It’s not often that I get to conduct an interview from the comfort of my living room, or for that matter, from anywhere at all. But thanks to my friends at Acorn TV, I was afforded the the wonderful opportunity to speak with Ashley Jensen last week. This Scottish actress is probably best known to American audiences for her work in sitcoms like Extras, Ugly Betty or Catastrophe. She’s also lent her voice to many an animated feature and now can add M.C. Beaton’s PR guru-turned-amateur detective, Agatha Raisin to her CV. We had a lively phone chat that touched on the many and varied stages of her career as a working actress.
We began by discussing how Ashley got her start in acting. While she didn’t get much exposure to drama in school, she joined the National Youth Theatre in London when she was a teenager attending over her summer holidays. After that she went to drama school for three years from ages 18 to 21. Once her training was over, she “basically started at the bottom doing theater – the type of theater where you drive in a little van, put the set up, do the show, you take the set down, you put it in the van and go to the next gig. Like a bunch of traveling minstrels.”
Gradually Ashley moved on to playing tiny parts on television. “I kinda feel as if I’ve really served my acting apprenticeship. People are asking me how it is being at the helm of a show. To me it was far more terrifying going on and doing my one scene or four lines in a long standing show with a lead actor. That was far more scary than being the lead actor in a show.”
When I asked her if she had ever considered another career, she recalled a drawing she made as a young girl for her mother telling her it was a picture of when she would be an actress on television. Ms. Jensen said there was never any doubt in her mind about acting, but she felt she had to be very single-minded about her choice of career.
“I knew I had to make a living out of it because I didn’t have a trust fund somewhere that could subsidize me if I failed at this thing. I absolutely had to earn a living out of it. People talk about success and they kind of deem success as when you become a bit of a household name and, to be completely honest, I felt like I was a success way before that because I was able to pay my own rent in the chosen profession, in the job that I trained to do. I was like ‘I can’t believe that I’m working in theater which is what I always wanted to do and I was able to pay my way’ and so I figure I was a success years ago.”
Ashley’s breakout role was in the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant follow-up sitcom to The Office. In Extras, she played Ricky’s best friend and fellow TV and film extra, Maggie Jacobs. Many famous celebrities from both sides of the pond guest starred on the show as well. One of those A-list actors was Samuel L. Jackson and Ms. Jensen recalled the reaction to the American movie star as he first arrived on set.
“I’d never met anyone from the movies, from the silver screen- so I was already overwhelmed acting alongside Ricky and along walks Samuel L. Jackson and there was this silence on the set. I’ve never heard silence like I heard silence when Samuel L. Jackson walked on the set. And of course Ricky being Ricky just broke it when I think Samuel L. Jackson bent over and tied his shoelace or something and Ricky shouts “He ties his own shoelaces!” and then the atmosphere changed and everyone was fine.”
“I mean these guys all came on and they did such a great job at playing these heightened versions of themselves and they absolutely loved it. I think they loved coming on and almost slumming it on this BBC TV show where the budget isn’t what Ben Stiller, Kate Winslet and Samuel L. Jackson are used to.”
After her Emmy and BAFTA nominated role in Extras, Ashley took a vacation and found herself on the brink of her next big job playing Betty Suarez’s friend and co-worker Christina McKinney in the Golden Globe award winning sitcom, Ugly Betty.
“I came over literally for a holiday with my husband to do a California road trip and my agent said you may as well see a few people out there and one thing led to the other and before I knew it I was screen testing for various pilots, a couple of which I didn’t get. Then all of a sudden in rode this little gem of a script and I went ‘This is the one I really want to do!’ This is a story I’d not seen before. It was heightened, it was fun, it was a bit camp and yet it was really honest and dealt with a lot of really human issues. And I thought this is the one I really want to get and, lo and behold, I got it. Of course I signed up for a few years and I moved to America and I lived there for six years.”
Asked to reflect on the differences between working in television in the UK and LA, Ashley cited two main factors.
