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March 2, 2016

Badass Ladies You Should Know: Ashlie Atkinson

Kate Hart
ashlie atkinson
Ashlie Atkinson is everywhere. She's on your TV screen, hanging out with Liz Lemon and chatting with Sherlock and solving crimes on Law and Order. She's in your movie theater, rubbing elbows with Leo and Julia and Denzel and Tom. She's on stage in New York, winning awards and working alongside Cythia Nixon. She's kicking your ass in roller derby as Margaret Thrasher, the Prime Minister of Your Demise, or as a character in a video game, or modeling for Gwynnie Bee, or just slinging drinks in a Brooklyn bar.  Hell, she was in a Kings of Leon video before they were cool (and well before they weren't anymore).

Luckily for us, she's also from Little Rock, and happened to hang out with the same crew of dirty hippies I knew at Hendrix College. She was a badass then, but she's sure as hell upped the ante now.


ashlie atkinson and donna jo rupp
Ashlie with Donna Jo Rupp in
SecondStage's "Butcher of Baraboo"
Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Ashlie: I just finished doing a play that Cynthia Nixon directed for the New Group, "STEVE." It was a blast. An absolutely tremendous experience. Life-altering. And now I am making several trips to Montreal because I am working on a video game for Ubisoft! I can't tell you anything about it, sadly, because an army of lawyers waving papers would descend upon me before I finished my sentence, but I can say that I will be doing "performance capture," which is sort of both the voice of a character and the motion capture work done at the same time to create a more natural-feeling characterization. I'm super excited about it! I always enjoy trying something new, and this certainly fits the bill. In between those Montreal trips, I am writing a pilot, hosting karaoke nights at my friend's diner/bar, and taking beginner tap dance classes with a couple of friends.

Kate: Do you have any creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)?

Ashlie: My main work is a creative outlet, so everything creative that I do feeds back into that main reservoir. Instead, I have practical outlets. Sometimes I just want to work for eight hours and make a little money doing something that feels a little less heady, y'know? Which is why I bartend occasionally. It's nice to take a break and stand behind a bar and listen to other people's stories and make them drinks and hustle when the crowds come and reconnect with that side of myself.

ashlie atkinson and leon chase
Ashlie recently married
playwright Leon Chase
Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Ashlie: Remembering that a life in the service of art is a life well-lived. Sometimes I think I should be doing something more community-oriented, or go back to school to be a doctor or a lawyer or something. And then I am moved profoundly by a work of art and I remember that art saves lives too, and that while I could go try to be a doctor or a lawyer, I'd probably be a pretty crummy one and maybe I should just try to get better at this and make better work. I initially stopped acting as a teenager and went into journalism because I thought an actor was a really self-serving, shallow, materialistic thing to be. But going through the theater department at Hendrix, I started learning that I had been confusing celebrity for the actual life of an artist, which is full of insecurity and obscurity, but is also a joyous life populated by opportunities for hard work, collaboration, and giving voice to things that might not otherwise be examined.

My other challenge, sort of another facet of the same stone, is that we are told we are not proper adult members of society unless we own our house, have good credit, have kids and a mortgage and a car and all these trappings of adulthood. And I don't have any of those. Not a one. I don't *want* them. I have a great husband and partner, wonderful friends, a family that I love and that loves me, and I get to spend most days doing something that lights me up inside. I travel for work a lot, I meet fascinating people and get to fall in love with new friends all the time. It's just a different definition of success from most things I see or read. And the challenge is to not let other people's more conventional versions of success get me twisted around about what I want, what our goals are over here in Brooklyn, in our beautiful little rented apartment full of paintings and costumes and music and cats.

ashlie atkinson and jeremy piven
Ashlie and Jeremy Piven in
Fat Pig by Neil LaBute
Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Ashlie: After graduating high school, I went to Barnard College here in New York. I was in love with New York City, and I was a feminist, and Barnard was a nice high bar to set for myself. And I got there, and I hated it. I absolutely hated it. I had three friends, and then one day two of them told me and my other friend that they were breaking up with us, friendship-wise. It was so weird, I'd never been friend-dumped before. And then the blizzard of 1996 happened, and I was so ill-equipped as an Arkansas transplant, I hadn't really paid attention when my mom tried to teach me how to layer. And there was a boy I had loved in high school, and something happened where I thought maybe he still loved me so I visited him and it turned out he didn't, but I had already delusionally broken up with my boyfriend and bandmate (did I mention I was playing in a ska band?) for him, and through all of this I was homesick and freezing. Then, I got really depressed. Like, Didn't Leave My Room For A Month depressed. There are tunnels below Barnard that connect certain buildings and I would leave my room to go eat, and then come back and sleep. Obviously I wasn't kicking ass in my classes with this method, and Barnard asked me to leave. Indefinitely.

