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The Big Interview: Ashley Jensen

Published October 2, 2012

When you’ve interviewed a bona fide celebrity, there’s always one thing that people want to know. With A Chorus Of Disapproval’s Ashley Jensen the question repeatedly put to me was whether she was as “lovely” as they imagined. While I’d normally steer clear of using such an innocuous description, when I spoke to her during rehearsals for the play, which has marked her return to the stage following an 11 year ‘break’ dominated by a string of high profile television roles, she unequivocally proved to be just that. Answering the phone and describing herself as “coming out of the toilet and running down the corridor” in order to make sure she had good reception, also confirmed that the actress has lost none of her grounded charms on her rise to fame. You can take Extras’ much-loved Maggie off the TV, but you can’t take Maggie out of the actress, it would seem.

From a “half drawn picture of a television set with me with long blonde hair saying ‘me when I’m an actress on the telly’”, made when she was 10-years-old, to having food thrown at her on stage by angry swearing Scottish teens – more of that later – the actress has spent the last three decades forging a successful career that has taken her from touring theatre and bit parts on television to her breakthrough role on Ricky Gervais’ Extras and a not altogether planned life in LA starring in American hit Ugly Betty.

“All the stars seem to have aligned with a very British play with one of the best directors in the country”

The move back from a city of eternal sunshine and red carpet parties to performing eight shows a week in the admittedly beautiful but possibly less glamorous Harold Pinter theatre may have been a hard one for some, but not for Jensen who sees it as simply returning to her roots. “I started in theatre and the way my career went it took me away from it a wee bit,” Jensen explains, in her distinctive Scottish lilt. “All the stars seem to have aligned with a very British play with one of the best directors, if not the best director, in the country… and Rob Brydon,” she laughs, telling me she all but accepted the job before she’d even met director Trevor Nunn. “It just felt like the right time and I wanted something to bring me back to London and it seemed like the perfect thing to do.”

The damp room she finds herself in for our interview may not be glamorous but I doubt that’s something that would ever concern Jensen’s straightforward soul. For now, Nunn is glamour enough. “He’s not Sir Trevor Nunn for nothing!” Jensen tells me jollily – not a word in common usage these days, but the perfect adjective in many a case when it comes to this actress. “There are directors who are very specific and you feel inhibited, but he’s very sensitive to different actors’ approaches and adapts to each actor… he gives you enough freedom but you feel safe that you’re being directed.”

Having met briefly on the 2006 film A Cock And Bull Story, comedian Brydon was as much a draw as Nunn. As his less-than-satisfied onstage wife – a role she describes mock worriedly as “the least funny in the play” – she has to juggle their faltering marriage with a lust for the newest member of their local amateur operatic society, Guy, played by ex-EastEnder Nigel Harman. “It’s just marvellous,” Jensen drawls in a dramatic tone when I ask her what it’s like to have the attention of both men. “Actors can find themselves on different paths and I suppose I found myself on a comedy path, which Rob is also on, and he’s such a fine actor, and very much a team player.” Harman also brings his advantages, having had “all these successes in the West End, as well as his Rear of the Year Award two years running,” she deadpans, barely pretending to convey concern for his pride, “he may not thank me for saying that…”

Her extended exposure to Harman’s rear is, in fact, another reason why returning to the stage held an allure for the actress, offering, as it does, a rehearsal period, something that had become a forgotten luxury following more than a decade of screen work. “[For television]you learn your lines at home and then you bring them onto set and they go ‘Hi, this is Nigel, he’s playing the man you’re having an affair with’ and all of a sudden you’re having to be physical with someone you don’t really know,” Jensen explains. As a self-confessed perfectionist, Jensen was also craving the time to explore the character, the chance to “get it wrong and take it too far and bring it back. I always think the next show’s an opportunity to get it even better or to try something slightly different that would make it work better or to keep it alive.”

“I spent a lot of time doing things like learning to walk in high heels and standing at certain angles to make yourself look better”

There was a final key reason to what – British fans will be pleased to know – appears to be a permanent move back to London. In 2009 she had her first child with husband and fellow actor Terence Beesley, and suddenly the thought of “working 16 hours a day, five days a week in Atlanta”, as she was doing for her last American project, sitcom Accidentally On Purpose, lost its appeal. “I’ve got a wee boy now and I think there is more opportunity in Britain to do things that are shorter runs,” Jensen explains. “Even though this play is a five month commitment, it’s still less than I’d be doing on an American television show. I think the reason a lot of people do theatre there [in LA] is as a showcase to get a television job. The West End and London theatre, they’re nothing like it really.”

