Now in its third season, Ugly Betty is beside the point. Not the show Ugly Betty, which still draws obsessive fans on Thursday nights, but the eponymous lead character, the plucky ugly duckling played by America Ferrera in a bad wig and braces. The conceit of Betty—that she’s a hardworking, wrong-side-of-the-tracks magazine assistant at Mode, a fictional Vogue populated with high-fashionista backstabbing—is getting stale. How long do people actually wear braces, anyway? But if Betty herself is losing steam, this has only provided more scene-stealing opportunities for her entertaining supporting cast. The standout among that crew—Michael Urie as Marc, Vanessa Williams as Wilhelmina, Judith Light as Claire Meade—is Becki Newton, who plays Amanda, Mode’s sexy receptionist and resident underminer. Newton’s distinctly low-pitched voice and perfectly arched eyebrow accompany her devastating zingers, provoking a wealth of heh-heh rather than ha-ha moments, courtesy of the show’s writers. But that Amanda is also vulnerable, rather than just another mean girl, is entirely thanks to Newton.
“When I read the Ugly Betty pilot, I thought, Oh, this part’s funny,” says Newton, 30, who’s sitting across from me in the Upper West Side’s Cafe Lalo. She’s wearing a knit hobo cap and a loose-fitting sweater—a strikingly different ensemble from that of her gladiator-heeled character. “I said to my husband, ‘I’m going to get it!,’ ” she says. “But based on what? All my exquisite comedic work in a Nike commercial? Yet something about the character made perfect sense in my head, even though she’s so demented. I knew exactly how I wanted to portray her.”
Ugly Betty was Newton’s first serious gig; after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a history degree, she decided to pursue acting in New York, with the usual lack of success. “I auditioned for every play, even if they were looking for a 50-year-old African-American person, which confused a lot of casting directors,” Newton says drily. “Looking back, it’s horribly embarrassing, but I thought I was amazing. Somehow that prepped me for what I do now, because I’m not afraid to look stupid.” Newton eventually found work in commercials, which paid well and allowed her to make occasional trips to Los Angeles for pilot season (the period when potential new TV shows are cast). Her third go-round in L.A., Newton auditioned for Ugly Betty and got the role of Amanda.
At this point in our conversation, a middle-aged woman at the table next to us leans over. “Forgive me for interrupting, but I feel it’s serendipity to overhear what you’re saying,” she says. I think she’s going to ask Newton for an autograph, but instead she launches into a monologue about her out-of-work son, the actor. “I’m here in New York to decide if I have to kick him in the butt or never give him another dime. Now I’m hearing you, and I’m like, How did she do it? ” Newton politely responds: “He has to get in line, audition, and mail out his headshots. But he has to be the one to figure out how to do it—it can’t come from you.” The woman finally excuses herself (after detailing the cost of her son’s expensive education). “The people who do very well are the ones who do it themselves,” Newton says to me.
It doesn’t hurt being beautiful, I want to say. But Amanda’s vampy looks, which undoubtably helped her land the part, would never have worked without her razor-sharp comedic timing. Newton appreciates a role that is equal parts sex and sass. “Normally, it’s one or the other—a pretty, straight woman or a more charactery woman who isn’t supposed to be attractive,” she says. “But women like Tina Fey are leading the charge on being both. You can be funny and attractive.” Something she would like to continue capitalizing on: “I don’t have a burning desire to go daaaark,” she jokes.
Ugly Betty creator Silvio Horta says Amanda started off as a very minor character, but it didn’t take long “for all of us to realize that Becki was amazing. Every time the audience thinks they know everything there is to know about Amanda, [Newton] will do something that will completely defy their expectations, as well as ours.”