Even though she spent her youth as a cast member of “As the World Turns,” it never occurred to Ashley Williams that, after going to school and getting her theater degree, she’d be able to come out to Los Angeles and get cast in the first show for which she auditioned. But that’s what happened, and that’s how she burst onto the scene as the female lead in NBC’s “Good Morning, Miami.” It wasn’t necessarily the greatest experience for her, given her lack of a comedic background, but it was certainly a learning experience…and what she basically learned was that, all things being equal, she’d rather not have to deal with the hassle of carrying a series on her shoulders. Since then, she’s been picking and choosing smaller parts at her leisure – you may have seen her on “Monk” or “Psych” or her stint in Season 1 of “How I Met Your Mother” – and, most recently, she’s been having a ball as part of the ensemble of CBS’s original online series, “Novel Adventures,” about a decidedly unique book club. We spoke with Ashley about how much fun it was to film the series, how she found her way into her current method of choosing roles, and whether she’d be willing to be the “Mother” if she was asked.
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Ashley Williams: Is that Will?
BE: It is!
AW: (Exhales deeply) Oh, my gosh. First of all, I didn’t even know if my phone called to the 757 area code! So that’s the first victory of this conversation…
BE: Nobody ever knows where it is, but it’s in Virginia.
AW: Sweet! How did I just call Virginia on this phone? This phone is for, like, only calling 911.
BE: (Laughs) I don’t know.
AW: That’s amazing!
BE: Well, congratulations.
AW: (Giggles) Sweet! So can I call my parents on this phone, too?
BE: I don’t know, but…let’s say, “Maybe.”
AW: (Laughs) Well, hi, I’m Ashley!
BE: Hey! It’s great to talk to you!
AW: And, you, too. I’m sorry I’m eight minutes late.
BE: That’s quite all right. I work at home, so I have plenty to keep me occupied.
AW: My dad works at home, too. He’s a writer. I remember the first time my dad was going to work at home. He was working for a magazine as well, and he got up really early and…he put on a suit.
BE: Force of habit?
AW: No, he was just, like, “I’m gonna go to work now!” And he went into the office in his suit.
BE: Pretty much the only fashion rule of thumb that my wife requires is that I wear a pants.
AW: (Bursts into laughter) That’s a good rule!
BE: “It’s a slippery slope,” she says. And she’s right. First, you’re, like, “Okay, maybe just pajamas today.” And then it’s, “Well, no-one’s gonna see me, so, really, I could wear my boxers and a t-shirt.” So she said, “Sweetie, just don’t even start down that road. At the very least, you need to always be wearing pants.”
AW: (Laughs) Well, that’s comforting to know that you’re wearing pants right now.
BE: It is, I’m sure. I would’ve done it for you, anyway, but just for the record, it really is a regular thing. So, moving on, how did you first come to be approached about “Novel Adventures”? Because, y’know, to be blunt, it’s kind of a rarity for a network to produce an original web series featuring actors that you actually recognize.
AW: Yeah! It’s so interesting in hindsight, because Jonathan Prince is a friend of mine. I think we met at a freaking party…like, ten years ago, maybe. I don’t even know for sure how we met. But he’s a buddy of mine, and he basically got in touch with me and was, like, “Do you want to do this?” And it was laid out like this: it’s seven days of work, it’s adorable, and it’s sort of a pilot. And a pilot is a proposal of a new TV show, and… (Hesitates) …and, yeah, you already know everything.
AW: You do! (Laughs) So the theory was that if we got a good response, we could turn it into a TV show, so it was basically a pilot. And for people like me, who basically do pilots for a living and then they don’t get picked up…which is fine. (Laughs) I was, like, “Oh, hey, add another pilot to the pile!” But, yeah, that was the thinking behind it. And I read it, and…and it really is adorable!
BE: Yeah, the adjective “cute” is used a lot in the reviews I’ve seen.
AW: Ooooooh. They’ve reviewed it…?
BE: Well, I’ve seen a couple of things online.
AW: Oh, my God, that makes me want to throw up. I have to go look now.
BE: Don’t worry, the one I’m specifically referring to basically said, “It’s cute. I can’t necessarily tell you that I’d watch it, but I know my mother would, because she’s already sent me two E-mails about it.”