While, as an Editor of a theatre website I’d be the last person to disagree, Hollywood does seem to hold its own set of alluringly sparkly cards. Jensen’s four year stint as the eccentric straight talking stylist Christina McKinney in fashion magazine-set comedy Ugly Betty opened up a new chapter of her life, one that she embraced to the full, from attending awards, where Glen Close “sat across from the aisle winking at me” following her Emmy Award nomination for Extras, to commuting from LA to New York when Ugly Betty moved locations and she’d “get on a plane and be sitting next to Ted Danson”, all stories relayed to me with a slight disbelief in her voice.

But the lifestyle left little time for reflection and suddenly there were new things expected as part and parcel of the glossier LA package. “It was a bit of a rollercoaster and I spent a lot of time doing things like learning to walk in high heels and standing at certain angles to make yourself look better.” For all the media’s determination to insist that Hollywood Brit expats are under extreme pressure to fit in to Hollywood’s supposed hairless, fatless, cellulite-free world, Jensen tells me she was never under any pressure to change. “I can honestly say I’m the same weight now I was before I went. Ugly Betty was a fashion show and I never remotely felt under pressure to lose any weight.” For Jensen this somewhat ridiculous media attention is clearly a source of amusement rather than annoyance. “I did once see a photograph of me when I was doing a programme called The 11th Hour with Patrick Stewart and I was playing a policewoman,” Jensen tells me with amusement. “I was standing a bit humped in a t-shirt and my trousers were a bit long and I had nay make-up on, and then [opposite there was] a photograph with my bosoms all heaved up, on the red carpet smiling! Of course I look different!”, adding that it was one of the reasons she loved this summer’s Olympics as the newspapers flooded with pictures of “women with bodies that work and have muscles and are toned rather than people who don’t eat.”

While you get the feeling that Jensen would never have relinquished her admirable ability to laugh at herself – she literally can’t say anything that might be construed as pretentious, instead adapting a slightly posh, funny accent whenever she makes a serious point – she credits her grounded feet to finding fame later in life in contrast to a generation of actors she now sees as determined to “go from nothing to being a movie star”.

“It wasn’t something I seeked and I never intended to “conquer” Hollywood. I wanted to carve a living for myself as an actress and support myself in my chosen career. When I started I was very much at the bottom, doing touring theatre in the Highlands and islands of Scotland into community theatres where people would literally throw sweeties at you and tell you to ‘f*ck off’ in the middle of a pantomime,” she tells me laughing. “I feel in some ways I’ve served an apprenticeship so I’m always aware on film sets of people who are shuffling in for one day and they don’t know who to sit with at lunchtime. It’s quite scary all of that.”

“Sometimes I could feel very inept because I’d be like ‘oh man, I don’t have a five year plan”

This acute awareness of the anxiety of not quite fitting in must have proved gold for her role as the vulnerable Maggie, a woman with a huge heart but absolutely no tact, in cult series Extras. It proved the platform that made Hollywood sit up and taking notice of the Scot and was a part her husband believed she was fated to get, with Jensen telling me he told her: “I have conversations with you like this, if you don’t get this there is something really wrong with casting” when they rehearsed her audition together. For all the stars she had to flirt, act, argue and be disgusted by, from Samuel L Jackson to Daniel Radcliff, the show’s co-creator, director and writer Gervais is the only person she has ever been star struck by. This didn’t last long however, with Jensen jovially telling me, “at that point he was Ricky Gervais, now he’s just Ricky!” Something her friends still can’t get their heads around, she tells me amused, adding that while they currently don’t have any plans to work together again, she “would have loved to see Maggie resurface again”.

For those desperate to see the return of the pair, whose chemistry on screen rivalled even that of The Office’s Tim and Dawn, fear not, for the actress tells me plans like this are not her forte, leaving the door wide open for another collaboration. “Sometimes I could feel very inept because I’d be like ‘oh man, I don’t have a five year plan, I don’t even know what I’m having for my tea tonight.’” But this only serves to make Jensen more likable. At one point in the interview she jokes that she’s “doing quite well at making people thing I’m quite sensible and wise”. She did a pretty good job of convincing me.

“Sometimes I could feel very inept because I’d be like ‘oh man, I don’t have a five year plan, I don’t even know what I’m having for my tea tonight'”