Interview: Ashley Jensen on motherhood and new films

Ashley Jenson. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Ashley Jenson. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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AS A versatile international film star Ashley Jensen gets to shout the odds at the likes of Ray Winstone, but deep down she still feels like the sidekick to Extras chum Ricky Gervais, writes Janet Christie

Ashley Jensen is photo-shoot ready. In Edinburgh for the premiere of Robert Carlyle’s directorial debut, The Legend Of Barney Thomson, in which she plays a hard-as-nails detective inspector, she’s had her hair and make-up done and is wearing a figure-hugging aubergine dress. Framed in the window of the Waldorf Astoria, where she’s having her photograph taken, she’s posing and smiling like a pro, every inch the screen star, but it’s an act she can’t keep up for long.

“As soon as I open my mouth people know it’s me. Isn’t that weird?” she says.

She can walk along Princes Street and no-one will recognise the petite, blue-eyed blonde, but as soon as she speaks, her distinctive voice gives her away.

The Annan accent, undimmed by London and LA, sings out now: “What was that? What’s that she’s saying about me?” She’s referring to her mother Margaret, who is sitting next to me while the photographer does her stuff. The former special needs teacher who raised Jensen alone in their Dumfries and Galloway home town was in fact chatting about education, but the actress is worried her mum is giving away secrets. She needn’t be. All I get out of the very charming Margaret is that her daughter never considered anything other than acting. Oh, and that if Margaret hadn’t been a teacher she would have been interested in doing theatre hair and make-up. Maybe that’s why she encouraged her only child to follow a career path in a world nobody in their family knew anything about. And why she was so adept at helping Jensen avoid a wardrobe malfunction on the red carpet the night before.

“I was smiling away and I could feel my mum behind me, just pulling my dress, doing the mum thing, whispering ‘underwear’s showing a wee bit’, tucking things in. She’s still sorting things for me when I’m in my forties,” she says. “All these glammy photographs and false eyelashes, but I’m probably a bit like Maggie Jacobs in real life,” she says, referring to the character that made her a household name in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, before sitting down and gently suggesting her mother waits elsewhere while we talk.

“I just get embarrassed with someone in the room, whether it’s a PR person or my mum. You just sound so… you know…”

I can see an interview with Jensen is going to be the opposite of those tense confrontations policed by a media minder who steps in any time you veer off piste with a question not related to their charge’s latest film/book/product. The kind of PR Jensen channels in her role as Agatha Raisin, the ball-breaking publicist turned sleuth in a new upcoming eight-part series to be aired on Sky 1.

After a degree in drama at Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh, Jensen started in the National Youth Theatre. She honed her craft in mainstream British television, with roles in EastEnders, Casualty and Roughnecks, breaking through with the BBC comedy May To December. Alongside the TV were meaty stage roles including playing Regan in Tom Courtenay’s King Lear in 1999 at the Royal Court Theatre – where she met her husband Terence Beesley, an actor and writer – and more recent West End performances include Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus Of Disapproval with Rob Brydon in 2012.

It was starring alongside Gervais in the BBC2/HBO show Extras as the incompetent Maggie that saw her win best television comedy actress and newcomer awards at the 2005 British Comedy Awards. More awards and nominations followed, and she moved over the pond for ABC series Ugly Betty. This year she’s back on the small screen as Agatha Raisin and in Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s Channel 4 comedy Catastrophe.

She’s also adding to her cinematic CV with The Legend Of Barney Thomson, released on Friday, and The Lobster, which took the Jury Prize at Cannes and is released in October.

The former illustrates Jensen’s segue from wee best pal roles like Maggie in Extras and Christina McKinney in Ugly Betty, through brittle homeopath Fran in Catastrophe to no-nonsense Agatha Raisin, winding up at Barney Thomson’s Rottweiler cop Detective Inspector June Robertson, a woman who doesn’t let having to stand on tiptoe get in the way of threatening her rival, Ray Winstone.

Based on Douglas Lindsay’s book, the film is a black comedy which sees Carlyle as an unintentional Glaswegian Sweeney Todd, with Emma Thompson playing his hard-bitten mother, Winstone a London cop and Courtenay a police chief.

“I really wanted to do this film. I’ve never worked with Bobby Carlyle before and I’ve never met him, but Bobby’s brilliant; away back to his Raindog days in theatre back in the early 1990s in Glasgow, he was always one of the cool guys. I hadn’t worked with Emma Thompson before either, or Ray, so that was a new experience. I had worked with Tom Courtenay before on King Lear – he’s so funny, amazing.