AW: Oh, my God, that’s the perfect review. That’s great! I don’t think I’ve ever gotten such a good review in my whole life! (Laughs) But, yeah, anyway, it was seven days of work, and it turned out that I’ve never had so much fun shooting something in my entire life, because…I think there was just this element of disorganization which created an atmosphere of total haphazard creativity that was just sort of magical. I never could’ve anticipated it. Usually, when you work in TV, everything is sort of metered, and the days are planned within an inch of their lives. But on this, we were flying by the seat of our pants as a group.
BE: It definitely seems very loose and freewheeling, like you had a basic concept and the director just said, “Okay, run with it.”
AW: Definitely. It was very much the kind of set where I could just ask, “Hey, can I put this funny hat on?” (Laughs) Or I’d say, “I don’t really think it’s funny,” and they’d say, “Well, let’s see!” Usually, everything is so planned, but because of the way this was, I actually said to JP, Jonathan Prince, “If this ever gets picked up again and we come back to this, and it’s more organized than it is right now, I’m quitting.” (Laughs)
BE: So at what point did it evolve from being a pilot into being a web series?
AW: Well, it was always a web series, but the web series was going to serve as a pilot. And from there, we’d see what level of interest there was. That’s how that worked. But none of us actually went into it, thinking, “Oh, this is a pilot.” It was much more thinking, “This is seven days of a really fun little script, and it’ll be online.”
BE: I know that my wife would sympathize with the problem of a book club that’s way over-intellectualized. She loves to read, but when people start spouting off about the subtext or whatever, it’s, like, “Yeah, look, I just liked the book. Can’t we just talk about that?”
BE: So are you the kind of person who would join a book club yourself, or would it have to be closer to the one in the series? (Laughs)
AW: No, I definitely have been a member of a book club, but…I find, actually, interestingly enough, that the book club that I most thrive on is literally when I’m just sitting with my friends, talking about our lives, and just ask, “What are you reading right now?” And then we’ll just sort of discuss. But even then, it’s not really a dissection of protagonist, antagonist, and story arc. It’s, like, “Could you put it down?” That’s the basic question. Could you put it down? How long did it take you to read it, and where were you when you read it? (Laughs) But, yeah, every time I’m talking to any of my friends, the question of “what are you reading right now?” always comes up. And that’s a book club for me, you know what I mean?
BE: Absolutely. Of course, it begs the question, “What are you reading right now?”
AW: Oh, what am *I* reading right now? I’m reading Sisters and Lovers. I read it in high school, and…it’s the favorite book of a person who’s very close to me, so I wanted to read it again. And I love it! But then I learn that it’s impossible to read if you’re going through a phase in your life when you’re really tired all the time… (Laughs) …like I have been! Every time I sit down to read, I read 20 pages, and then I fall asleep for an hour! It’s like I can’t read unless I’m fully rested, because it’s sort of a way of…like, your body relaxes, you calm down, you start to focus on something, and if you’re really hungry, your body will be, “We need food.” If you’re really tired, your body will go, “We’re going to take you to sleep for a little while.” It’s a good way of checking in with what your body needs… (Laughs) …because it’s a form of relaxation.
BE: Yes, many times I’ve walked into the bedroom to find my wife sound asleep with a book in front of her.
AW: Oh, yeah! Completely! But that actually means that the book served its purpose for a little while. It’s nothing to do with the book. It just means that she was able to relax enough to realize that, “Wow, sleep is what I really need right now.”
BE: So, y’know, I realize “Novel Adventures” is a collaborative effort between CBS and Saturn, but I have to admit that I’ve occasionally laughed out loud at the long, lingering glances by the camera at the car.
AW: (Laughs) Uh-huh. Yeah, it’s pretty funny. Those were definitely added in editing, because none of us were looking at the car…although we continued to say, “Do you think we’ll get a free car out of this?” (Laughs) “If this is a big success, what kind of car do you think we’ll get?” But, yeah, pilots are extremely expensive, and what they said was, “If we feature Saturn cars, we’ll pay for the whole shebang.” But it’s funny because those long, lingering shots of the Saturn weren’t in the script. They were added. Which I fully support. (Laughs) But I have been getting a lot of E-mails from cousins and friends who I don’t check in with on a weekly basis to say “what’s up,” and they’re saying, “I love your new Saturn commercial!” Which is a compliment, really.
BE: Yeah, I think the only line that was overt enough to really make me laugh was when your character’s husband – who’s a Saturn dealer, of course – offered up the really detailed line about the vehicle’s safety features.
AW: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s interesting, because on “30 Rock,” they’re pretty graceful about it and actually make it into a joke.
