The new FX miniseries Fosse/Verdon opens with a black screen and the satisfying sound of tap shoes rapping on a wood floor. Sensual hip rolls and jazz hands soon follow. But as the salacious show-biz drama unfolds, an even more intriguing dance gets underway: the fierce, loyal, and thoroughly real friendship between Gwen Verdon (a snazzy Michelle Williams), the Broadway actress time forgot, and her close friend Joan Simon, the first of playwright Neil Simon’s four wives, brought to life by Aya Cash. The show might be called Fosse/Verdon, but Verdon/Simon—and for that matter, Williams/Cash—have a way of stealing the show.
Take the time Verdon dares to suggest the Simon marriage is perfect: “I threw a frozen veal chop at Neil’s head last week,” Simon deadpans, walking arm in arm with Gwen on the beach in Majorca. “In my marriage,” Verdon grins, “that’s called foreplay.”
Or the moment in this week’s emotional episode, when a chipper Verdon visits Simon, who is in the hospital with lung cancer, and suggests a future double date. “I’m not a child, Gwen,” Cash says with piercing eyes, a signature bow tied atop her head, like a Shih Tzu. “I know I’m never going home.”
In a series that, on its surface, is about spotlights, sequins, and all that jazz, Cash emerges a one-woman Greek chorus, creating a character that leaves viewers wanting more (one critic noted that by episode five she was more interested in Cash’s Joan than in the titular musical theater god, Bob Fosse himself). Cash plays to perfection the brutally honest bestie who says what everybody else is thinking. She is the Gayle to Gwen’s Oprah, her famous friend’s most tireless cheerleader, but also the person who, on her deathbed, isn’t afraid to shade her for being an absentee mom.
“I love that Joan’s no bullshit,” Cash tells me by phone from Brooklyn. “She’s the truth-sayer.”
Incidentally, so is Cash herself. It’s clear when we get on the phone—after a comedy of scheduling errors (entirely my fault) that foil our planned lunch—that the 36-year-old actress best known for playing lovably terrible music publicist Gretchen Cutler on the cult FXX rom-com You’re the Worst isn’t interested in the standard (read: boring) celebrity-profile politeness. Sure, she could fawn over her Oscar-nominated co-star Williams and tell me what an honor it was to share air with her. Instead, Cash admits, “I just prayed Michelle wasn't a nightmare, because she's so talented, and sometimes those people are nightmares.”
On the contrary, achieving that thick-as-thieves on-screen bond with Williams required no behind-the-scenes fluffing. Williams and Cash are both Brooklynites and vintage clothing hounds who, on their first, freezing day of filming—that Majorca scene was actually shot on Long Island—banded together for warmth. “She's very easy, I think probably with everyone,” Cash says, “but I'd like to think [with] me, specifically, just because I want to be special.”
Indeed, no one could accuse Cash of being ordinary. A trained theater actress, she grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of divorced parents, poet and novelist Kim Addonizio, who is Catholic, and Buddhist teacher Eugene Cash, whose family is Jewish. At 12, while watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with her dad, she vowed she’d be on TV herself someday. Later, as a rebellious teen, she got a hawk tattooed on her back. These days, Cash’s colorful self-expression includes tapping Meghan Markle’s royal wedding makeup artist Daniel Martin to rim her eyes in bright yellow liner and a pastel blue cateye for Fosse/Verdon’s New York premiere, to which she wore an “insane” mustard-hued Rotate by Birger Christensen mini dress with giant, puffy “Star Trek shoulders.” She may or may not bust it out again someday, to “a wedding of someone I hate, so that I can really steal all the attention.”
But Cash’s no-filter guide to life also very much applies to meatier topics, including marriage. In the FX series, Verdon, once a Tony-winning Broadway starlet, starves for substantive roles as she ages while her husband Fosse’s stock soars. Together, Gwen and Cash’s Joan—also a dancer who left a career with Martha Graham’s company to be a homemaker—process their “wife-of” roles.
It’s a path Cash has decidedly not chosen in real life. “Look, I am someone who clearly seeks spotlight,” she says. But Cash also felt strongly about not judging Joan, and instead saw her as a woman secure enough in herself to step away from the limelight and let her partner shine. “Someone could make the argument that [Joan] was another smart talented woman who gave up her career for a man,” Cash says. “For me, feminism is about choice.”
