Over the past decade-and-a-half, Ashlie Atkinson has established herself as a force with which to be reckoned. She continues to challenge herself with the array of complex roles she fearlessly explores. She lit up the screen as Theresa in the debut season of FX’s critically acclaimed “Rescue Me” series and stole scenes as the toxic villain Connie Kendrickson in Spike Lee’s Oscar nominated drama, “BlacKKKlansman.” No matter the medium, her passion for acting keeps her driven, laser-focused and able to raise the bar with every new project. The best part is that she’s just getting warmed up!
Her latest role has taken her deep inside the fourth and final season of USA Network’s award-winning drama series “Mr. Robot,” where she stars opposite Rami Malek, Christian Slater and Grace Gummer. The series follows Elliot Alderson (Malek), a cyber-security engineer who becomes involved in the underground hacker group called fsociety, after being recruited by its leader (Slater). Ashlie joins the star-studded cast with a spell-binding performance as Janice, a chatty taxidermist with a peculiar sense of humor (not to mention a very specific set of skills!). It’s a portrayal that will embed itself deep inside the minds of the series’ die-hard fans while continuing to captivate audiences long after the series concludes.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Ashlie Atkinson to discuss her unique career. She offers a look inside her creative process, what fuels her creative fire and the lessons she learned along the way.
You became a familiar face over the years in film and on television. Let’s start at the beginning. How did the arts come into your life?
The first play that I remember doing was in first grade. We did a play about unicorns in a race. Everyone in my class wanted to be the unicorn that won, the good unicorn. I was an early reader, I learned to read before I went to school, because I had an older brother and sister. They were really intent on teaching me how to read, so I started reading when I was around 2. By first grade, I could handle bigger chunks of text, so they made me the really narcissistic, snotty unicorn! I think that was the first time I made the connection of getting up in front of people and being someone other than who you were. You didn’t have to be polite and you didn’t have to be good, but people would cheer and laugh. I think it made a neural pathway in my brain that required feeding from then on out! [laughs] Growing up, I went to a school that didn’t really have a year-round drama program, so I did plays at a place called the Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre. I did summer programs there with kids from all over Little Rock for about four or five summers.
We had musicals once a year at my school and I participated in those. The very first is also a big moment in me falling in love with theater. The musicals had always been only for high schoolers, because my school was from kindergarten to 12th grade, except for one year when I was in fifth grade. That was also the first year that I did Children’s Theatre during the summer. They opened it up because they were doing “Oliver.” At the time, they had a new head of the department and she was very, very cool. They opened it up to the fifth and sixth grades for the younger roles. I went in and scored the part of The Artful Dodger, which was complicated for a 10-year-old girl! [laughs] It was opposite a boy named Brian Fuller, who was one of the Fuller Brothers, who were three brothers who were singing sensations. They had their own singing group that would perform at all of the talent shows and events in my little part of Little Rock. To beat out the other Fuller Brothers and the Fuller Brothers’ best friend, Richie Sessions, to get to play The Artful Dodger was a shock! I mean, I auditioned for it, but I certainly didn’t think I was ever going to get it. I loved playing that character so much! Inhabiting that role was so much fun!
I used to get in trouble because I would do plays during the school year for my school. As soon as I got in a play or even if there was a whiff of a play anywhere around me, I just dropped everything else! [laughs] I just didn’t care about doing anything else. The Art Center had plays throughout the year and my parents ONCE, once in seventh grade, allowed me to try doing a play during the school year. You got to miss six days of school for it, so you had to be very good about getting your homework done and doing things. I just didn’t care about anything except for doing that play and I flunked seventh grade science! [laughs] I just didn’t do any homework. I just had no interest in doing anything else and that’s terrible! It’s not very well-rounded but that’s how I was! I just loved it so much. Every moment I would walk into the theater, I would smell the smells and see the stage. From a sensory point of view, it was heaven! I just didn’t want to be anywhere else for a very long time!
When did you begin to focus on acting as a potential profession?
Around the time I was 16, I thought it was not an ethical life choice, probably in part because I enjoyed it so much. I didn’t really understand if it could help people and it felt like a very selfish choice on my part for a career. I think I was also conflating a life in the service of art or reaching people with celebrity, which is something I guess I thought would come very easily. I guess I thought I would become an actor as a kid and then magically turn into an Olsen twin! That’s a pretty weird take from a little fat kid from Arkansas but I guess that’s what I thought! [laughs] I decided I would become a journalist, so I worked at a couple of newspapers. This lasted for a while. I ran my newspaper in high school, and I worked at several newspapers in Little Rock before going to college.
When I went to college, I did a journalism track. I was a double major in political science and religion. I wanted that to be my focus and I just crashed and burned! I was just not cutting it. I went to Barnard College in New York and the combination of trying to do what I thought I was supposed to do or what I thought was the right thing to do combined with being so far from home for the first time was just not a great combination for me. I got really depressed, moved back home to Arkansas and enrolled in Hendrix College. I was like, “OK. So, you thought you should do something else, but it turns out you can’t do anything else! How about we go with what you always really wanted to do?” By that time, I think my parents were like, “Great, great. Just do something!” [laughs] When I was younger, they were supportive, but they didn’t really think you could make a career out of this. I think we all thought somebody could, but I didn’t know if we thought I could, ya know? As I get older, I understand. I understand that they were worried about me throwing away my life on a dream that might not ever happen for me.