“LA is an industry based on film making and TV program making so there’s not so much of a struggle with the money aspect of it. So if we need to do overtime to get the shots, we’ll do it. Because occasionally sometimes here (UK) we can be a little compromised because they can’t afford to pay overtime. And we also have this thing called the weather which can affect our filming. I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve done with a hot water bottle strapped to my waist, heat pads sewn into my vest and, of course in LA, you don’t have that plus your food is better over there. The craft services are so much better than ours.”
It’s been said an actor’s voice is his/her instrument and Ms. Jensen has made good use of hers, namely as a narrator and voice-over artist. Some of her animated credits include Arthur Christmas, How to Train Your Dragon and Gnomeo & Juliet. I asked how she liked doing this sort of work and she had a very enthusiastic response.
“I love it! You know you think you’re just standing there saying lines but after a four hour session I’m sweating. I kind of get physically involved in it and you’ve got to really think on your feet and think of different ways of saying the line again and again. Yeah, I really like it. It’s almost like you kind of leave your dignity on the doorstep and you’ve gotta just go for it and think no one’s looking at me, apart from the fact that they are actually filming you so they can see how your face moves. It’s fun. It’s kind of like being a child again doing animated films, just doing silly voices and jumping about and being incredibly uninhibited because there’s no space for being inhibited in any way.”
Ms. Jensen also filled me in that she has begun work on Sherlock Gnomes which is the sequel to Gnomeo & Juliet. I assume she will reprise her role as Nanette the Frog.
Next we discussed her stint as narrator of Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies, a UK reality medical television program which tries to make common medical issues, especially those that are “embarrassing” understood and to debunk myths surrounding them. I wondered if there had been any conditions that Ashley had come across on the show that stood out as being particularly upsetting, perhaps like this one:
“I did watch the VG and sometimes go ‘Oh, no sorry. I totally missed my cue just watching that there’ but I remember when I was pregnant, I could barely get through an episode without crying. It was just like, ‘Oh that poor man!'”
But aside from the shock value, Ms. Jensen remarked on the show’s impact on its participants and the larger TV audience as well.
“Viewers emailing in and Twittering in, and doing all that twittery thing that I don’t really do, saying that because of your program I went to the doctor and I found out I have this and my life is so much different, in fact my life has been saved. I mean it was a bit ridiculous sometimes with a nice mix of daft problems but then there were some real conditions where you went ‘Wow, that person’s life has been literally changed because of this program’ and that was great.”
Eventually I got around to the Agatha Raisin portion of the conversation. As with any adaptation of a popular book series, there are always going to be adjustments from page to screen. First we addressed to obvious physical differences between Ashley and Agatha.
“I think I’d read one book before the interview and was thinking – this woman’s older than me, she’s got brown hair, she’s chunkier than me, she’s from Birmingham. Why me? I spoke to the author M.C. Beaton and got her seal of approval (despite) the fact that I look different to what she’d originally envisioned. There’s always going to be somebody that’s not going to be comfortable with how we’ve done it and that’s okay. I thought I can’t let this worry me too much, but the author’s good with it and she’s wonderful. And I’ll tell you there’s more than a little bit of Agatha in there, M.C. Beaton. She has her bright pink lipstick and her flamboyant clothes and she also is Scottish. She’s such a character and she’s such a wonderful woman.”
As for how Ashley approached playing Agatha, she admitted it was more about the essence of the woman than the package.
“She wears her makeup, her structured clothes and her perfect hair almost like her armor against the world. And yet underneath, and we got to see that in the show, behind closed doors she’s had a disastrous love life and a very close relationship with a bottle of wine and she’s a terrible cook and she has a wee cat that she just loves and was actually, in a lot of ways, quite lonely and looking for a bit of warmth. And that was quite nice to play. I think it came across on screen quite well in that you got to see little moments of vulnerability that made the character a wee bit more of a three dimensional character rather than she’s just a bitch.”