The roles are reversed in Cash’s own marriage, in which she’s the Neil Simon; the more famous one in the relationship. In 2012, Cash married actor-turned-producer Josh Alexander, after a conversation that happened to mirror that of Cash’s You’re the Worst character and her longtime on-and-off boyfriend, writer Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere), on the recent series finale. Cash says she and Alexander “chose to get married, but we chose to get married with the understanding that we may not be married forever, that we hopefully are choosing every day, and we're going to work our butts off,” Cash explains. “My folks have five marriages between the two of them. I did not grow up in a world like a lot of people, that I thought marriage is forever. So, it was about, ‘How do you define what marriage means to you?’”
Cash is aware of the of attention she’s gotten in the wake of her breakout role on You’re the Worst, while Alexander works behind the scenes, making documentaries, but says it hasn’t created a wedge in their marriage. Getting praised at a party or recognized by a fan, “there's a sense that it is not real,” she says. “None of it really matters, which is I think what Joan understands…what matters is her relationship and her family.” And unlike Fosse, fame isn’t necessarily going to Cash’s head. “I mean, I'm sure there are moments I'm a narcissistic bitch, but I know that's not me at my core, you know? When I was a waitress, I was probably a narcissistic bitch just as often.”
Not to mention that Hollywood, in all of its cutthroat, still-male-dominated glory, has a way of humbling women rather quickly. “It's pretty hard to become a total egomaniac, with all the rejection,” Cash says. Back to auditioning after five seasons as a star of You’re the Worst, Cash reports that #MeToo has led to more awareness of sexism, but the work of the movement is far from over: “I read [scripts] this year that described women as ‘sexy, despite being 40’ or ‘attractive, even though she's 20 pounds overweight.’”
Predictably, some casting directors are now trying to stuff Cash into a Gretchen-shaped box—throwing a ton of sardonic rom-coms her way—but she’s turning most of them down in the name of new creative challenges (like the '60s and '70s period drama of Fosse). Plus, it would be hard find a role as rare and—to borrow Cash’s preferred phrase—special as Gretchen. Both the show and Cash have been roundly praised by critics and fans for the portrayal of her character’s clinical depression in season two as one of first, and most honest, depictions of mental illness ever seen on television.
For Cash, playing Gretchen prompted personal reflection about her own mental health. When Gretchen’s storyline had its moment, “I was very considerate about explaining that I was not clinically depressed, because I felt like I wanted to honor what that is,” Cash tells me. “But the show, if I'm going to be totally honest, made me identify my own depression in a different way. I am not on medication...but I do suffer from depression.” Cash pauses. “I think that we're all very open and empathetic and understanding to other people's mental health and very judgmental of our own. That's something that I got from the show: Maybe I need to be a little more honest with myself.”
Looking back, she says, “I was ashamed of my own depression. I thought I shouldn't acknowledge it, because it's not as severe as other people that I've seen, which is just a waste of energy.”
Even though You’re the Worst has wrapped for good, something Cash says she’s still firmly in denial about, she continues to bring her refreshing brand of honesty about mental health to Instagram, of all places. In one post earlier this year, Cash and Alexander are beanie-clad and huddled together on a leafy hike—picture perfect. The caption, however, was classic Cash: “Went on a hike to try and stop a panic attack. Worked. Also Klonopin.”
Shuffling on from Fosse/Verdon, Cash is in pre-production on a pilot she can’t yet talk about, something that’s requiring her to get in shape “for real,” going to the gym five, even six times a week—four days of weight-training and two more of “fun” workouts like Zumba or Aerial—for the first time in her life. Surprise, surprise: She’s not sugarcoating the process.
“It's brutal. It’s not #LifeGoals. I'm about to have a fucking green smoothie, and no, I'm not going to enjoy it,” she groans. “I haven't had Taco Bell in like a month. That's so horrible.” If this is what Christian Bale’s preparation process looks like, Cash is content to pass: “I don't think I need to be that big of an actor.”
Photography and direction by Kat Wirsing / Styling by Tiffany Reid / Hair by Tommy Buckett / Makeup by Daniel Martin for Dior Beauty / Cinematography by Jimmie Armentrout / Video Edit & Color by Colin Gara