Actress Ashley Jensen channels her inner clown

Scots actress Ashley Jensen. Picture: Contributed

Scots actress Ashley Jensen. Picture: Contributed

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SHE MAY miss the glitterati of Tinseltown, but Ashley Jensen knows only too well her inner clown is from Annan, writes Jay Richardson

‘The day we shot the fire, when everything goes up in flames, I thought, ‘That’ll be the day when the stuntwoman comes in,’” Ashley Jensen says smiling. “But as it turned out, there was no stuntwoman in a little blonde wig, so that’s actually me lying on the carpet in a burning room as they pump smoke through. It seems I do my own stunts now. In expensive, four-inch heels.”

She may have left Hollywood behind, but the vivacious Scots actor retains a love-hate relationship with glamour. Sitting in a luxurious London hotel room, block-booked for an exhausting round of press interviews, she chats animatedly about rubbing shoulders with Tinseltown glitterati at the Golden Globes, albeit as if she were on safari. “Seeing The Big Five – Pitt, Clooney, Depp, Hoffman, De Niro… having Glenn Close wink at me… I could have touched Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis simultaneously!” Acknowledging the ridiculousness of such rarefied company, Jensen none the less appreciates that she absolutely deserved to be there.

Starring in the US fashion sitcom Ugly Betty from 2006 to 2010 as seamstress Christina McKinney, Jensen says she had “a publicist, a stylist, a business manager, someone who did my nails and a security man with half a million dollars worth of diamonds. While I was there, I embraced everything about it. My husband [actor Terence Beesley] and I just kept saying we were ‘playing’ at Hollywood. I felt like David Niven!”

Still, she adds, “I always felt that I never got myself together with the clothes out there. I didn’t know how to dress for those cold mornings and hot days, so I always felt like I was the grubbiest person in the room. A lot of them there are very groomed and they take a lot of time – too much time. Men having manicures is mental. Go skin a rabbit or make a fire out of sticks or something.”

Jensen’s easy to relate to insecurity is a big part of what Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant envisaged when they first cast her in the role that established her name and her chops as a comic actor, Extras’ well-meaning but socially inept background artist Maggie Jacobs.

“There is quite a large aspect of me that is Maggie-esque” she admits. “Doing the duck thing of flapping furiously away beneath the surface while trying to project assurance, wanting to be liked. Maggie was a bit of an everywoman, the one who leaves the toilet with her skirt tucked into her tights. But we’ve all done that, haven’t we?”

That instinctive second-guessing, fish- out-of-water quality is also doubtless why she was cast as the lead in Sky1’s new festive murder mystery, Agatha Raisin And The Quiche Of Death. Based on the first novel in the Raisin series by Glaswegian author of Hamish Macbeth Marion Chesney, under her pseudonym MC Beaton, Jensen plays an abrasive London PR retiring to her dream cottage in a picture-perfect Cotswolds village. Unfortunately, after she cheats in sleepy Carsley’s annual quiche-making competition, she inadvertently becomes chief suspect in a murder investigation and has to turn amateur sleuth to clear her name.

Growing up in rural Annan, after “simplifying” her life post-Los Angeles and eschewing London’s “busyness”, Jensen understands Raisin’s desire to flee the rat race for more idyllic surroundings, having relocated to Bath with Beesley to raise their young son Frankie.

Nevertheless, as an attractive 45-year-old, she was “a wee bit worried at first because I couldn’t be more different” from Beaton’s Agatha, “a 55-year-old, dumpy woman from Birmingham”. Certainly, in the novel at least, Agatha is not the most sympathetic of characters.

However, Jensen found that she enjoyed departing from playing “obviously nice or obviously vulnerable characters, not looking anyone in the eye... to standing up straight and being incredibly direct”. And television’s aesthetic demands for this shrewd adaptation by scriptwriter Stewart Harcourt supplement the Cotswolds’ effortless chocolate box beauty and Carsley’s barely suppressed sexual tension with a younger, better-looking cast than the novel suggests, while re-moulding the main character more towards Jensen’s strengths.

