Aya Cash is big on organized group activities. Her current commitments include a book-of-the-month club, a “young adult book club” where she and her friends dissect books from their childhood, and a craft club in which they’ve done glass-etchings and made felt voodoo dolls. Today, in a fortuitous alignment of Cash’s hobbies and the ritualistic demands of celebrity profiling, Cash is going to teach me how to découpage. “I love some clubs!” she says as she takes my coat and shows me into her recently purchased Brooklyn brownstone. I offer that these activities are pretty much the opposite of the debauched “Sunday Fundays” orchestrated by her character Gretchen on You’re the Worst, the cult FXX comedy, which begins its fifth and final season on January 9. She rolls her eyes at me. “Sure.”
In preparation for our crafting adventure, Cash has covered her dining-room table with old newspapers; along the walls, bookshelves hold tasteful displays of artisanal pottery and abstract art (as well as a homemade felt voodoo doll of Donald Trump). It’s clear that Cash, who’s wearing flared jeans with a Wrigley’s Spearmint-logo belt and a vintage crop-top with little buildings on it, has tastes that fall squarely in a familiar artsy-Brooklyn-cool-girl-matrix. “If I bought as much Rachel Comey as I wanted, I would never have been able to afford a house,” she confesses. While the new place looks great, it was in fact what Cash calls “the bougiest nightmare ever,” complete with a scumbag landlord and rotting beams that required extensive renovations.
“So the dream home is actually all a lie,” I say.
“Yeah, which is kind of like everything,” she responds.
As Cash walks me through how to use a sticky paste called mod podge to affix magazine cutouts to the back of glass plates, she shows me some she’d made from old black-and-white photos of Patti Smith. “Really, it’s so mind-blowingly easy,” she says, “I want to impress you up-front so you feel like, wow, but then you’re going to be like: oh I can do that shit,” she says. About five minutes later, I press my paintbrush too hard and rip a hole in a cutout I’d made of Lucas Hedges’s face. “Okay, so this one is not going to be perfect,” she consoles me. “But,” she says, putting on a sarcastic, faux-earnest tone, “I really just want you to learn the lesson that nothing in life is perfect.”
Cash has a habit of making a dark joke about something and then immediately veering back toward earnestness, or vice versa. “It actually is important to be a beginner,” she adds immediately, offering that she’s just started taking clown classes. “I think there’s something really freeing about — and I’m not tying this into my show, okay! — about being the worst. There’s something really nice about not being good at something.”
You’re the Worst seems like a perfect outlet for Cash’s unique combination of wry cynicism and emotional vulnerability. The dark rom-com, created by Stephen Falk, is a tough cookie of a show with a soft gooey center — the story of a gang of wayward douchebags that manages to be fundamentally hopeful about the human condition. Its characters are as depraved and narcissistic as the gang on It’s Always Sunny, but they also develop and grow, they stumble and regress, and they deal with real traumas. Cash doesn’t have much in common with the infantile, self-destructive PR exec Gretchen Cutler, but she seems to share both the show’s cynical tone and its cautiously optimistic outlook: that love is often a sham you can still deeply want to believe in. “I know I’m really lucky to have been on a show that aligns with my ideals,” Cash says. Now the challenge is finding a new project that can measure up.
Cash grew up on San Francisco’s Castro street, raised by divorced artist parents, living in an apartment with a rotating cast of tenants. She was a rebellious teen who shaved her head twice and got a tattoo of a hawk on her lower back (she was told at the time that Aya meant hawk in Hebrew, though that’s not totally accurate), a phase she has grown out of. (“Now I découpage,” she jokes). She went to art school, grew up with cats named Vanilla Pudding Chocolate Heart Star Moonbeam Sunflower GI Joe and Ella Carmella Vanilla Sophia Soprano, and didn’t meet a Republican till she was studying theater in college. She moved to Brooklyn when she was 22, and waitressed while hustling for acting gigs. You’re the Worst was her big on-screen break. Well, big-ish. The show never found a huge audience, but is adored by critics and heralded for being a genuinely funny comedy that also plunges into the darkness of the human psyche — part of a new wave of “depression comedies” in the vein of Crazy Ex Girlfriend and Bojack Horseman.