What happened at Hendrix that really changed me was that it became less about “Oh, there’s this dream. You want to get famous and make a name.” All of these result-oriented goals were my focus. However, when I entered the Hendrix theater department, I realized that the goal was really the process; that no matter how large or small the stage was, that the collaborative process of making something was something I couldn’t live without. A life of doing that, even if it was never a day job, seemed like it was a worthwhile pursuit.
At what point did things beginning to break for you as an actor and what were some lessons learned early on?
Ya know, it’s funny. I always have to qualify the idea of a break. When you’re a character actor, especially, I think you have moments. If you are lucky you get to have several moments in a long, long career. The rest of it is a management in between those times. I graduated from The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre here in New York in 2003. I left having a better grasp on how to walk into auditions and make a thing happen. I had a way of self-generating and sustaining scenes and characters and the tools to get it done, which is something I had never really had before. I was in a showcase in 2003, as I was graduating. My friend invited a director who, I think, didn’t know which overweight girl I was. There were two of us in my class, so he had us both audition for “Law & Order.” We both went in and I ended up booking it.
That led to a role on “Rescue Me,” which was a nice little six-episode arc that I think I kind of wrote myself out of, embarrassingly. Everyone at “Rescue Me” was super nice! Peter Tolan came up to Mike Lombardi and I. Mike was a series regular on the show and I played his girlfriend. Peter said, “We really like you two. What do you think should happen for you in Season 2?” Mike, lovely Mike, was like, “Oh, she could get pregnant…” That would ensure a little more time on the show! [laughs] I said, “…or I could dump him for someone smarter.” The whole dynamic was that I was fat, and he really liked me, but he was very embarrassed, which is a very early-2000s storyline that we saw a lot in popular culture at that time. It was also kind of my bread and butter for the first five years of my career! [laughs] I was playing the girlfriend who is fat that someone loves but is embarrassed of. I thought it would be so fun to turn that on its head and be the one that leaves him, which is ultimately what happened and was super fun. When Peter Tolan walked away, Mike turned to me and said, “Do you not like this job? I thought we were having fun here!” [laughs] My preservation interests had not kicked in yet and I wasn’t savvy enough to know what I was doing. On hiatus, between Season 1 and Season 2 of “Rescue Me,” I played a role in Neil LaBute’s “Pig.” That was sort of a different take on that same topic of “Fat girl, not fat dude. What will his friend’s think?” It’s funny because I look back at those storylines and I think when I did them then, they were still sort of weirdly foreign to me because it wasn’t the life that I was living despite being a fat woman. They seem HUGELY archaic at this point to most of popular culture and that’s a really great thing. I like to think that us making those stories maybe had a tiny bit of push in getting past them. It’s sort of like how picking up the rock and looking at all the worms underneath brings everything into the light.
What do you look for in the material you take on at this point in your career?
There are a lot of things! There’s sort of a Venn diagram of why I pick something. If the people are great, if it’s somebody I’ve really wanted to work with or people that I really love already, that goes a long way for me! Also, if the character is something I’m really interested in exploring, allows me to stretch out in a way that I haven’t gotten to yet or if it resonates with me in a way that I think is culturally important, then that’s it too. There are also moments when, selfishly, I read it and say, “Oh, I really want to do that!” I feel very lucky that I have great people around me. It’s not just my husband, family and friends but my agent and my manager. They are never too hands-on with the choices. I mean, there have been a couple of things that were just not able to work for me due to scheduling but I generally get to pick what I want to do, so much so that I can’t imagine it being any other way.
As you mentioned, this isn’t an easy business in which to make a living. What continues to fuel your creative fire?
There are times where you’re hitting a stride and it all feels very busy, busy, busy and then you find yourself dog paddling and waiting for the next thing. I started writing in those lulls, which really helps. I’m really interested in writing for both film, television and web series. I’m working on a web series with my friend right now that I’m really excited about. Also, I live in New York City! I can go any night of the week and see a friend do something absolutely fantastic! There is so much good theater here and it ranges from the very expensive to the not-at-all expensive. I love seeing friends work and also having access to people I don’t know through those performances and get to see them work.
