May 15th, 2018
In 2015, only two years after graduating from the University of Michigan, Ashley Park was on Broadway in the highly acclaimed Lincoln Center Theater production of The King and I in the role of Tuptim (she’d already made her Broadway debut as a replacement in Mamma Mia). After The King and I, she landed another Broadway show—Sunday in the Park with George—and, in quick succession after that, she did Hood at the Dallas Theater Center, KPOP at Ars Nova, and now Mean Girls on Broadway. Along the way, she’s been racking up a slew of award nominations and wins for her work as MwE, a pop star, in KPOP, and Gretchen, one of the mean girls in Mean Girls, including a recent Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical. One might say she is one to watch. Well, yes, no kidding, but being “one to watch” is also complicated and full of pressure and expectations. I recently spoke with Ashley about how she’s managing being in-demand, her approach to Gretchen in Mean Girls, ambition, and more.
I know you’re coming from another photoshoot and have been really busy with opening the show and doing press. How have you been managing to balance everything going on in your life right now?
I think really holding on to both the gratefulness and the joy of everything has been helping me be really positive. Every morning I wake up and I’m excited to do what I’m doing, so even if it’s a bunch of press stuff and going to a theatre for a long day, everything is really fine and I understand that. I’m really just trying to hold on to that. And just taking care of myself and making sure that I’m taking the work all very seriously but at the same time letting myself have fun and letting myself enjoy it.
Is that hard? It seems like in school they don’t really teach people about all the professional stuff that comes with being in a show, especially a show of this size.
In school, what you do learn is how to manage your time. There’s never anything busier than being at school when you wake up at 8am and have to go to classes. But what it doesn’t prepare you for is, in this big blockbuster kind of musical, there’s a lot of pressure coming from all sides and all different kinds of people. And from ourselves too—we want ourselves to be doing a good job every night and to be living up to all the expectations. I’ve always been super, super hard on myself, and so what I’ve been trying to be better at is giving myself kind of a break. Not a break in terms of relaxing into it or not doing my job, but letting myself go along for the ride a little bit rather than micromanaging everything.
You’ve worked really consistently in the last few years, and all of the shows seem like they have been different experiences. How have you found that this experience has been different, especially in terms of the offstage responsibilities, than the experience with KPOP or Sunday in the Park or King and I?
The last two Broadway shows I did were King and I and Sunday in the Park with George and they were both revivals. I was one of the youngest people in each cast. Now I’m in a cast of people who are my peers, which is super fun. So that’s been a totally different experience in that way. I’m so glad that this experience is coming after I have had a few years of experience under my belt, because now I know how to pace myself through all the offstage stuff, what to prioritize, how to take care of myself but also nurture the experience that’s going on around me and the people who are around me. So that has been really important, and I’m really glad that this experience is happening now with the people that it’s happening with, because I’m able to make it the best that it can be.
I hate the term role model, but we’ll go with it—do you feel like you’ve had role models for that?
I think I’ve learned from every single person that I’ve worked with, and that’s something that’s really important to me. People talk about creating a network, especially in the Broadway community, but I don’t think of networking as an industry term or a business term. I’ve been so fortunate in that every show that I’ve done so far in my professional career has really given me a family, and so now I have this community of people who I really care about and who also really care about me as a person and me as a working actress and as a collaborator. That makes everything more joyful.
Let’s go way back to when you first got the part of Gretchen.
I had a very different experience than most of the other people in the cast in terms of my audition process, and really everything was so fast that I don’t think I even had time to let it really sink in. I was in Dallas doing the new Robin Hood musical called Hood and I got the audition for this a few days before, and it required me flying back to New York. I would have had to take a red eye the night of my opening of Hood.
