She was Ricky Gervais’s scatty sidekick and now has Hollywood in stitches, too. Alison Jane Reid speaks to Ashley Jensen about feminism, fish ’n’ chips and… er… the invention of the vibrator…
Ashley Jensen, Princess of British Comedy, makes the art of comic timing look simple. Of course, it isn’t at all. It is rather her twinkling, carefully honed ability that really makes the audience believe that she is so terribly, disastrously inept as Maggie, Ricky Gervais’s hopeless sidekick in Extras. Or enables her to absolutely steal the show in Ugly Betty, when she gives spectacular, noisy birth on the catwalk.
It was a mesmerising performance, with our girl crucially upstaging the whole scary fashion circus with every grimace. Quite a feat, in these no-holds-barred, reality TV-obsessed times – and a barbed comment on society’s loss of restraint, decorum and innocence.
No wonder America has fallen for Jensen: she’s a genuine blonde, the kind they seem to have forgotten how to make. They even love her Scottish burr. Part latterday Joyce Grenfell, with a razorsharp ability to deliver tragedy with prim seriousness, she is also a glowing, but perhaps not-quite-perfect, Hollywood dream girl. And she is refreshingly normal, too: she prefers no-frills camping and herbal tea to Botox.
So what next? After Accidentally On Purpose, her most recent US sitcom, which didn’t make it to a second series, Jensen looks like a girl in need of a better script. Thankfully, she has just finished making Hysteria, a film that is already beginning to create quite a buzz for its female director, ‘a wonderful woman called Tanya Wexler’, and its clever treatment of two, still relatively taboo subject areas: women’s emancipation and the invention of the… er… vibrator.
‘There is that subject matter, it’s true,’ says Ashley, trying her very best to look coy. ‘But there is more to it than that. It’s a romantic comedy that works on many levels. It is set in 1880, and there is a lot about men’s attitudes towards women at that time, to the rise of the suffragettes and the emancipation of women.
‘On the one hand, you’ve got Jonathan Pryce,’ explains Ashley, ‘who plays a doctor who is offering – now, how shall I put this – erotic massage, which he employs to treat women for a very nasty condition called Hysteria. So popular are his treatments that he has queues of rich women lining the street.
‘And on the other, you have his daughter, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is an arch feminist and goes out saving vulnerable women from poverty and violent husbands. I play one of the women she tries to save; it’s a clever, interesting film.’
But how, I wonder out loud, does the film propose to show these lengthy massage sessions? ‘Quite graphically, I can tell you,’ says Ashley, absolutely deadpan. ‘But within the realms of taste.’
I can’t wait.
Now 41, Ashley attended Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, then spent years grafting away at the craft of acting in more mainstream British television, with roles in EastEnders, Casualty and Roughnecks, alongside pithier stage roles at the Royal Court and Traverse Theatre, and the high point, playing Regan in King Lear. Then came the surprise – international acclaim for Extras, for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award, and the tag of British funny girl. ‘That was both exciting and strange,’ she says, ‘because no one knew I could be funny.’
But success hasn’t changed her one bit. Though – shock, horror! – she does admit to using a stylist for the red carpet. Most of the time, however, she prefers to slouch around in her favourite red cowboy boots.
To that you can add a voice like smoke and whisky. What you see is what you get. She appears unspoilt and down to earth, and talks of a simple, carefree, Scottish childhood, in Annan, Dumfries and Galloway, which revolved around beachcombing, impromptu after-school picnics and not being able to buy very much.
‘It hasn’t changed. It is still untarnished. The thing I miss most is fish ’n’ chips wrapped up in newspaper. My friend John Pagan has a fantastic fish ’n’ chip shop called The Cafe Royal in Annan. The secret is in the double frying. Fish and chips in LA just aren’t the same. They are always disappointing.’
Then she is off talking about the weather and missing Scotland. I also notice that she is incredibly pretty, in a way that the camera fails to show, particularly for her role as Maggie. Did she mind? ‘No! Not a wee bit of it. But let’s just say I was in no hurry to take the wardrobe home,’ she adds.
Ashley comes across as a private, but down-to-earth personality, and is wearing an organic T-shirt by designer Allegra Hicks, for the Environmental Justice Foundation’s Pick Your Cotton Carefully campaign. ‘I used to adore a bargain, until I started to think that clothes are cheap for a reason. Someone somewhere suffers when you can buy a T-shirt for just £5.’
Today, Ashley is here to talk about her exciting return to British television, and typically, she has chosen an explosive subject to set pulses racing: killing for silky, hilarious punch line. She is deadly serious. ‘The question is: could I kill a man for five million pounds? I want to say “no way”, but when your child is dying of cancer and the money would pay for life-saving treatment, it isn’t so simple, is it?’
This is the edge-of-the-seat moral dilemma and juicy leading role that tempted Ashley back from LA to return to her first love: serious drama. ITV’s The Reckoning is programmed to air in the spring, and it makes perfect recessionary viewing.
It is a dark morality tale, where two very ordinary people are catapulted into an extraordinary situation and offered more money than they can dream of to kill a man they are told deserves to die. Ashley describes the experience as ‘like living in an Edward Hopper painting – all darkness and light, and spare, empty interiors, as if to emphasise the stark choice between good and evil.’ And, ‘no, she can’tpossibly tell me if there’s redemption or a happy ending, because that would give the game away, ha, ha.’
While her legion of fans are more accustomed to seeing her dressed up to the nines and intriguing with the poor underdog Betty Suarez in Ugly Betty, or ludicrously turning down Orlando Bloom in Extras, Ashley felt it was time to flex her serious side. ‘I told my agent I wanted to do something where I could find the truth in a line, and a moment, rather than the truth and the joke in the moment.’
In fact, she reveals that there was no great plan just to play comic roles after Extras, it was simply that Ugly Betty and, later, Accidentally On Purpose were big commitments and didn’t leave time for her to pursue anything else – apart from getting married to her long-term lover, and fellow actor Terence Beesley, in a romantic ceremony in a wood near Big Sur in California, in 2007.
Ashley also made the delightful discovery that she was pregnant in early 2009, and is now mother to their one-year-old, Frankie. Now life revolves around making him laugh and doing funny dances, and agonising over whether she’s green enough. ‘Everything they say about motherhood and how it changes you is true,’ observes Ashley. ‘I would walk to the end of the earth for that little fellow.’
She also admits she likes living in LA.
‘The weather in California is gorgeous, so I wouldn’t want to give that up. Whenever we can, my husband and I take off with our wolf dog Barney, and go camping at Big Bear Park. Terry is really into bush craft. He rigs me up a rain shower between the trees and we have a cook-up under the stars – it always tastes like the best dinner we’ve ever had.
‘I do hanker after a more simplistic life. I love farmers’ markets, for instance. And I’ve just done a pilot for the BBC, The Accidental Farmer, where I play a high-flying city slicker who gives it all up, including the Louboutins and manicures, to become a beef farmer.
‘In fact I come very low in the pecking order. First, it’s the beautiful Yorkshire countryside, then the animals, and then me. But I understand the appeal of going back to the land; and one day I shall look forward to digging my own vegetable patch.’
And I’m sure she’ll get the locals laughing, too.
Hysteria directed by Tanya Wexler is due for release later this year.
The Reckoning will be broadcast on ITV1 during spring.
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