Aya Cash has tackled all sorts of characters in her career, from her award-nominated roles in You're the Worst and the antihero romp The Boys, to embodying the wife of Neil Simon, Joan Simon, on Fosse/Verdon and a local newswoman in mockumentary Welcome to Flatch. When it came to her upcoming series The Girl From Plainville, however, the dramatized role of district attorney Katie Rayburn was a first.
"This role is unlike anything I've ever done before. When the offer came in I thought, was it a mistake? Is it for Maya Rash?" she tells Metacritic. "It's unusual to get offers for something that feels very different than anything you've done before. Mostly people want to get their money's worth and they want to see you do the thing they just saw you do."
The Girl From Plainville is based on the story of Michelle Carter (played by Elle Fanning, who also executive produces), a 17 year old who was accused of encouraging her 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III (Colton Ryan), who was planning to die by suicide, via text messages. In 2017, Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter following Roy's 2014 death by carbon monoxide poisoning. Rayburn was the prosecutor who tried the case.
This dramatized retelling is largely inspired by the 2019 documentary, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter. The film examined the story itself but also dove deeper into both sides of the case, presenting new information behind Carter's motives and her backstory. The show does its own deep dive by spending alone time with characters to try to get inside their heads and showcase their humanity.
"Empathy for everyone and the idea that you shouldn't ever just believe a headline — there's always more to a story," Cash says. "It's our job to actually look for those stories rather than accept at face value the first thing said about anyone or anything. We're talking a lot about social media these days, and how we interact with each other online is very different than how we interact with each other in person. We need to be aware of that. Always, when you're writing someone online, a stranger or a friend or texting, imagine their face. Because it's much harder to say a lot of the stuff to someone's face. I don't know if Michelle Carter would have said any of this to Conrad's face. It's much easier to disassociate in 2D, so I hope people are kinder to each other."
Here, Cash talks to Metacritic about the pull of the Carter case and how stories like hers are sensationalized, the way society has dissociated in the wake of social media, and her hopes for her own upcoming projects.
How familiar were you with the Michelle Carter case before you signed on?
I followed the story in real-time. I also watched the documentary when it came out. My feelings about the story changed pretty drastically from following the case live to seeing the documentary. I think many people were taken in by the sensationalism of it, and were shocked and titillated by it. Watching the doc I felt so much more empathy and shame in my own reaction to the case initially. It's a pretty typical path these days for those of us who have lived through the last 20 years of how we treat both women and true crime.
Did you have any conversations with the real Katie Rayburn before or after filming?
No, I wasn't able to, but the story was very much a jumping-off point. I watched the doc three or four times to get a sense of her, but some of the characters have been changed. The woman who I work with is a different character with a different character name. Obviously with Michelle and Conrad those are representations, but this is fiction as well. [Creators] Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus were more interested in an interpretation rather than a direct mimic.
Elle Fanning has said she wanted to avoid sensationalizing this story, did you have conversations about that on-set?
The writers were very clear they didn't want to make a typical true crime interpretation of this. It's based off the material from the doc as well and it feels like that really set the tone to not make this clickbait, but an examination of how we look at people in 3D that we have just been fed in 2D. I love that they use fantasy sequences and the text messages are jumping-off points for scenes sometimes, so that we have a fuller experience of who these two young kids were.
Why is there such a current draw or appetite for these kinds of dramatized retellings?
There's something right now about the familiar that is helpful in the pandemic, the stories that we already know, in some way, but feel like it's a new way to look at them. I also think in our culture, we are looking back on things like Monica Lewinsky, or the way we treated Britney Spears in the media, or Paris Hilton. We're also having a reckoning on how we have observed and treated young women in our society or in scandal. That's a good thing to be looking back on.
There's also a mental health component to this. Do you think your portrayal of Gretchen on You're The Worst opened the door for the current conversations we're having about female mental health on television?
I hope so. Whether or not this is delusion, the way I find meaning in my job is the idea that stories can change how we feel about things. I hope Gretchen opened the door for a little more discussion. But it's also hard to tell sometimes what's in the unified subconscious. It feels sometimes like things bubble up all at the same time sort of naturally. You're the Worst was right at that time, where all of a sudden there seemed to be a lot more awareness and thought around these things. As a culture, we tend to have those things come up and bubble up.
What was the transition like between this role and Welcome to Flatch?
We wrapped Welcome to Flatch last February, and then we started Plainville in September. I don't actually see things so differently. I know the experience of them for the audience is very different. But for me acting is acting whether you're doing a big physical comedy or a very dark drama. I don't think I behave very differently on set, because I like to be relaxed and loose and then go into a scene. The shows feel like completely different worlds. But other than the fact that I can talk directly to the camera on Flatch, I don't feel so much of a difference.
At this point in your career are there projects or parts you find yourself gravitating towards?
I'm always interested in what I haven't done or what I haven't done in a while. After doing something like a Welcome to Flatch, I tend to want to do something dramatic or right now, I would love to do a period piece, like a turn-of-the-century or fantasy, just to live in a different world for a while. Usually it's not so much of a career plan as it is, "Well, I just did that, let's do something totally different." That's as much of a plan as I have, unfortunately.
Did you get a taste of that different world playing Betty Ford's press secretary in The First Lady?
Full disclosure, I pop into The First Lady very briefly. It was a short stint. But in a great way. I would love to put on a corset. I'm going to regret [saying] that. If I ever do a corset thing, you're going to interview me and I'll be like, "Please know that I never want to do a corset again." But I'd love to do something in that way, whether that's on stage or film or TV.
Before we let you go, are there any updates to Stormfront's return in The Boys Season 3?
The Boys comes out on June 3 and I'll be watching with the rest of you guys, unfortunately. That's my update.
Get to know Aya Cash:
As aforementioned, Cash previously starred on You're The Worst (Metascore: 77), Fosse/Verdon (68), and most recently was seen on The Boys (77) on TV. However, she just starred in the feature film We Broke Up (53). Other notable projects have included Easy (72), Traffic Light (63), The Newsroom (61).