When I’ve gotten an audition for something in the past, I knew about it for so long, I went in with months of a process and I was so excited about it and I really put it out in the universe for myself. This one just came up, and I was like, “Can I tape it since I’m in Dallas? Because I don’t think I’m going to be able to give my best performance in front of Tina Fey and Casey Nicholaw at ten in the morning after a red eye flight after my opening night. So can I give them a tape first and see if they’re even interested?” I knew that the show was happening. Taylor [Louderman] is one of my best friends, so I knew that she was doing it. Erika [Henningsen] FaceTimed me when she got the part of Cady a month before. So I knew they were both in it and I was so excited for their journey, and in my mind everything was cast already and I never considered that this would be part of my path. So I [flew to New York and] went in that morning, it was like a seven minute long audition. I sang the song, I did some of the scenes, I talked with them a little bit, and then I left. Then a few hours later I got the call from my agent that I had gotten it, and I was just so surprised it didn’t even sink in. Then the next week, they flew me back in to do the shoot for the poster. So it was so fast. And I hadn’t done any of the readings or the labs or anything, and when we started rehearsal I was doing KPOP, so that was one of the hardest months of my life doing three weeks of overlap. Gretchen Wieners is iconic in a movie, and the movie is iconic, and I didn’t want to be doing less than 100%, and I also really wanted my whole focus to be in really figuring out who Gretchen was in our musical and on paper so that I could do an honest performance of her. And it took a little bit of time because I walked into a musical or a rehearsal room where everything was almost already all blocked already because they’d been working on it so long and everybody knew the songs, and everybody knew the lines, and I couldn’t give my full attention to it because I was still doing KPOP and we hadn’t even opened yet. People are like, “Oh, this is your first original and contemporary musical,” and it’s funny because it feels like doing a revival, and with doing those two revivals I had the experience of putting my own stamp on a character that has been done before and making it my own a little bit.
What was your process like for making Gretchen your own?
My first interaction with any of the material was for the audition. They had us sing “What’s Wrong With Me?” I remember plunking it out and singing it and reading the lyrics, and it immediately spoke to me. I knew exactly who Gretchen was. I really felt for her insecurity, and I was like, “This is what’s going to make the show interesting.” You can’t play a villain honestly unless you really feel for them and have empathy, and I immediately felt empathy for Gretchen—and for all of the insecurities that we have growing up, and that we still carry as adults. That’s why it’s a part that everyone in the audience connects to. Everyone has those feelings of, “What’s wrong with me? How can I fit in? What can I do better? What am I falling short of?” So I immediately connected to her in that way.
You mentioned the rehearsal process and how so much of the blocking had already been done. Did you find you had to adjust your process of how you work to fit around that?
Each team and process and project is completely different. In the revivals I’ve done, both Bart [Sher] and Sarna [Lapine] are very dramaturgical and much of the script doesn’t change; it’s the interpretation of it. Versus doing a new musical, where I looked at the first script that I had received for our first read through on day one of rehearsal versus our script now, and almost all of Gretchen’s lines are different, because Tina is so good at writing for our comedy and our voices. But it did take a little bit of time for us to get to know each other. We built this Gretchen together, this team and me. But it felt very much outside for a little bit; I had to understand what the imagery was and what was happening and the scope of the whole story. And then later on I could finesse it a little bit more.
One of the things that I’ve talked about with some of the other women who are in the show is the fact that obviously it’s a very different time now than when the movie came out. How do you feel like the show speaks to 2018?
For me personally, the fact that you have an Asian girl on the poster of Mean Girls as one of the plastics is one of the biggest things. I think it’s a really big deal. I wasn’t cast because of the way that I look but I also wasn’t not cast because of the way that I look. And the fact that that shouldn’t be a headline, it should be a norm. I’m so glad that in 2018 everybody, not just young ethnic women, but everybody who comes to see the show sees that young women of color not only have the right to be heard but have the right to take up space. That’s something that I didn’t really have growing up. I think it’s really important to tell stories about race and racial divide and historical stories, but the fact that this truly does take place in a high school in 2018 and you see that represented on the stage, I think that’s really important and I think that is subversive in its own way and political in its own way without calling any attention to it.