You’re the Worst begins as a love story about the callous, misanthropic Jimmy and the reckless, self-centered Gretchen, as well as the antics of their equally troubled friends Lindsay (Kether Donohue) and Edgar (Desmin Borges). But it’s during season two, when it reveals that Gretchen suffers from severe clinical depression, that the show reveals the full breadth of its ambition. “Here is an interesting thing that you don’t know about me. I am clinically depressed!” she eventually tells Jimmy. It becomes clear how many of Gretchen’s self-destructive behaviors stem from her untreated mental-health issues, and how depression can radiate outward to affect one’s most intimate relationships. Critics have called it television’s most groundbreaking depiction of mental illness.
Cash confesses that she herself has depressive tendencies, and she found the response to season two especially difficult, because so much attention was suddenly on her as the show’s breakout star. “Success makes everyone feel like a fraud, I think, unless you’re a monster,” she tells me, meticulously mod-podging an ad for the new Cher musical onto the back of a plate. “Because you suddenly go like, who do people think I am? What do they expect from me? All this attention was coming at me and I’d be sobbing in bed and then have to get on a phone call and go, ‘Yeah, it’s great. It’s so amazing.’ You want to be genuine and you want to be honest about who you are and what you’re going through.”
Navigating the world as a newly public person has brought up other challenges. She’s thought a lot about how political to be on social media, and despite her affinity for Instagramable hobbies, she hasn’t mastered the studied social-media presence of many of her peers. Her Instagram feed is mostly dog pics, progressive missives and photos of books she likes; #SponCon remains elusive. “I knew if you have a certain amount of followers you could get a bed, and I contacted them, you probably know which company I’m talking about, and they were like, No, now it’s 600,000 followers that you need for the bed, and I had like 50-thousand something,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Fuck!’”
Luckily, she says, her co-star and onscreen love interest, Chris Geere, has supported her as she deals with public life and balances out her darker side. “Chrissy and I are total opposites in every sense,” she says. “He’s got all this light, positive energy. Compared to him I’m a fucking ditch.” For example: “He likes John Mayer. Oh my God, he loves One Direction. I listen to Perfume Genius, and he always says why do you listen to this sad shit?” One of the things she says she’ll miss the most about the show is Geere. “We were real friends. You know what I mean?” It’s this closeness that has in part made saying good-bye to her You’re the Worst family so difficult. “I’m in denial,” she acknowledges about the end of her show. She says she hasn’t been able to watch the final season yet. “I’m just super sad. I feel like I won the lottery. I had this great thing. Five years and we all still liked each other? It’s from what I understand, pretty rare.”
As the show winds down, Falk has said it will “explore commitment” between Cash and Geere’s characters. After countless ups and downs (including Jimmy proposing to Gretchen and then promptly abandoning her on a hillside), the couple is finally scheduled to get married — or at least, that’s the plan. Cash can’t reveal much, other than to say she thinks the ending feels true to who the characters are. “There’s someone for everybody and you decide what kind of relationship works for you,” she says of the show’s ultimate message. “That’s the truth. These people are flawed, but everybody’s flawed. You find the person whose flaws match up with yours and you make it work that way you decide that it works.”
In real life, Cash has been with her husband, Josh Alexander, a director and writer, for 13 years, and they’ve been married for six. She said she never wanted to get married, never believed in marriage, until one day she did. “I hated weddings, but there’s something when it’s your own. Also I’m a narcissist, so you know, being center of attention with all the people I know was great,” she jokes, before calling out to Josh, who has been working upstairs during our crafting session.
“HEY JOSH! IS IT OKAY IF I TALK ABOUT OUR THERAPY?” she calls.
“SURE, THANKS FOR ASKING,” he yells back.
Unlike Gretchen’s miserable attempts at therapy and her and Jimmy’s pathological inability to communicate, Cash and her husband swear by couples’ therapy, which she feels it’s important to destigmatize. “We went to couples therapy right before we decided to get married to figure out if that was we wanted to do,” she says. “We’re not in crisis mode at all right now. Now we’re just like, ‘How do we be better? How do we have a better life?”