BE: And, granted, that line I mention certainly felt like it was a wink at the viewer. But even so, I just went, “Oh, man…”
AW: Yeah. But it was so fun, though!
BE: I guess it will not surprise you that my favorite episode of the bunch was “Bare Essentials.”
AW: Which one was that?
BE: The one where the girls try out the stripper pole.
AW: Oh, my God, I haven’t watched it!
BE: Well, you know, as a guy, it’s only inevitable that it would be my favorite.
AW: This is the moment when I appreciate that you’re wearing pants. (Cackles)
BE: Exactly. And, oh, man, is that a pull quote.
AW: (Laughs) Oh, my gosh, I have to go watch it! Has it aired? I mean, is it on CBS.com?
BE: Yeah, it’s on the site. It’s the most recent episode…and I should know, because I just watched all of them in one sitting.
AW: That sounds tiring.
BE: (Laughs) I’m kind of overdosing on cuteness. I feel like I should go watch “Rambo” or something.
AW: Or go eat some raw meat. (Laughs) I really need to go watch that, though. It was funny because, about three weeks before we shot that, my friend and I decided to go take a class at S Factor, where that was shot, and we took, like, an intro class. Basically, we learned all of this stuff, and then we did the exact same thing. I walked in, and I knew the area, I knew the basics of what they were talking about. It did not mean that I was any more graceful than the next guy, but I was sort of the expert. (Laughs)
BE: Like I said, the reviews mentioned that it was “cute,” but would you say that it’s fair to call it a “girls show”?
AW: I don’t know, it’s a tough one to answer. I mean, it’s about a group of women, but what I think is interesting about it is that the cadence of the conversation is pretty accurate. It’s pretty true to life. So…I don’t know, I’ve heard a lot of guys say things like, “You don’t understand: when you need a guy to know something, you just need to tell him what he needs to know. There’s no guessing with guys.” And I think there’s a certain nuance among women where there’s a look in your eye which says a lot, and then you go, “Oh, my God, what?” And it’s kind of important. For a guy who wants to sort of figure out what happens with women…I mean, honestly, when me and three of my friends are talking, you wouldn’t be able to record it, because it’s kind of too dirty. There’s always something that’s very inappropriate…and it wouldn’t even be appropriate for the web! So it’s like what’s on the web series, except that in reality it’s probably about times three, basically, in terms of honesty and levity. Which isn’t always a good thing. It’s actually one of the things that drives me crazy about women. Oh, my gosh, I’m all over the place right now. (Laughs) What I’m trying to say is that it’s pretty true to life for women, so that would appeal to women because it’s approximately what would happen if a group of girls were to get together. And one thing a guy could get from it is to have a little window into what happens when they aren’t around. But, again, I want everyone to bear in mind that when girls are together, it’s…it’s a little bit more obscene. (Laughs) I don’t mean, like, we’re naked. I just mean it’s very, very honest. And there’s usually wine involved. And there’s a lot of laughter and confession.
BE: I think the best part of that answer was that you had to clarify that there’s not nudity involved.
AW: (Laughs) It’s a theme in my life. For the record, no-one is naked!
AW: FYI. (Laughs) Actually, that’s not true. Often, there is nudity. Well, not often… (Laughs)
BE: That’s just titillating enough to be the perfect answer.
AW: Okay, perfect. That’s all I’m going for. (Cackles)
BE: So you’re not really a stranger to the so-called women’s genre. You were in “Side Order of Life” on Lifetime, and you were in the adaptation of Nora Robbins’ “Montana Sky.” Do you think of yourself as a girly-girl?
AW: No. (Laughs) Not even close.
BE: To be fair, I wrote that question before I started talking to you.
AW: (Laughs) Yeah, I’m not very…what’s funny is that I keep on trying. I have this whole basket of different kinds of perfumes that I’ve collected over the years, and it’s in my bathroom, but I never put them on. I actually have a really ornate and organized bathroom, but unless I have an audition, I don’t even venture into the makeup area. I just moved into this apartment, but my bedroom is really organized, I have a dresser drawer full of jeans, and then I have a closet full of t-shirts…and then I have *a* purse. (Laughs)
BE: There’s nothing wrong with that.
AW: I keep trying! I have a bunch of dresses in another closet, but I never wear them! So, yeah, I’m always sort of working on that, but it’s not going very well. (Laughs)
BE: I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions about some other things you’ve done. When you did “Good Morning, Miami,” you clearly suffered through the slings and arrows of critics on that one…
AW: Uh, yeah. (Laughs)
BE: …but was it worth it just to be able to work with Suzanne Pleshette?