Tina’s so great about her usage of language in terms of it not being so, “Let me hit you on the head with this feminist ideal and I’m going to say something that’s right on the nose.” I think the whole mean girls thing is really symbolic of the world at large. It shows that women tearing each other down only gives everyone else permission to do it.
Has this process of working with Tina Fey made you think about women in charge differently?
What I loved about Tina being the boss is she was never like, “I’m the boss, everyone listen to me.” What was cool was, very much like her writing, she is quiet and thoughtful, but she is never submissive, and she’s very powerful when she decides to assert herself. She’s so generous and collaborative, which is what the world is lacking. I think, in that way, if everybody worked like that then it wouldn’t be a big deal either way if it was a man in charge or a woman in charge. It’d just be people getting along and really making something great. One thing that I like about Gretchen and one thing that I feel every night is when people have the shift of, “Oh, we assumed this about this person and now we’re seeing a whole different layer of them.” I think that’s really exciting and fun, because a problem with our world is that we just make assumptions and we decide right away whether we like or don’t like somebody without giving them a chance.
What do you feel like has influenced your sense of humor?
I really do think Mean Girls growing up, and also Friends. I watched every episode of Friends. I think I stole a little bit of Phoebe and Rachel and Monica. Since I was little, I’ve always just really loved making people laugh. Even as a toddler, we have so many home videos of me trying to get my whole family to laugh, and so I think that’s always innately been part of me, which is why it was so funny for people to come watch me in The King and I because that was my first big thing in New York and people were like, “Oh, she’s drama, drama, drama.” But for people who know me, I live in a world of comedy. I feel like my life is a sitcom at all times. So this is a little bit more up my alley, but it’s so funny because for so long I did the other thing.
I ask actresses all the time how they manage being in an industry that is so into telling you like, “Oh, she’s the girl who does this. This is the type of part she plays.” How does that affect you as a person and an artist while you’re still developing and figuring out who you are?
A revelation that I had was, whether it be an audition or on the stage or anything like that, is that if I can fully be myself in whatever skin I’m putting on then that is the best work. Now, it’s fun for me to bring a little bit of humor to dramatic scenes and drama to funny scenes. I think contradictions in people are the most interesting thing. All anybody wants to see is an interesting person and someone they want to invest in, and someone they can relate to and see themselves in. For auditions, they want us to be good just as much as we want ourselves to be good, and so let me take ownership of whatever role I’m doing—like, “This is mine, this is how I’m going to do it, and you take it or leave it.” The other thing is just surrounding yourself with really good people. As long as you’re just enjoying your actual life and finding happiness there, then it doesn’t make it as hard.
But right after King and I, I was told that I wouldn’t be seen for certain auditions because it was for something funny, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, really? They don’t know me at all.” And also not being seen for stuff because of the way that I look. There are a lot of glass ceilings that you have to shatter slowly. Also for a while I didn’t want to be called into something just because they wanted to say that they had seen an ethnic person. I am so thrilled to be part of projects when a team trusts me and they want me to come do something because of what I bring to the table both as a collaborator and actor but also as a person and what my essence is on the stage.
What has been the biggest surprise about having a career as an actress, or a thing you wish you had known that you feel like would have made a big difference to you?
That I would be doing this right now. I could have never imagined I’d be considered for this. But, actually, maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to know that, because then I wouldn’t have worked as diligently in the way that I did. What we all would like to know is that it’s going to be all okay, and it’s possible to be really happy doing what we’re doing. It doesn’t have to all be stressful and you don’t always have to want more. For my younger self: it will all happen in its own time and everyone’s path is super unique.
We talked earlier about balancing all the off stage stuff with on stage. At this moment you’re getting a fair bit of attention not just for Mean Girls, but also for KPOP and some award nominations.
Oh my gosh, it’s crazy.
Does it feel like lot of internal pressure to capitalize on this moment?
