Annaleigh Ashford's Betty DiMello, a lesbian prostitute who helps William Masters in the early days of his sex study, could have easily disappeared from the show. Betty only appeared in three episodes in the first season, and her storyline had seemingly ended as she went off to marry a man unaware of her past or her inability to conceive.
But Ashford's performance is so darn charming, and Betty, and her Pretzel King husband, are back for season two with something to lord over Masters. The Pretzel King helped him get his new job at Memorial Hospital, and now Betty is showing up regularly for fake fertility treatments to fool her spouse. But for all of her deception Betty is one of the most honest characters on the show—she did, after all, introduce Masters to the concept of women faking orgasms in the pilot—and that came through in last night's episode when she felt compelled to speak to one of Masters' patients, a young girl with strong sexual urges who nearly underwent a hysterectomy at the request of her mother.
We got a chance to talk to Ashford about coming back to the show, that speech in the most recent episode, and how she gets Betty's accent down.
How did you find out that Betty was coming back? I’m so glad she is, but it seemed like her story might have been finished in the context of the show…
The way that the structure is for cable TV right now, unless you die or—pretty much unless you die—there’s always a way to come back into the story. So that’s exciting for us. The other thing that was thrilling about starting this season was I didn’t know exactly how she was going to come back. I knew that we’d pick up where we left off with her, that she was married to a man that she’s hiding a lot of secrets from. That’s always provides an interesting story. So yeah, secrets are always good for the story.
On some level I think Masters respects Betty a lot, but he also does talk down to her. Can you talk a little bit about teasing out that relationship and working with Michael Sheen?
One of the things that was set up in the pilot in the relationship between Betty and Dr. Masters that I think is really interesting storytelling is that you have a woman who is on the bottom of the social scale and she has very little education, and she is socially at that point in history far beneath not only a man, but a man of that stature and intelligence and education. So that fact that she knows more than he does and has power over him in the scene is thrilling. It’s like two people from completely different worlds coming together, and it’s the one area that she can have power over a man, especially power over such an important man. So that creates for interesting drama between the two people.
The other thing I think is really important in the relationship between Betty and Dr. Masters is in the first season she often is using blackmail to get what she needs from Dr. Masters. She needs help, which is a rare thing to get back then from a doctor when you’re a hooker. It’s such a rare relationship. So within that blackmail comes a sense of a tradeoff between the two characters. Betty helps Dr. Masters when he’s in a pickle and in return he also helps her. There’s like a mutual respect between the two people. It’s also an extremely different relationship than he has with any of the other women. His relationship with Virginia is extremely complicated and was in real life. In some ways occasionally I feel like Dr. Masters treats Betty as one of the boys instead of a woman in his life. Because she’s absolutely no threat to him on any level, and the only way that she can threaten him is not giving him what he needs in the study in the first season. And in the second season, I don’t want to give anything away, the relationship between Betty and Dr. Masters grows. The thing that initially made them so interesting, she kind of scoffs at his coldness and his lack of knowledge about normal human contact that’s all still there.
When we first see Betty this season she’s in a much different social stature and I was wondering how you changed your portrayal of her to fit that.
I think I looked a lot at human behavior. When you take a fish out of water and you put them on land they are going to start figuring out how to walk. That was part of Betty being in high class situations. She and her husband are absolutely nouveau riche and having to play their role in the world of the upper class even though they really live in the world of the blue collar. Even though they may eat with the correct fork at dinner because they’ve been taught and told there are still some things that you can’t take away from the person. There are a few physical changes that I made because she's being taken care of physically. So her body is in better condition, she’s not having to live her life as a hooker so that changes her health. It changes the way she walks. The costume designer Ane Crabtree and I talked a lot about how she probably went in once or twice a week to get her hair done, and she can hand them a movie magazine and say make me look like that. The biggest movie star of that time was Marilyn Monroe so we decided to go a lot blonder with my hair and make sure that we were displaying that she was now living the life of a nouveau riche woman, more money than she could ever dream of. That does affect the physicality of a person, but underneath that she’s the same old Betty.
