopy them and the actors show up at 8 a.m. And then we rehearse all the way up to that 7 p.m. curtain.
It’s really cool because it’s hard to have a collaborative art form that can respond quickly to what’s going on in the world. Theater in particular has to go through so many pipelines and revisions and the rehearsal process before anything comes onto an actual stage in front of an audience.
You’ve been acting professionally for nearly 20 years now. What are some takeaways from that impressive tenure?
The way I work has changed a lot. I’m realizing that there were people on sets when I was younger who, when something unsafe or unrealistic was being asked of me, stood up and said, “Absolutely not. She’s not doing that. And you can’t ask her to.” I had one actress who is very well known who said, “I will leave if you make her do that stunt. You don’t need it. Stop.” And now I’m realizing that after 20 years, I’m starting to step into that role. I’m no longer anywhere near the youngest person on set so I have to shift into a place where I’m providing support for my younger cohorts.
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