As assistant manager of the Cloud 9 store on Superstore, Dina Fox quickly became one of the most interesting, dynamic characters on the NBC sitcom. The character’s aggressive, bird-loving, Bible-quoting ways helped cement actor Lauren Ash as a comedy star on the rise. Now Ash is set to take top-billing on the new animated Netflix show Chicago Party Aunt, playing another complicated but lovable woman-of-a-certain-age who turns partying into an Olympic sport.
The 38-year-old Belleville, Ont., native is no stranger to playing brash, funny women who experience the world as outsiders but as Diane Dunbrowski, hairdresser, White Claw enthusiast and the Chicago Party Aunt, she gets to explore a much raunchier, rowdier side. “I think for me, the opportunity it provided was the ability to play something that was very funny, which is in my wheelhouse, but also to really kind of extend my acting abilities,” she says over Zoom.
The show – adapted from actor Chris Witaske’s popular Twitter feed, @ChiPartyAunt, which started in 2016 as a deeply specific love letter to Chicago landmarks and local celebrities written in the voice of a fictional Chicago party aunt – features a hard-living, wise-cracking Wrigleyville resident trying to make sense of her life while helping her nephew figure out his next steps after high-school graduation. Unlikely roommates, the two become a modern-day Odd Couple with Chicago as the backdrop. The animated show is Netflix’s latest venture into the world of adult cartoon comedy, hoping to piggyback on the success of similar hits like BoJack Horseman and Big Mouth.
Because voice work is so different from live action, Ash had to tap into different acting methods and tricks to really bring Diane to life. “When you only have your voice, it’s a cool challenge,” she says. “The thing that I found personally when playing her is that I had to be physical. There’s no way that I can give this performance sitting.” Ash also realized early on what physical traits set Aunt Diane apart from other characters and really leaned into it. “Very early on, I adopted putting my right leg up, like Captain Morgan. And it became like a part of every record,” she laughs. Ash started using a low coffee table in the booth to put her right leg up on, describing Diane as “leading with her pelvis.” The stance helped Ash get into character and you can hear the physicality in Diane’s over-the-top approach to life, work and family.
Another key aspect of playing a character from Chicago, especially a devoted native like Diane, meant absolutely nailing the accent. Chicagoans take great pride in that specific Midwest twang, so how does a Canadian perfect a drawl that could make or break a role like this? Luckily, Ash spent a few years living in the Windy City during her Second City days early on in her career, where she was told she had a Canadian accent (news to Ash). So she worked hard to adopt Chicagoisms that would allow her to blend into her new home. “I kept getting teased [for her Canadian accent], so in order for me to try and succeed at that job, I had to immerse myself in what was going on culturally,” she says. Who would have thought a decade later it would allow her to perfect the voice of proud Chicagoan Diane Dunbrowski, who wears her love for the city on her sleeve. And perfect it she does, playing the raucous character with a specific geographical zeal that few Chicagoans would be able to describe as anything but native.
But it wasn’t just her time at Second City that Ash drew from to round-out her Chicago Party Aunt. A Canadian relative or two may have helped flesh out some of Diane’s cringier traits. “In terms of like, someone you know who maybe has a slight disconnect to what may be embarrassing or pushing things a little too far? My mother. Certainly, yep,” Ash laughs. “She knows though, she knows.”
Now that Ash is set to join the ranks of Nick Kroll and Will Arnett, whose respective Netflix cartoons Big Mouth and BoJack Horseman have brought them big audiences and critical acclaim, she’s getting ready to take her career to the next level. But she’s still emotional about the breakthrough role on Superstore that brought her here, especially about what it meant to portray essential workers during the pandemic. “I mean, listen, you know, Superstore is such a special show to me, and it always will be,” she says, welling up. " I was always going to be sad to say goodbye [to Superstore] but it was nice to be able to have that be our send off, portraying the front line workers and saying, ‘hey, we see you and we appreciate you.’ ”