“Welcome to Chippendales” details the rise and fall of the male exotic dancing troupe, as told through the tale of creator Somen “Steve” Banerjee. And yet, little is known about Banerjee’s wife, Irene, and her origin story. So, when Annaleigh Ashford signed on to play the loving partner of the immigrant entrepreneur-turned-millionaire criminal on the Hulu series, she knew she had a tough job ahead.
Having appeared on Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story” as Paula Jones, Ashford says she knew the responsibility of portraying a real life figure in history. But without much character background to research for Irene, the Tony Award winner was left to dive deeper into the historical context to imagine Irene’s general motive.
In Episode 6, “February 31,” the series follows the rising tension between Steve (played by Kumail Nanjiani) and his business partner Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett). “As Steve’s financial woes mount, Nick offers a lifeline in the form of a proposal that would take Chippendales global. A printing error has disastrous consequences for Steve,” reads the episode description.
Irene’s character development, however, is front and center in this episode. With Steve obsessing over his public reputation and the stress of fix his money problems in the Los Angeles club, Irene takes on a new role in her marriage and in her husband’s business.
“I did know that this is a woman who was in a business position at a time when women didn’t have high-level business decisions,” Ashford tells Variety. “She was living in an era where the patriarchy was ruling. And she was working in a club that was ran by men that was ultimately for women and their expression of their sexualities. There’s a lot of conflicts that she had to navigate.”
Viewers watched the Banerjee love story soar after their business took off and the couple shared a mutual admiration for accounting. But as Chippendales brought Steve more expansion and therefore more traveling time, Irene took strides to run their club in his absence.
In that same vein, Ashford says she and Nanjiani operated in a similar capacity. She ebbed where he flowed and found her place as Nanjiani’s support.
“I used to think of Kumail’s arc as sort of the red and I need to be the orange to his red. I needed to be right next to him and follow along with him,” says Ashford. “And if you saw a real love story between these two people – even though it was awkward, deliciously awkward – if I loved him, and you saw me love him, then the audience could love him. And I also found an opportunity for her to stand up to him, which I think was hard in that era.”
But Irene needed to be more than the doting wife. In an intimate moment of reflection (after deciding to keep an extremely expensive necklace her husband bought her), Irene makes the ultimate choice for herself. When Steve reveals his reprehensible side, would Irene bury her head in the sand, or would she confront him about his shady dealings?
“I saw where we were going in episodes 3 and 4,” Ashford says. “We had a really wonderful discussion that [Nanjiani’s wife and “Chippendales” exec producer] Emily Gordon was also a part of in our attempt to really make sure that this woman had conflict and that she wasn’t just a complement to Steve. That she was as dynamic and complicated as we possibly could make her.”
At this point, Steve was no longer the man that Irene thought she had married, and she decides she needs to take action. Strutting into her husband’s office in a luxurious fur coat and lingerie underneath, Irene uses every ounce of her femininity to turn the tides back in her favor.
She places herself into her husband’s lap and back into the circle of trust with a small amount of cocaine and a declaration of loyalty, telling him, “I don’t mind you doing shady things, but I do mind you doing them badly.”
“There was always a line in the sand for Irene,” says Ashford. But it’s still a shock to learn that her breaking point isn’t simply Steve doing illegal things, but rather it’s that she’s been left out of Steve’s illegal decisions.
“She didn’t want him to cross it,” Ashford says. “She could help him until he crossed it. So when he did cross it, that’s when she left. But I think it’s simultaneously her tactic and joining him is keeping the business alive, keeping her marriage alive. And also having having a little bit of control over the situation.”
The power in taking off that coat was like Irene “getting the keys back to the castle,” she adds. “In a lot of ways, it reflects what women had to use in that moment. She was using what could sometimes be a hindrance, which is her femininity. In this case, she’s using it for power.”
Ashford also admires the scene for its absurdity. “I always think there’s nothing better as an actor than getting to do cocaine awkwardly. I love that.”
“Welcome to Chippendales” is currently streaming on Hulu.