ashlie atkinson aka margaret thrasher the prime minister of your demise
Ashlie in her derby days
So I went home to Arkansas, and I felt like the biggest failure in the entire world. I had definitely told people to kiss my grits before leaving town, and here I was, back with my tail in between my legs. A complete failure. But in a way, it was a blessing. I ended up being free of other people's expectations in a way I hadn't anticipated. There had been a trajectory planned for me, and my fizzling out so soon after launch because of a mental health issue meant that now my future was a blank slate. It was up to me what I wanted to do. So I applied to the only college where I had ever had a good time -- Hendrix, 30 minutes from my parents' house, where I had done a summer program. And I got accepted, and Hendrix turned out to be exactly what I needed. I still have 30 good friends from my time there. It's where I decided that it was okay to try to be the only thing I had ever really *wanted* to be, which was an actor. I healed my heart and mind there, and for the last two years, I was able to learn so much. I really got to stretch and grow.

That failure, my inability to complete my courses at Barnard, made me stronger at the broken parts. It taught me how to survive things other people say they couldn't handle. I learned to (mostly) brush off the daily rejection, weird looks, judgement. I really started loving what I love and trying to leave the rest to other people.

ashlie atkinson in Compliance
Ashlie in the award-winning indie
film "Compliance"
Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten?

Ashlie: There are so many incredible gifts of love and praise that I have been given. But there's one in particular, when I was just starting out, that made all the difference. And it wasn't even said to my face! I was in a dress rehearsal for Fat Pig, and I was really unsure of whether I was on the right road with my characterization. I was really nervous about it. And unbeknownst to me Mimi O'Donnell (who did the costumes for the show) had brought her partner to the run-through. And her partner was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who to me (both then and still now) was the best actor in recent history. He watches the show, and Mimi told me that a few minutes into the first scene, he leaned over and whispered to her with wonder in his voice, "Where on Earth did they find her?" I met him on opening night and he was very complimentary, but my imposter syndrome never lets me believe that anyone who compliments me is telling me the truth. Twelve years later, it's always that private moment that Mimi recounted to me that floors me.

ashlie atkinson at derby taunt
Ashlie hosting Gotham Girls'
annual Derby Taunt
Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work?

Ashlie: I never really had a great feminist awakening because my mother raised me as a feminist -- no easy task in Little Rock in the 1980s, but she did it. So it's a very natural stance to me, and I'm always taken aback when people either feel challenged or attacked by it. I can't imagine thinking that women are less than. It defies any logical sense. So I guess I've just gone through life never conceiving that some folks think there are things we shouldn't do because we're female. And when they say so, I flip em the bird.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Ashlie: Hire them. Boost their signal. Read them, listen to them. Pay them.

ashlie atkinson headshotKate: Who are some badass ladies we need to know & why?

Ashlie: Mia McKenzie, BLACK GIRL DANGEROUS because it's important that I as a white female listen to conversations where my white feminism is not the focus. Mia and her compatriots are serving up sharp takes that are not FOR me, but they certainly make me a better citizen.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Ashlie: If I could do it all again, I would spend a helluva lot less time worrying about where I fit in, how much I weighed, and where I saw myself in the hierarchy of wherever I was, and spend way more time making stuff. By myself or with my friends. When someone says you can't make money doing the thing you want to do, that is their FEAR talking. If you work hard enough, and I mean really work hard, and don't let your point of view get too diluted, you'll make it. Just start early and don't stop.


Ashlie Atkinson was introduced to New York audiences as Helen in Neil LaBute's Fat Pig at MCC - a role for which she won a Theatre World Award as well as Lortel and Outer Critics Circle nominations. Since then, she has been a constant presence on TV ("Louie," "Rescue Me," "The Good Wife," "Bored to Death," "30 Rock," "Elementary," "Boardwalk Empire," "Blue Bloods," "Nurse Jackie" and the "Law & Order" trifecta, among others) and film (credits include The Wolf of Wall Street, Bridge of Spies, Compliance, Inside Man, Eat Pray Love, The Invention of Lying, All Good Things, My Best Day, Another Gay Movie, and the upcoming films The Lennon Report, Blood Stripe, and the Untitled Kelly Reichardt Project).

Stage credits include Steve for The New Group, The Butcher of Baraboo for Second Stage , The Ritz for Roundabout, the Geffen production of Fat PigArena Stage's The Book Club Play, Long Wharf's January Joiner, and both As You Like It and The Tempest for Sam Mendes' year-long, world-spanning Bridge Project.

Ashlie has also had an enduring web presence in series like "Real Actors Read Yelp Reviews," "High Maintenance," "F to 7th," "The Actress," "Be Here Now-ish," and "Stuck on A," as well as portraying the glitzy MTV fan favorite Chunky Pam. Ashlie has also co-written three award-winning plays with her writing partner Lesley Dancer. Last summer, she directed the NY Fringe 2015 show Stockholm Savings, which went on to win Best Ensemble Show.

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*all photos courtesy of Ashlie Atkinson


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