Annaleigh Ashford has a knack for playing irrepressible blondes. She made her Broadway debut as a boy-crazy bimbo in “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” originated the role of saucy love interest Lauren in “Kinky Boots” and won a Tony playing madcap Essie in the screwball classic “You Can’t Take It With You.”
Now, she’s going dark.
In “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” the FX series premiering Tuesday, Ashford plays Paula Jones, the (brunette) Arkansas state employee who sued President Bill Clinton for alleged sexual harassment in 1994.
It’s a tough role: Ashford’s Jones grapples with sexual trauma, emotional abuse from her husband and unrelenting ridicule from the press, who painted her as trailer trash and used her as a dimwitted pawn to try to bring down the president.
And unlike Monica Lewinsky — portrayed in “Crime Story” by Beanie Feldstein — the real Jones has not enjoyed a #MeToo-era reappraisal.
Yet sunny Ashford felt a connection with the awkward, vilified Jones.
“I knew [the role] was such a match for me,” the 36-year-old actress told The Post during a recent video call from Los Angeles, where she’s filming the second season of her CBS sitcom, “B Positive.”
“There was a childlike quality about her that I found really important,” Ashford said. “And being a sort-of victim of the patriarchy was an important part of her narrative that I wanted to explore.”
Though Ashford had a small role in a previous season of director Ryan Murphy’s “Crime Story” series — about the assassination of fashion designer Gianni Versace — she had to audition for Jones. She sprayed her hair dark brown and even gave herself an at-home perm to look the part.
After she was cast, Ashford worked with a movement coach to internalize Jones’ hunched-over, submissive gait for months while the production was delayed due to COVID. (Along with her husband, actor Joe Tapper, and 4-year-old son, she spent the early pandemic strolling by Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal — “the trash river,” Ashford called it — and walking to Red Hook for Hometown Bar B Que.)
In the series, Ashford sports multiple wigs, a prosthetic nose and even braces. “I would spend 2½ to three hours in hair and makeup,” she said. Even the clothes — acid-wash jeans and white Reeboks, scrunchies and floral dresses with enormous shoulder pads — matched outfits Jones wore in real life.
“In the first episode, there’s a scene where I do an interview at the CPAC Convention, and we found the real outfit that [Jones] wore at the CPAC Convention,” Ashford said. “Unfortunately, [Jones’] legal funds were not managed correctly, and at the end of it all, she had nothing. And at some point in her life, she auctioned [the outfit] off and it ended up on eBay. And so I wore it on the show.”
Ashford was a kid living in suburban Denver when the Clinton impeachment scandal broke. “I remember sort of hearing about it when I would watch late-night comedy,” she said. “I remember the women [involved in the scandal] being made fun of mercilessly.”
Back then, Ashford, who started acting professionally at 9, didn’t necessarily imagine herself playing a tabloid fixture in the future. “I used to go to Blockbuster, and I would rent out every single musical that they had,” she recalled. “I watched ‘All That Jazz’ so many times that I wore out their copy.”
She moved to New York City at 17 and, after stints as a clown, a go-go dancer and a restaurant hostess, got her first big break in the touring production of “Wicked,” in 2005. Ashford made her Broadway debut a year later, in “Legally Blonde,” at 21. She soon began playing the kinds of characters that delighted her as a kid: a brassy lesbian hooker in the TV series “Masters of Sex”; an exuberant dog (yes, a dog) in the stage show “Sylvia”; and Dot, the mistress to Impressionist painter Georges Seurat (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) in a revival of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Ashford went to LA about a year ago to start shooting “Impeachment” and then “B Positive,” in which she plays a messy but big-hearted kidney donor. Meanwhile, her son was still attending his school in Brooklyn via Zoom till June. “We didn’t know if we were going to be coming back to New York; I had no idea what was gonna happen with, you know, my life,” she said.
For now she’s enjoying the West Coast lifestyle. “In LA, the produce is twice as good and half the price [as it is in New York,]” she said. “And the sun comes out every day, so I will never say no to a little more Vitamin D.”
But Ashford said she can’t wait to go back to New York, specifically to Broadway.
“I’d love to play Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd someday, and I’ve got a few more years left to do ‘Sweet Charity’ [before my hip gives out] — I just want to be in one more dance show,” she said. “And I [joke] that my husband and I should be in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ every time we have a good row!
“I miss Broadway. … I miss the stickiness of New York, the magic,” she said, sounding wistful. “I’ve lived in New York longer than I live anywhere else … I’ve had multiple apartments there — multiple sad apartments with no closet space. I’ve had a lot of roaches; I’ve had a lot of mice. I’ve had a child in New York. I’ve gotten caught in the rain and the snow with the stroller and groceries multiple times in New York: I’m a New Yorker!”