We touched on Mrs. Raisin’s eensy weensy problem with assimilating fully to her newly adopted home of Carsley. Ashley shared that it was a conscious decision that there was to be lots of boldness and color in Agatha’s look to symbolize how she wasn’t conforming to English country life.
“This was who she was and she wasn’t apologizing for it, but I think ultimately she did want to sort of fit in and be part of what was her childhood dream of living in this lovely little cottage. I think she’d had herself a bit of a troubled background, not that we see too much of that because we just see her now, but I think that’s the backstory of who she was which kind of gives the character a wee bit more depth again.”
As for Agatha’s new hobby since moving to the Cotswolds, Ashley discussed what about her character’s personality and experience makes her a good detective.
“I think her PR skills obviously stand her in good stead and the fact, I think, that she just doesn’t take no for an answer. I think she has got this utter confidence in her own ability to get people to do what she wants whether that may be through manipulation or a little bit of fear and intimidation. She kind of manages to muscle her way into situations where I think maybe the policemen, particularly in our series Bill Wong, wouldn’t be able to get himself into. She can be charming when she wants to and flirty when she wants to. She just makes sure she gets her own way really.”
One of the silent characters of Agatha Raisin is the Cotswolds itself. Ms. Jensen confirmed that the show was shot in and around the region including Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Somerset.
“It was all these shires that are all very close to one another – beautiful little villages that are all sort of nestled in hillsides around this area. It looks so glorious too with the stately homes of which there are many around this area. I mean, it’s so quintessentially English, isn’t it? Hopefully that’s something an American audience can enjoy the charm of. Just looking at that countryside is like a chocolate box. A chocolate box England.”
When it comes to her own retirement in the distant future, I wondered if Ashley would take Agatha’s path or choose another destination.
“Funnily enough I live not far from where we film. I live just outside of Bath in the rolling countryside with bulls and pigs for neighbors. It was a bit of joke really because it’s like ‘Hey I’m living Agatha’s dream!’ Except I have a family – I’ve got a husband and a dog and a child so I’m not quite like Agatha in that way. Yeah, I love it here. It’s just so glorious and it was such a wonderful job because a lot of the locations were very near to where I live and how often does that happen. Not very.”
To end the interview, I engaged Ashley in a conversation about another of her more recent works, the quirky, dystopian film The Lobster which also stars Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. The story is set in a society where single people are confined to a specially designated hotel and have forty-five days to find suitable mate, or else they are turned into the animal of their choice and released into the wild. I wondered if her character, Biscuit Woman, had an animal in mind when she came to the hotel.
“I think I had it in my head it was a bumblebee. I don’t know why but I think I thought she might want to be a bumblebee. Which would be a ridiculous one because they only last for a few days, don’t they? I don’t think she was the brightest of women, Biscuit Woman.”
After viewing the film, I was most impressed with Ashley’s chameleon-like appearance, and admitted it took me a few scenes to recognize her.
“The director had said he wanted me to cut my hair for it and I was like ‘No listen, seriously, we don’t need to. I know a style that will be brilliant. I’ll just walk in and I’ll look just exactly what you’re asking for.’ I think he was a bit worried I was going to look too attractive. I said, ‘Yorgos (Lanthimos) believe me, I won’t. I won’t look too attractive.’ I got on the set and I had no makeup on and my hair like that and he quietly went up to the makeup woman and had a little word. She came up to me and said ‘Ashley, Yorgos wants you to put on a little makeup.’ And I looked over at Yorgos and said, ‘I told you, I told you.’ He went, ‘You did, you did.’
With that we had to end our call, but Ms. Jensen concluded by saying she was delighted that Agatha Raisin has reached American shores. If you want to check out her performance along with other cast members Katy Wix, Jamie Glover and Mathew Horne, the series is currently streaming on Acorn TV. The pilot movie, The Quiche of Death, premiered on Monday, August 1, 2016, and the eight-episode series 1 became available the following week.