“What we tried to show is that she’s a modern woman, used to being in control, very career-minded, used to getting her own way and people listening to her,” says Jensen. “But also, that she’s kind of real because you see her in the moments when she’s floundering.

“The book was written in the 1980s and it felt set there; Agatha chain-smoked and wore furs. You couldn’t really have that in 2014 unless she was a villain. And we couldn’t just have her frightening people and expecting them to do what she said. You have to have her sharing her thoughts too,
show some dif-ferent sides to her.”

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And as Jensen also points out, the Midsomer Mur–ders-meets-Great British Bake Off milieu of this light-hearted comedy-drama, set up for more episodes to draw from Beaton’s 25-book series, “isn’t grittily realistic, it’s almost the antithesis of a lot of television drama – those Scandinavian series of moodily lit people angsty about brutal slayings. It’s mischievous, wry, kind of witty and slightly camp; a fun frolic with a certain innocence about it.”

Escaping fires in tottering heels notwithstanding, Jensen was also delighted by the colourful wardrobe she was given, a flamboyant far cry from the self-effacing Maggie in Extras and more akin to the power statements of Ugly Betty’s fashionistas.

“You’d think black suit, red lipstick” she reasons. “But the costume designer, Nancy, wanted something outside of the box. So as well as getting the old barnet chopped into something that suggested control, a defined silhouette, we wanted her to stand out in a red leather or bright blue suede jacket, orange heels and a purple skirt. The sharp hair and pink lips really jar with all those Barbour Jackets, Hunter Wellies and Labradors.”

As in Extras and Ugly Betty, Agatha has also acquired a Scots accent. “I met up with Ricky a month ago and he said, ‘Is this Agatha Raisin from Scotland then?’ And,” she momentarily hangs her head, “I was like ‘yep... yep.’”

Although she beat herself up a little bit about it, Jensen’s native tongue affords the her easiest access to her “inner clown”, she says.

“Actors spend years trying to find that; how their face, voice and body works when they’re funny. You don’t see Ben Stiller going, ‘My clown’s going to be from Georgia.’ He’s Ben Stiller.”

Currently shooting Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe with Irish writer-performer Sharon Horgan and American stand-up Rob Delaney, in which she and Edinburgh actor Mark Bonnar play their annoying, undermining friends, Jensen will also be seen in cinemas shortly alongside the likes of Rachel Weisz, Colin Farrell and Ben Whishaw in the decidedly weird The Lobster. The film is set in a dystopian society where anyone without a partner is sent to a creepy hotel and given 45 days to find one; if they don’t, they’re transformed into an animal of their choice.

“It’s kind of nightmarish but it’s got quite a few comedyish actors in it too,” Jensen explains. “It’s a very, very dark comedy I suppose. We all kept saying ‘Oh f***, is it a comedy?’ ‘Oh s***, I didn’t know!’”

Indian Summer, a Highlands-set independent film which she’s been attached to for four years, originally mooted to co-star Kevin McKidd and then Sean Bean, is still waiting for a green light. But Jensen remains committed to acting in her homeland and enthuses about her next crime detecting role, playing a police inspector in horror-comedy The Legend Of Barney Thomson, Robert Carlyle’s directorial feature debut set in Glasgow.

With Carlyle also playing the barber turned accidental serial killer of Douglas Lindsay’s books, Jensen enjoyed the novice director’s hands-off approach of “speaking to actors, telling us, ‘Just do what you do, I’m not here to even direct you really, I just want everybody to play’”.

First and foremost though, she loved playing radically against type, “as I’m hardly obvious casting for the role of hard-arsed policewoman. You’ve got Tom Courtenay as chief of police, the real ball-breaker we all have to listen to. And Emma Thompson as an alcoholic. But I’d say the most surprising thing is Ray Winstone having to be scared of little old me.”

• Agatha Raisin And The Quiche Of Death, Sky1, 26 December, 8.30pm

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