Feature - Ashley Jensen
Brian Donaldson talks to Ashley Jensen, the Dumfries lass who’s making a big splash on the other side of the pond
Who would have thought that Ashley Jensen, the mild-mannered, meek Maggie from Extras, would have a guilty secret from her dark past as a student in Edinburgh? ‘I got banned from a pub on the Grassmarket,’ she admits with a barely hidden mix of remorse and outrage. ‘I bought a leather jacket second hand from this guy who needed some cash and I thought I looked the bees knees but the bouncers said “no bikers clothes”. I said “I’m clearly not a biker, I’m a Madonna fan”. I was mortified because I was such a good girl and hadn’t done anything bad in my life.’
Having left her hometown of Annan, near Dumfries, to live in the big city and study speech and drama at Queen Margaret College her first memories of Edinburgh nightlife are of a woman ‘dropping her pants and pissing in the street’ and being told that the kebab shops were serving Alsatian dogmeat: ‘I was a little bit green.’ Now, two decades on, Jensen has become what the business calls an overnight success. After she’d worked solidly on Britain’s stages and screens (parts in May to December, Meet the Magoons and Topsy Turvy sit proudly on her CV), Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant put their faith in her to produce the post-Office goods as Andy Millman’s naively innocent, foot-in-mouth prone sidekick in Extras.
Being chatted up by Orlando Bloom and Daniel Radcliffe and rubbing shoulders with Robert De Niro and David Bowie would have many actors quivering in their boots. Not so Jensen. ‘I think I’m too Scottish and grounded to get carried away. I think if it had happened when I was 21, I might have got a bit heady with it all. First and foremost, I’ve been working for a long time, some of it better than others, and so I’m fully aware that the last couple of years have been my time and soon it’ll be someone else’s shot. But that’s just the way that it works, so if you start believing that you’re something other than a human being doing a job, then that’s when it can get a bit dangerous.’
Today, Jensen is at her home in Los Angeles. It’s early morning and the skies are a glorious blue. ‘When I got here in August I was incredibly homesick and didn’t understand the city at all. LA is so massive, the whole city looks like it’s been ironed. It’s like a post-apocalyptic Camden, all neon and hardboard and you see buildings going up with staple guns and it’s ugly, ugly, ugly. Then someone takes you somewhere else that you find so beautiful. There are all these hidden beauties.’
Of course, the reason that she has made her home in LA is for the role as a confidante to the central character in monster US TV hit Ugly Betty, a series which Jensen is having a blast filming. Thanks to the States’ taking Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant to their hearts for The Office and Extras, the casting folk clapped their beady eyes on Jensen and gave her the part of seamstress Christine, a role which had originally been written for a mouthy New Yorker. ‘They met me and said I could just do my own accent which I’m amazed I got away with. They never had to ask me to tone it down, though I do throw the odd wee word into the equation just to see what they’d do. Things like muckle or glaikit. But they were like “I’m not sure they’ll get that in the States”. It was worth trying though.’
The directness and positivity she is confronted with every day in LA has come as a culture shock while the working methods, too, have been an eye-opener. ‘They work very long hours here and you could be doing a scene at 3am. What I’ve discovered is that when you wander around the streets in Edinburgh and see a film crew you think “oh they must be doing a Rebus” but in LA everyone is an actor or a producer or a casting director or a writer or an executive producer. But the biggest difference is that I get a chair with my name on it.’
All of which is a world away from her days at Queen Margaret College. ‘We’d do something like phonetics where you’d learn another accent and get an ear for that but then we’d have these random classes for an hour each week, when we’d do stuff like physics. I think it was something to do with everybody getting a grounding and appreciation in everyone else’s job. To be honest, we just had a carry on.’
After graduation, her first big job was as 14-year-old Betty Paris in The Crucible at the Citizen’s Theatre, a part she got because she looked so young and, presumably, was adept at performing in a mental-induced state of anxiety.
Now that she is creeping up the acting big league, Jensen feels odd that people want to know all about her and her opinions, whereas before all she had to think about was where the next job would come from. ‘Through all this publicity, I’ve actually found that I’m quite a private person. When I watch Ugly Betty, I see myself and think that this wee Scottish person has been superimposed into a number one hit American show. How did that happen?’
As if to show how much she likes to keep things low-key and private, there were no lavish contracts signed for exclusive photo rights to her wedding, in January this year, with Terence Beesley, the fellow actor she met when working on King Lear eight years ago. Though quite what Hello! would have made of the ceremony in California’s Big Sur attended by the bride, groom, minister and a ring-bearer called Barney is anyone’s guess. As in Barney, the couple’s dog. ‘We didn’t want bells, whistles, trumpets and shouting about it. I didn’t want to start worrying about rose petals and napkins and who was to do speeches and organising transportation. When we get back we’ll have a right waahoo, though when that’ll be we’re not sure.’
And the quantity and quality of her upcoming projects is something she’s unsure about, too. Jensen is in the middle of filming the next series of Ugly Betty but whether there’ll be more Extras is unclear. ‘I saw Steve a couple of weeks ago and we spoke about everything else other than when there was going to be another series. I gather they like doing the Fawlty Towers thing and stopping after two series, so nothing is set in stone there.’ There are film scripts coming through her door and she had a casting meeting recently, but she says she doesn’t feel under pressure to jump at the next role. ‘I’m glad to say that my agent is better than Andy Millman’s.’
Extras series two and a boxset of series one and two are released on DVD, Mon 26 Mar; Ugly Betty is on Channel 4 on Fridays.