I also used to skate roller derby, which is a great way to get out any negativity about working or not working out of your head. I’m not able to do it anymore because, honestly, I’m old and busy! [laughs] I’m still on the board of directors for Gotham Girls Roller Derby, which is New York City’s only flat track roller derby for women and non-binary people and it’s incredible! My friend started it in 2003, right when I got out of acting school. I joined when there were not even 10 people in it and now we are a full non-profit that homes about 120 skaters. Plus, we have boot camps and rec league classes for three tiers of skaters, two of which are non-contact. We also run a full junior’s program for ages 8 to 18, where kids can train after school or on weekends as a group to learn really cool stuff! They get to skate and play a contact sport as young girls and non-binary people! It’s really cool to see them get the benefit of the sport that we got in our 20s, which is incredible! I love that they are getting exposed to ideas like, “You’re going to fall, hundreds of times, and it’s OK! It’s not embarrassing. You just get up really quickly and you keep going!” It also shows you the difference between “I’m hurt….” and “Oh, that was just scary.” Sometimes you fall and it just freaks you out more than anything, but you realize, “Oh, I’m OK. I’m just going to get up and keep scoring.” I wish I had that as a kid, so I’m really proud of my continuing work for that organization. I never came to New York thinking that I needed 80 new girlfriends. That is certainly not the case but that’s what I got! [laughs] It’s great!
You’re currently a series regular on “Mr. Robot” as Janice. This is such an intriguing character. How did you get involved with the series and what goes into bringing a character like this to life?
I’ve been a fan of “Mr. Robot” for years. I auditioned for a role on the show years ago that I was so wrong for. I was such a big fan of the show, I went in and I just couldn’t really make the language work in my mouth. In other words, she didn’t talk in a way that I could make happen! I left and said, “Ah man, that was it. You’re never going to be on ‘Mr. Robot.’ That sucks. I guess you’ll just keep watching.” So, when this part came along, my agent sent me the appointment and I read the audition scenes. I think this is true of a lot of actors, sometimes, you just hear it in your head the second you read it. That’s how Janice felt! She was so unrelentingly cheerful in my head. That was so cool to me having come off of “BlacKKKlansman,” where the character was also a villain, but she had a deeper well of need than Janice does. There was something about being cheerful. In “BlacKKKlansman,” I wanted my character to be the sort of person that white racist people would think was the sweetest woman alive! She’s sweet, she’s helpful and she’s really for the white race — just really messed up stuff.
So, I really loved the idea of getting to play a character where she just really loves what she gets to do, even though that thing is intimidating, murdering, extorting people and holding their families remotely as collateral. Basically, as you know from watching the show, Dom is doing things because I’ve threatened to kill her mom. That’s the only reason. At the same time, I think Dom may be one of Janice’s closest relationships. Personally, I can’t tap into what it is to be a psychopath. If I did that, I would go so far down a well that I don’t know if any of it would be useful. What I do is, and this was sort of the case for “BlacKKKlansman” as well, I do what in Meisner training we call a substitution. That’s where I find the things that give me that feeling that I need to have about the thing I’m doing. With Janice, it was easy because I’m already doing something that gives me an enormous amount of joy, which is I’m on “Mr. Robot” and I’m acting! [laughs] Initially, it wasn’t really hard to be light and happy about it. Then I felt like the language of the script, Sam Esmail’s direction and Hair & Makeup and Costume gave me the rest of it.
That’s really cool. I think your focus was on what my friends and I who watch the show love so much about your performance! Kudos to you on that!
Oh! Thanks, man! I have to say it’s really weird to be a character where I’m experiencing joy but, often, I’m the only one in the scene experiencing joy! I’m bringing dread and fear to people! It makes for a really interesting dynamic on set because I work with really, really, really talented actors. If you open up your channels of heart and empathy, I would end up super upset and sad because that’s what I’m doing to Dom in these episodes. I think you have to be careful to protect your point of view. Sometimes, if we’re doing phone calls or whatever, I will go off and do a little dance or sing a little song to get myself back into the happy place before I come back and work. I do that so that I can keep it light instead of dropping down into the dread that the other characters are experiencing!
I know your time is getting short and it’s been cool to get a look inside your career and process. So, I want to look back at it all. Where have you most evolved in your craft?
Oh, that’s a great question! Wow! What a terrific question. I think it took me a long time to be able to recognize that I had something to offer. I saw a headline on that faux-women’s news site, The Reductress, the other day. The headline was “Are you even good enough to have imposter syndrome?” [laughs] I was like, “Oh my god! So much of my life was spent that way!” By that I mean, for the longest time, I always felt like the inexperienced one in the room; the one who was so grateful to be given the opportunity. I’m still really grateful but I’m finally reaching a point where I’ve had 15 years in the business, and I realize I have gone from being the new kid to being someone who has experience. That allows me talk with some knowledge about how to work with other people, how to make a life on set rewarding, how to get invited back to a play and make those relationships fulfilling and lasting. Honestly, I think that’s the most important part to me. If I did this in a vacuum, I don’t know how interested I would be in it. It’s discovering stuff with the people I’m working with that really sets me on fire! I’m glad at 42 years old that I’ve figured out that I have something to give to that collaboration!
That’s a great answer! Your work shows you are bringing something special to the mix! I can’t wait to see where the journey leads you!
Thank you so much, Jason! That means a lot. I look forward to talking to you again soon!
Follow the continuing adventures of Ashlie Atkinson via social media on Twitter and Instagram. Dive deeper into the world of MR. ROBOT by visiting the official site for the series at www.usanetwork.com/mrrobot. The series airs Sunday at 10/9 C on USA Network.