“What struck me is the film is so incredibly stylised and heightened but there’s also something bedded in reality, and that must be Bobby and his performance. It’s like real life, but a nightmare version, where reality spirals into something and then just gets worse and worse.

“When I got the script I was on holiday in Italy and I thought I had been sent it by mistake because originally that part was for a man.”

So Carlyle had looked beyond the Maggie Jacobs character and beyond gender, and cast Jensen to play the detective inspector regardless?

“Yes, he did. I know Agatha Raisin’s got a bit of steel in her, but this takes it to another level,” she laughs.

“I seldom get to play parts like this that are ballsy and get to say f***, f***, f*** a lot to possibly one of the hardest men in show business,” she says. “And there were times when I was playing June Robertson when yes, I did believe, in that moment, that this wee Rottweiler wumman could actually take him,” she says, laughing.

When Jensen receives a script her husband asks whether it’s Ashley in a good mood (like Maggie) or Ashley in a bad mood (Agatha).

“I said this one is Ashley in a very, very bad mood. Ashley in a foul mood.”

In order to take on a man mountain like Winstone, June Robertson has to be something of a fitness freak, and she likes to lead her subordinates in workouts on the roof of the police station, yelling “tits and teeth”, “tits and teeth” as she star jumps her way to promotion.

“We shot that again and again. I was absolutely exhausted and I couldn’t walk for two days after that. I’m ashamed to say I’m not as fit as I would like to be. I haven’t been to the gym for… Well, I haven’t been to the gym. We’ve built a little gym in our house and I’ve started to go in there to look at the machines now and then.”

Note the final verb in that last sentence. Despite the years spent living in California, Jensen has resisted La La Land’s obsession with appearance.

“I haven’t had botox or my baps done,” she says proudly, although she admits she eats more healthily since she had her son Frankie, now five years old.

She must have had her teeth done, though, they’re toothpaste-ad sparkling.

“No, the dentists in LA used to tell me my teeth were off their whitening scale, but I honestly haven’t had them done,” she says. “But I do wear support underwear,” the 45-year-old confides.

“Maybe it’s because I’m slightly too old, or in comedy, but it’s not something we were ever under any pressure about in Ugly Betty, even though it’s a show about image. I’m all for taking care of myself, but it worries me that we live in a world where women in their forties are supposed to look like women in their twenties.”

As someone who did the voiceover for Embarrassing Bodies, Jensen is not one to shy away from such issues.

“I think you should get those things out there,” she says. “All this pretending we’re perfect all the time. If you’ve had a child your stomach isn’t great, if you’re over 40 you might have a wee laughter line or two. But to be worrying about the fact you’ve got this or that; well you’ve got too much time on your hands. I’m just happy that it all still works. I don’t care. Maybe I should. But somebody has got to play the old people. I have always found parts where I don’t have to be particularly glamorous much easier to do.”

Jensen doesn’t care to the extent that she was happy to comply with the request from The Lobster’s Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos, that she go make-up free.

“He said, ‘I want washed out’, and I said, ‘Trust me, I look shit with no make-up, but ok’. Cut to the first day on set, me with no make-up on and they came up and it was whisper, whisper, ‘Yorgos wants you to put a wee bit of make-up on!’ She laughs. I think we put a wee bit of mascara on my bald lashes.”

A surreal romantic drama, The Lobster stars Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, with a supporting cast that includes Jensen as Biscuit Woman. Set in the near future, where single people are arrested, transferred to a hotel and ordered to find a mate, it’s the English language debut from Lanthimos, whose Dogtooth won prizes at Cannes and at the 2011 Academy Awards.

“I haven’t seen it yet because I missed Cannes, but it won the Jury Prize, so obviously people liked it. The Lobster is a very disturbing film, set in a dystopian world where if you don’t have a partner you have 45 days to find one. You get extra bonus days if you go out and shoot somebody with a tranquiliser gun. I’m Biscuit Woman. I eat biscuits and offer biscuits.”

As a way to get a partner?

“Yes, that was my thing. ‘Do you want a wee digestive biscuit?’ she wheedles.

Is that a successful chat-up line?

“Oh I can’t disclose,” she says. “There’s Biscuit Woman, Lisping Man, Limping Man, Nosebleed Woman… The director chose the actors and hoped they’d bring something to it.