So, does she have faith in the lasting power of love? She pauses to think. “No … I don’t know. I joked to Josh that our vows were gonna be like, ‘I promise to love you till I don’t.’ We’re both fairly realistic. Josh said to me, ‘Look, I will have wanted to do this in my life, so let’s do it together and if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. But we’re gonna try everything until it doesn’t.’ And I think that’s the commitment.”
Now, Cash is back to being a beginner. For her next big challenge, she’s planning to direct an adaptation of a novel written by her mom, author Kim Addonizio, about a woman with OCD. Around a decade ago Reese Witherspoon’s company had been planning to develop it, but it fell apart and Cash recently resuscitated it as a tiny indie. She has been shadowing directors and taking an online master-class to prepare. “So now I’m trying to run toward this goal of directing,” she says. Last year, she returned to her theater roots in the play Kings, at the Public theater, alongside Gillian Jacobs. In February she will be on an episode of Will & Grace, and in April she’ll appear in the FX limited series Fosse/Verdon, about the relationship between choreographer Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) and dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams). She plays Joan Simon, the wife of playwright Neil Simon (Nate Corddry) and Verdon’s best friend. “When she and Neil Simon had kids she stopped dancing and sort of let him be the star, so she helped Gwen Verdon deal with a lot of the issues with her and Fosse and who gets to be the star of the relationship,” she explains. Most of her scenes are with Williams, which she says has been a total dream. “Sometimes you meet people you admire and that can be intimidating or disappointing, but Michelle is extremely warm and welcoming, and that has made things infinitely easier and better.”
Beyond that, Cash is navigating a very different audition landscape than she was pre–You’re the Worst. For one thing, her standards are higher. Right after the election, she had a very bad audition for a character that was written essentially as a two-dimensional sex object. Afterward, she wrote an email to her agent, which she later shared on Instagram, declaring that she’s done going out for roles that exploit women. “I think I have to not go in for parts that are there so a man can want to fuck them with no actual story line or character,” she wrote. “It feels like these little concession [sic] have created the climate that allow a man like Trump to become our president.”
Cash doesn’t do full nudity (side-boob only, her contract stipulates), not because she’s entirely averse to the idea, but because she finds it very rare that female nude scenes actually fuel the narrative instead of being exploitative. Although, she acknowledges: “I haven’t been truly tested yet. Like I haven’t had something that I’m like, ‘Oh my God this is an amazing job.’ It’s been like oh yeah, that’s a studio movie, but I just don’t need to participate.”
As she focuses on finding the mature, challenging roles — on-camera or behind-the-scenes — that she genuinely feels good about, Cash says she’s hesitant about committing to a new show, and is reluctant to do another comedy, unless it really has something profound to say. “I feel like I got to do all this cool shit on You’re the Worst. And it’s gotta be that good or better next time. I wanna do something different. I like to cut my hair, I like to move,” she says as we chat around the kitchen counter while our crafts set. “The reason that I’m an actor is partly the lifestyle. I actually like having a new job every three months. ”
With our plates finally dry enough to transport, Cash wraps them up in brown paper and twine with a little bow, along with some felt that I can glue to the bases when I get home. “Hey do you want to see the coolest part of my house?” she asks as I prepare to leave. I follow her as she bounds up the stairs to a room on the third floor, where she creaks open the door and whispers in hushed reverence: “This is my library.” Inside, there’s a sloped ceiling and a reading nook and a window overlooking the garden, and rows of books organized alphabetically by sections — fiction, non-fiction, poetry, travel, theater, spirituality and self-help. “When I was in school they asked, define success for yourself. And I’m like: a room for my books,” says Cash.
I point out she hasn’t done the on-trend thing of color-coding the books’ spines, and she looks at me in horror. “Ugh, I have so many opinions about the color-coding. How are people gonna find anything?” she says. “Maybe people who have photographic memories can color-code their books but for me, it’s just a sign that you don’t actually read,” she says, fingering the spines lovingly.
“That’s the Instagram picture, that’s not the real life, and I don’t want to live in an Instagram,” she continues. “Well, unless someone wants to give me a free bed, in which case I’ll do whatever the hell you want.”