AW: Oh, gosh, she’s amazing. Every time I stop and think about the fact that I got to work with her, y’know, I really need to take a moment and appreciate the bizarre path that an acting career will take. She’s pretty amazing. She told so many stories and was so full of life, and she was really a champion of telling us what was okay and what wasn’t in terms of how actors are treated and how we were feeling on the set. She was dynamite.
BE: How did you enjoy working on the show as a whole? Because you had been predominantly doing soap opera work prior to that, and then here you were on a sitcom.
AW: Yeah, I had been on “As the World Turns,” and then I went to college, to theatre school. And after I got out of theatre school, I did a little bit of theatre in New York and then came out to L.A. for pilot season. “Good Morning, Miami” was my first audition, and I got it, and then…the last time I’d really been part of a group had been in theatre, so I was really startled by a lot of what happens. Like, if you went to the bathroom, someone would wire over to the first assistant director that you were in the bathroom…whereas, in a play, everyone needs to fend for themselves, and if you step out, you’d better get back quick. And I was always trying to be in charge of all of my props, but they’ve got a guy in charge of that who, literally, his job is to hand you your props before you walk onstage. So there were things like that which I was amazed by, and it was hard to relax into. There was that aspect, and also I suddenly had money, which was very startling, because I always assumed I would come to L.A., wait tables for six years, and then get married. (Laughs) But, yeah, suddenly I had money, and suddenly I had this life that I’d never anticipated. And what’s interesting about sitcoms is that it’s actually pretty close to Shakespeare, in a weird way. The punctuation is very important, the word choice is very exact, and there’s a real rhythm, the same way there is with Shakespeare. That was the only part that seemed to make any sense to me, but sometimes I couldn’t…there’s a real science to sending up a joke and landing it, and I was being thrown into it on a daily basis. The learning curve was so high that I would often just panic and say, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” And it ended up being an incredibly hard job, one where I felt like often it was more important how I looked than whether or not I could send up the joke, which I couldn’t even do in the first place, y’know? (Laughs) So I was a little bit at sea during that whole time. Fortunately, the cast was so supportive and so amazing, and they really tried to help me.
BE: So, now, was your sister (Kimberly Williams) working on her sitcom (“According to Jim”) at the same time?
AW: Actually, she was filming it on the same lot, and I remember one time… (Starts to laugh) …this is so funny, and we were just talking about this the other day, but I called her and said, “I’ve got this joke, and I have no idea how to say it.” And she said, “Wait, I have 10 minutes right now.” “Oh, my God, come over!” So she pulls up in her car, outside of our soundstage, and I got in her car. The windows were open, and I was, like, “Close the windows!” And we turned up the music, I said, “Okay, here’s the joke.” And it was like having a lifeline when you’re on “Who Wants To Be Millionaire,” because I had fifteen seconds to ask the question, and she had five seconds to answer it before she had to go. But the joke was that I had to say, “I’ve got this heater that’s broken, and every time I turn it on, it makes this sound,” and then I had to make the sound of the heater…and I was trying to figure out what the funniest sound would be for a broken heater! And it was the most bizarre thing, because we sat there, just trying to make sounds, and it just ended up with the two of us making sounds. I’d make one, and I’d say, “Was that funny?” “No.” (Laughs) It was this orchestra, this chorus of weird sounds, everything from a monstrous rumble to a songbird chirping, coming out of this car, so thank God the windows were closed! Needless to say, I went in and bombed the joke… (Laughs) …which was a regular occurrence. And the entire time on “Good Morning, Miami” was made up of moments like that, where I’d be going, “Is that funny? Oh, I don’t think that’s funny. Okay, is this funny?” The bottom line is that, when “Good Morning, Miami” ended, I felt kind of stupid. I just felt pretty dumb and untalented. And, so, I just quit acting. I decided that I was going to go and teach the relationship between Shakespeare and sitcoms, which I thought was a really interesting idea. So I got this job up in Santa Clarita where I was teaching improv, and then I was sort of teaching ethics…wait, not ethics! (Laughs) Oh, God. I mean the rules of improv. God, the ethics of improv…? I can’t even imagine. I’m just talking about, like, the basics of improv. And…oh, man! Hang on, my alarm is going off…
BE: No problem.