“It’s a wonderfully eclectic cast. You’ve got Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, movie people; then there’s me and Olivia Colman who are the telly people, and a guy called Michael Smiley, who does stand-up.” And something that obviously impressed the Maggie Jacobs in her. “We had people literally from the streets of Dublin, and every extra was handpicked for a specific look.”

When she married Beesley in 2007, the couple were living in LA but took themselves off to Big Sur in California, where Barney, their Utonagan, or wolf dog, was the ring bearer and sole guest at a ceremony conducted by a hippie celebrant in the woods. In 2009, Jensen gave birth to their son Frankie, now five and a half, and after their return from the US the family has settled in Bath. Not that she doesn’t miss Scotland a bit.

“I do. I love coming back here. My mum’s still in Dumfries and Galloway, but do you know what? It’s the weather. The sun does shine a wee bit more down south. And it’s a few degrees warmer, so… The weather never bothered me as a child, but when you reach a certain age…”

So she’s been ruined by LA?

“It’s true. I loved the weather there. But now I live in Bath and it’s very lovely. I thought, ‘I’ve been to LA and I’ve done that.’ It’s not until I came back that I thought, ‘That was quite a rollercoaster but I did all right out there!’ I didn’t go with any ideas, I went because of the job. They had loved Extras and take whatever’s hot from Britain.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be there for ever. And I didn’t want my world to revolve around waiting to see if you would get a pilot for a series when there are so many more interesting things I could be doing back here.”

But no matter what new experiences and roles come her way, her favourite character will always be Maggie.

“It’s got to be. When I first got the script my husband said, ‘If you don’t get this part there is something wrong because I have conversations with you that are like this.’ Sometimes I say something and he says, ‘I’ve got to tell Ricky that, that’s just mental, pure Maggie.’”

Jensen is still friendly with Gervais, the pair phone regularly and he visits her in Bath.

“Basically Ricky just wants to have fun on a daily basis, so we have a laugh. We all go out and I regress to being Maggie when I’m around him. It’s weird.

“I think why that character was so popular is because everybody is a bit like Maggie Jacobs. We all put on this face and pretend, but we all stand at the bus stop with our skirts tucked into our tights. We’ve all done it, do you know what I mean? We all fall and pretend we haven’t and we all say things we probably shouldn’t say. I think she also had an innocence. And she was honest. And nice. Very open, a bit like a child really.

“What’s so funny is I was obsessed with Frank Spencer when I was a wee girl. So it’s no coincidence that Frank Spencer and Maggie Jacobs both wear a beret. He made me laugh and I loved what he did.

“There was never any doubt. I never knew how I was going to go about it, but I had no doubts. It wasn’t about wanting to be famous, or to go to Hollywood, I just wanted to be an actor. And to be honest, I didn’t think about film. That wasn’t even on the agenda.

“How scary must it have been for my mother to have a wee person saying I want to be an actor? She was brilliant.”

Jensen doesn’t have any contact with her father. When I ask about him she simply replies: “I don’t talk about it,” then continues: “People say, ‘What’s it like having a single parent,’ and I say, ‘What’s it like having two?’ This is my normal. I don’t know any different and it’s not until you’re a grown up or you have a child of your own that you appreciate what it must have been like. Terry and I have each other, and there are times where, you know, you go… ‘can I just go to the toilet? On my own!’ But I do embrace every moment of being a mother.”

As well as Beesley’s help with child rearing, Jensen rates him highly for his ability to critique a red carpet dress and make her laugh. “He will tell me what looks good and what doesn’t, if I ask him. I trust his opinion and he will be honest. And we respect each other and listen and talk to each other. And we laugh. I think laughter is important.”

So life for Jensen has worked out personally and career-wise, but what would she be doing if she wasn’t acting?

There’s a huge pause. For the first time today the woman who doesn’t balk at playing a character called Fannie in Hysteria, Tanya Wexler’s 2011 comedy film about the invention of the vibrator, or describing everything from pearly penile papules to a woman from Wales who mistook two sebaceous cysts growing on her scalp for a pair of testicles on Embarrassing Bodies, is lost for words.

“That’s a really hard one. I don’t know,” she says. Silence.

Then she says: “When I left drama school I applied to teacher training college at Jordanhill and got in, but I phoned up three days before I was meant to start and told them I wasn’t coming. I thought if I had something to fall back on, I’d fall back on it. If I knew I had to support myself with acting because it was my job, then I would. This was what I was going to do and I was going to work out how to do it. I could never have done anything else.”

• The Legend Of Barney Thomson is on general release from Friday. The Lobster is out in October. Agatha Raisin will be shown on Sky 1 later this year