We know about Betty’s past life as a hooker, but we don’t know about her past home life at all, and we don't even know about her present home life at all. What was your reaction when you got that script with Betty’s speech to Masters' patient about her mother, and how were you thinking of playing that?
It’s so interesting that you ask that because when I first read it my thought was there was a few different ways to play that monologue. My first was that I was excited to learn a piece of her history and the relationship that she had with her mother. She obviously came from an outrageously dysfunctional home, which most people who end up in a situation like that often times just grow up in extremely abusive or emotionally abusive homes. So all of that just kind of followed suit with what I had created in Betty’s backstory. And then in terms of playing the scene, the director of that episode Michael Apted—who is a wonderful, brilliant, not only artist and director but a beautiful and brilliant human—and I decided that it was more honest, more lifelike, and more interesting, if i wasn’t crying through the whole speech. People who have trauma like that in their life often times are numb when they share about it. It’s part of their history and to share it with this young girl, the objective of the scene was to comfort her. So even though I’m saying such intensely graphic things to her about my past, which are extremely abusive and explosive, my intent in that is to share with her that there’s a silver lining in this relationship that she has with her mother and that there’s a future for her and that she is loved and that there is nothing wrong with her.
It’s also another important part of the Masters and Johnson legacy. They did a lot of work with sexual dysfunction, and we tap on that in this season, which is exciting because it’s going to lead us to what’s next in the future of not only our show, but into the dynamic of their study because that is such an important part of sexual history was helping people with sexual dysfunction, and helping people understand that sex is not wrong, sex is not bad, and any sort of sexual dysfunction can be helped. I think that’s part of the approach that we took with the scene.
One of the great things about the show is that it's about not demonizing female sexuality. Was that something you thought about doing this scene from Betty’s perspective?
Absolutely. Especially back in the late 1960s a young girl who is having strong sexual urges and in many ways I feel this character, her name is Rose, Rose is having urges and feelings that no one can even talk to her about or help her about. That is a problem even more because she’s a woman. Not only is she only a lower social status in the late 1950s society, but it was before the birth control pill so she can get pregnant, and when you grew up in an upper middle class family, wealthier family, that was a scandal that was not acceptable. So you have this young girl that really has no options and no help and no one to talk because this topic is so taboo. So I think it definitely touches on the woman’s place in society at that time and how sexually they were forced into such a submissive role in the way that they were forced into a submissive role in life.
That applies to Betty too. Obviously her marriage took her out of a terrible situation, but in her next life she has to try to submit to her husband's wishes, which is a family.
Absolutely. The first couple of episodes shed light on the mountains of secrets that Betty has hidden away from her husband. Dramatically that’s interesting because you can only keep so many secrets for so long, and she has so many from her past life. Also it’s interesting to watch a strong woman give up that strength and give up her life for a man because she knows that’s the only way she can progress on the social ladder.
I wanted to ask how you came up with her accent. She is really the only character on the show, which takes place in St. Louis, with the midwest dialect.
St. Louis is a very interesting city in terms of accents. I actually have some family that’s from Missouri and my husband is an outrageous St. Louis Cardinals fan, so we got to St. Louis every once in a while to go see baseball games. The regional dialect is a light midwest dialect, so you don’t hear much of a dialect. Then there are parts of Missouri just south of St. Louis where there are hints of a southern accent, and when you go north and more towards Chicago it starts sounding much more like the Chicago area. When we were creating the pilot, I did a cold read for Betty and originally they were supposed to be at a Chinese restaurant and for some reason when I read it out loud it just came out as a Brooklyn accent. I got the job from that cold read—it was so crazy—and then I remember getting a call from John Madden before we shot the pilot saying that he loved the accent but we’re going to have to explain why you went from New York to St. Louis. So we created a backstory that she came down from the Chicago area to St. Louis because they are very close to each other to get away from her family, and found work as a prostitute. I modeled my accent after an area that actually my husband comes from that’s in between Gurnee, Ill. and Kenosha, Wisconsin, everything in that part of the country is very flat sounding and it just made a lot of sense for Betty, and it also makes sense as one of the regional dialects for St. Louis.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.