My Road to the Tonys: 'Mean Girls' Star Ashley Park
It’s taken Ashley Park just five years to go from musical theater student at the University of Michigan to Tony-nominated actress. Mean Girls is her fourth Broadway show, and in the stage adaptation of Tina Fey’s 2004 film, the featured actress in a musical nominee finds the humor and vulnerability in Gretchen Wieners, one of the members of the Plastics clique. But that's not all she's been up to this past season: last fall, while she was rehearsing for Mean Girls’ out-of-town tryout, she was also starring in the acclaimed off-Broadway musical KPOP, and was a dual Drama Desk Award nominee for both shows this year. Here, Park looks back on her road to her first Tony nom.
When she was 15, Park was diagnosed with leukemia and spent eight months in the hospital. Her fight helped her make up her mind about her career ambitions. “Part of it was also putting on another person’s skin and shoes for a period of time,” Park says. “After that experience, I didn’t want to be identified as just the sick girl, so junior year of high school, two months after I was released from the hospital, I was rehearsing to play Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie. I found a lot of joy in doing it.”
Comedy in College
Park grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she also attended the University of Michigan's acclaimed musical theater program in college. “My favorite role was playing Shelly Parker in Bat Boy [the rock musical by Laurence O'Keefe]. It was my first time with comedy. I remember listening to Kerry Butler endlessly on the cast recording. It’s so funny that I’m working with her now [in Mean Girls].”
In 2014, Park made her Broadway debut when she joined the cast of the long-running musical Mamma Mia! Most actors would have quit their survival jobs in an instant, but not Park. “I loved working at Juice Press so much, I tried to keep working there, with 6 a.m. shifts while I was in a Broadway show,” she explains. “I get so attached.”
Park has excelled in parts written specifically for Asian actors as well as those that traditionally aren't. She wowed audiences as Tuptim in Lincoln Center’s production of The King and I in 2015, and followed that two years later with a comedic role in the Jake Gyllenhaal-led revival of Sunday in the Park With George.
“When people would ask me in school who I looked up to, [I would say] Kelli O’Hara, Kristin Chenoweth and all these people that are white women,” Park says. “I didn’t know quite where I would fit in, what I was going to be considered to do and what kind of people would take chances on me. So I was like, I have to be the best I possibly can at every single thing. It’s really important to me, though, that I don’t get cast just because they want someone ethnic but because of something specific and honest that I bring to a character.”
Last year, Park went directly from playing Maid Marian in Robin Hood musical Hood in Dallas to the read-through for KPOP, a show about the South Korean music genre. “I landed and I came with my suitcase,” she says. Initially, Park pulled out of the show when she was cast in Mean Girls but, after a talk with her father, decided to try to do both.
“He said, ‘If there’s going to be a show about Koreans that comes to New York and you want to be a part of this story, you should just try to find any way to do it,’” Park recalls. “For about a month, I was rehearsing for Mean Girls during the day and then doing KPOP at night. My team and the casting and the creative teams on both worked like champions to figure out a way for me to do both.”
Finding Honesty With Fey
While funny, Park’s Mean Girls character, Gretchen Wieners, is also a fragile creature beneath her bright pink exterior, and the part resonated with the actress. “When I got the song ‘What’s Wrong With Me?’ I connected with her so deeply,” Park says. “As we developed the show it truly did feel like the role evolved, and a lot of the lines now are very different from what they were originally because Tina’s so amazing in finding the honesty in a person and really writing for them.”
Park’s mother will be joining her for the Tony Awards on Sunday (June 10), but even though the actress is a nominee and will be performing with the Mean Girls cast, she’s most looking forward to celebrating with her friends and colleagues. “I love getting to see all the different people that I’ve worked with over the past few years that are just happy to see me there as a person,” she says. “I probably won’t remember any of it!”