LOS ANGELES – With more than 450 scripted series in contention for Emmys, great performances are bound to be overlooked. Aya Cash can handle the snub; she survived Minnesota winters.
“I did not buy a puffy coat the entire time I was there,” said the breakout star of FXX’s “You’re the Worst,” which returned for its fourth season this month. “I thought I was too cool, so I shivered in my vintage clothes. Now I’ve got a coat that zips up like a sleeping bag.”
Cash’s time in Minnesota was short but essential in preparing her to take on Gretchen Cutler, a manic-depressive, self-centered band publicist who falls hard for struggling novelist Jimmy (Chris Geere), the only person on Earth with crasser manners.
This season, Gretchen deals with being dumped at Lookout Point by holing up in her best friend’s apartment, trying crack, obsessing over “The Price Is Right” and singing the Cranberries’ “Zombie” while bouncing up and down on her bed.
“I knew I had cast a thoroughbred,” show creator Stephen Falk said of Cash, who had appeared in “Traffic Light,” a short-lived Fox sitcom. He overcame resistance from network executives to give her the role.
“Some actors are more stoic, but I like actors where expression and emotion resonate in their body,” Falk said. “That’s Aya. I’m in the admiration club.”
Geere knew he had a formidable acting partner while shooting a scene in the first episode in which Gretchen returns to Jimmy’s pad after a one-night stand to chew him out.
“She’s fierce as an actress,” he said. “There was so much strength in that performance, yet there’s a little scared rabbit in there. Instinctively, both of us are delivering lines one way and thinking something completely different. That’s where the fun is.”
Cash credits the education she got as a member of the inaugural class of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA actor training program, whose mission is to combine classical training with a proper education.
The program lured her from her San Francisco home in 2000.
“The thing about doing Shakespeare is that you have to be word-perfect, and we are very close to word-perfect on this show,” said Cash, wearing a floral shirt and tan pants, John Lennon sunglasses resting atop her head. “That sort of work ethic, in terms of unpacking a sentence and making sure it’s exact, was very helpful.
“Plus, the joy of going to school is that you get to play so many different parts because there are not enough young-woman roles. You give yourself permission to do things no one would ever cast you in.”
She also got to interact with people she wouldn’t have gotten to know in the Bay Area.
“I had never met a Republican before I went to college,” she said. “They were like breast implants. You know they exist but you don’t really believe it until you see it and then you’re like, ‘What? People do that to their bodies?’ ”
She learned an important out-of-class lesson during the 2000 election. Talking in the dormitory lounge, she scoffed at anyone who voted for George W. Bush. Students left nasty notes under her door for weeks.
“I deserved it. I was such a brat,” said Cash, who voted for Ralph Nader. “I eventually ended up making out with a Republican. I might have done it because I thought it would be good diversity.”
After graduating, she logged two summers at the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minn., where she played Lady Anne in “Richard III,” Hero in “Much Ado About Nothing” and Hermia in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“You see a lot of young actors come through here, but there’s not a ton where you’re absolutely sure they’re going to make a career out of it,” said Doug Scholz-Carlson, who performed with Cash at the festival and is now its artistic director. “With Aya, it was immediately apparent.”
Cash, who divides her time between shooting in L.A. and living in New York with husband Josh Alexander, speaks fondly of her time in Minnesota, rattling off activities she misses: shopping at Ragstock, catching shows at First Avenue, drinking coffee at the Purple Onion cafe.
In fact, she had dreamed of getting hired by the Guthrie.
“They didn’t pick me. So I moved to New York and this other path sort of unfolded. But I probably would have been very happy having an amazing regional theater career,” said Cash, who has spent recent summers treading the boards in Hartford, Conn., and Costa Mesa, Calif., as well as Off-Broadway.
“Sometimes I think you do better work when the audience isn’t your community. People are there because they think theater is engaging and interesting, not because they’re in the business. New York audiences can be kind of snooty.”
Cash is open to returning to the Twin Cities during a future hiatus, but right now she’s busy wrapping up the fourth season and beating the drums for one of TV’s most underappreciated sitcoms.
“I have a friend who’s on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and I can imagine that the fan attention is overwhelming,” she said. “I’d rather be part of a show I’m super-proud of than something that’s blown up to a degree where I’m on magazine covers.”
“Although,” she added, “I’m open to that.”