Not at all. To be candid, I’ve been through the award process before, and I really do think the universe cast me in this show to be a support and a guidance to other cast members because my stakes aren’t really high in that right now. I’m just so enjoying it. I was so, so pleasantly surprised with the about of recognition for KPOP because anything that you’re a part of, you want it to be a success and for people to enjoy it. I’ve been through an awards process where I was not nominated for anything and my dressing roommate and scene partner won everything, and to just go through that process and then to be on the other side of it and see that at the end of the day you just do your job has been really good insight for me. Of course, I’m so excited and thrilled by it, but I’m so glad it’s not my first time around the rodeo.
I am excited, of course, but mostly for the shows, because both of them are great and important work and I’m so thrilled to be a part of it. But the thing I’m proud of is I think, for the first time, I’m letting it sink in that I’ve maybe really made my way into this community, into the Broadway world a little bit. And I’m really grateful for the substantial amount of work.
What’s your personal relationship like with ambition?
I would categorize myself as an ambitious person. Isn’t it funny that we hesitate, we second glance at that word a little bit when it comes to women because you automatically think, “Oh, an ambitious woman. Oh, she’s cutthroat.” But I think that I’m ambitious not only for myself, but for those around me, as well. I think I’m a true believer in potential. I want myself to reach my fullest potential at all times and I want the people I’m with, and the friendships I’m in, and the work relationships I have, to reach their fullest potential all the time. I’m an ambitious person I think, but I would say that my priority in ambition is also in compassion, and I try to keep them at the same level. That’s the only way I’ve gotten to where I have: 26 and four Broadway shows. All that stuff sounds like you’re listing off a resume, but it really is because I worked really, really hard. It’s so interesting now to be on the other side of feeling like, “Oh, the amount of effort I put in is what I’m getting back.” Because for a lot of time you put in way more effort than you get back.
Has that been hard on you personally in the sense that you are only in your mid-twenties, and that’s an age where people in other places are living very different lifestyles? I would imagine that could be challenging just in terms of figuring out how to have a personal life.
I don’t think I have a personal life besides the people I’m with. Maybe I’ll never get married if I keep working—who knows; I’m just kidding. When I’m around people I want to be really, really present with them, so every cast that I’ve been a part of, those have been my people. So I have never felt like I’ve been lacking. Yes, on paper I don’t have a personal life, especially now—it’s my day off and it’s my third thing today and I haven’t seen any of my friends. That’s why it’s really important to find balance. I cherish this show because of having Taylor and Kate and Erica and Gray, my closest friends in the cast right now. It feels like a really cosmic time right now and I don’t really know what to do with it. It’s a little overwhelming.
What are your professional dreams for the next few years?
Musicals are so hard. They’re hard on our bodies and our minds, and so before this show I was actually like, “Oh, maybe I’m done with musical theatre for a while.” Not in a jaded way or in like a throw in the towel way, but I wouldn’t mind if my path went somewhere else. In 2017 I did Sunday, and then right into Hood, right into KPOP, right into Mean Girls, and I didn’t get a chance to breathe, and I think that’s maybe why I was like, “Oh, this is really hard on my body.” But I also think it’s the most thrilling thing ever and I don’t think I’m done with musical theatre at all. I’ve been asked by a few people who come to the show, “When is your vehicle going to happen?” I hate that word, vehicle, because it means you own it and that’s not it—sometimes you’re just the driver. I’d really like to do a story that I’m compelled to do that really has a fully fleshed out, innovative story and something that really makes people think and feel. So I don’t really know, but I think there are a few things in the cards right now. Ideally I would love for Tina Fey to write a sitcom that I can be part of. And I really want to keep working with good people and be doing jobs that make me really excited to go to work. I would love to do TV and film. I just came from a Disney animated thing today and I would love to do voice over. I think the exciting thing about this job is you really never know, because I truly did not know I would be playing Gretchen and as soon as I got that call it literally mapped out my trajectory for the next two years within one phone call. So I leave it up to the gods.