AW: (Leaves for a moment, then returns) Don’t worry, I know exactly where I am in this story. So I’m teaching this class, and I loved it, but they said, “If you want to be a full-time teacher, you’re going to have to get your teaching degree.” And I’m, like, “Whaaaaaaat?” (Laughs) And they’re, like, “Yeah, we’re gonna have to have you do English and Theatre.” So that news is delivered to me at basically the same time I started to realize that I wasn’t going to make even remotely the same amount of money as a teacher, which was a novel idea. And right around that time, the same week, I got offered “Snow,” which was a Christmas movie, for, like, a big bundle of money. And, suddenly, I’m, like, “Wait, if I could figure out how to do both…” Because I’d already tried professionally working, and I don’t like it, but if I could do this 20-day shoot, then I could live happily and not want for anything, and I could still teach. But then I got up there and started shooting “Snow,” and it was so much fun, because it wasn’t about trying to be funny. It was just a fun, adorable little Christmas movie, and my only job, really, was to be heartwarming. And I was, like, “I am all over this!” (Laughs) So I got back from shooting “Snow,” and I found myself thinking that I might want to try being an actress again, but I didn’t want that pressure of having to be funny or the pressure of having to carry a show. I wanted it to be a little bit down-scale. And ever since then, I have taken jobs that were of a really low stress level, where I really felt at home and knew I could do well. And I think that’s the difference between my career now and my career back then. I really enjoy smaller parts in things. I really enjoy being able to play a scene for real and not just for comedy…although, now, I’m very at home in comedy. It’s just been awhile. But, yeah, I basically just decided to only do parts that I thought would be a hoot. (Laughs) That’s my career plan. Anything beyond that, I might just not be the best person for it. And I’ve been happy with that. Really, really happy. And I’ve been able to pull off this sort of steady career, which is a miracle!
BE: I know you said you’ve done a lot of pilots that haven’t necessarily taken off. Is there one in particular that would’ve made you the happiest if it had taken off?
AW: I did this pilot called “Night Life” that Zach Braff directed, and his brother Adam wrote it. I played a wife, and…it’s so interesting, because I turned 30, and even just a year ago, I was suddenly being considered for the mom parts. And I was playing the mother of a nine-year-old kid in this pilot! I was sort of, like, “Wow, this is a strange place…” But I loved this pilot. I thought it was amazing. David Denman was the lead, and I played his wife, and it was about a man who becomes an EMT and is out in an ambulance, helping people and saving people’s lives, bringing them into the hospital. It had this amazing sort of pace to it, and it was exciting and moving and terrifying, and I loved it. I loved that project. I really thought it was going to get picked up. But you know how it is. You find out that it’s not picked up, and then…I needed to cry for about three days, and then I was okay. (Laughs) But that was one of my favorites.
BE: I’ve got one more for you, and then I’ll let you go. You mentioned how you’ve started to be considered for mother roles. If you got the call from Carter Bays and Craig Thomas…
AW: (Starts to laugh) You’re funny.
BE: …and they said, “Hey, we decided: you’re the mother,” would you go back to “How I Met Your Mother”? Hypothetically speaking, of course.
AW: Oh, of course. And, yeah, I…this is the funny thing…I’m not really in a position to turn down any job right now. (Laughs) Not financially, not confidence-wise. Just like everybody else in the middle of this recession, I would love to be able to proceed with my life as planned, and I would like to buy a house and have children and son, so, really, when any job comes along, within reason, I’m going to take it. Within reason. (Laughs) “How I Met Your Mother” is such a fun, low-grade roller coaster. What I mean by that is, it doesn’t ever really terrify you, but it has so many hills and valleys, and it’s so much fun. I remember that, in the first two episodes I did, I asked them, “Do you guys know what you’re going to do?” And they’re, like, “We’re not totally sure yet.” And I don’t know if they were lying, but…that’s the thing about them. They either have an amazing plan, or they don’t and they’re just pulling off something mysterious brilliantly. But, gosh, yeah, of course I’d go back!
BE: I take it that it was fun doing the show, then.
AW: It was great, yeah.
BE: Well, I don’t want to take up your entire morning, but it’s been great talking to you!
AW: Oh, no, this has been great! Thank you so much! But…when you put it on the site, can you take out the word “like” as much as you can? Otherwise, my dad’s gonna kill me!
BE: I promise I’ll take out at least some of them.
AW: Just make me sound smart. And make me sound pretty, too! (Laughs)
BE: As if you need my assistance for that.
AW: (Giggles) Okay, have a great day!