In the first of our new interview series, Charlotte Metcalf meets comic actor Ashley Jensen…
Ashley is apologising profusely for being late and bemoaning London’s clogged, hectic roads. Though she has a London home, she has arrived at Scarfes Bar at the Rosewood Hotel in Holborn from Bath where she mainly lives with her husband and seven-year-old son, Frankie. ‘I’m generally quite rustic – I live among fields,’ she says. ‘The other day my Golden Retriever ceremoniously rolled in silage and then shook himself all over me. Onto my clothes. Into my hair.’ She pulls a face of hilariously pitiful martyrdom, an instant reminder of why she is such a popular comic actress.
Girl Next Door
Ashley never relinquished this endearing, down-to-earth approach even as she was fast making her name in Extras, Ugly Betty, Catastrophe – and cult movie Lobster. ‘You’re not allowed to be high falutin’ if you’re Scottish,’ she laughs. ‘Sometimes in LA I’d be sitting there with champagne but I was always aware of how transient it was and never took it for granted. One time there was a security man with half a million dollars’ worth of diamonds for me to wear on the Red Carpet and I thought how did I get here? I started life in Pocket Theatre, travelling round Cumbria in a van. So today I’m so grateful if I’m sent a car.’
Ashley’s profile soared when she landed a part in Ugly Betty in 2006. She didn’t take the audition seriously as she was on holiday and wasn’t even checking her emails. She signed up to the show for seven years but only recorded 22 episodes before returning to Britain for a part in Catastrophe after Frankie was born in Los Angeles. ‘When you’re not from somewhere you always feel an outsider,’ she says. ‘If my son had a different accent from me I’d feel strange – even though we still say “Lego” differently. Also I didn’t feel I was doing enough in Ugly Betty. I wanted to be more challenged.’
Ashley’s latest role in Loves, Lies & Records, is her most challenging yet. ‘People keep asking me if it’s a comedy but no – it’s about Kate Dickenson, a very real woman juggling a career and family and trying to be good at it all and stay true to herself. The series is set in a Leeds registry office so Kate sees every aspect of life from trafficking to sham marriages, birth and death.’
I ask how Ashley juggles her own life. ‘I spent four months in Leeds and it was a three and half hour commute but with Frankie I’m lucky not to have done a job that’s taken me away for too long. Besides, I think it’s good for Frankie to see me working hard.’ As for leisure or down time, Ashley scoffs with amusement and says, ‘I enjoy doing the school run and getting the tea on and that sort of thing.’
Taking the Lead
It’s impossible not to warm to Ashley’s no-nonsense approach. ‘It’s only now I’m getting leading women’s parts. I never was a leading woman – I was the best friend or the character,’ she says. ‘It’s partly why In LA I never felt pressured to lose weight or look a certain way, though there were times I felt slightly too grubby to be there. I can scrub up but they can be so fastidious. I remember a publicist booking me a “mani-pedi” before an awards ceremony but I didn’t know what she was talking about so I declined but – “You will go,” she said. I’m the sort of person who only goes for a massage if I’m sick with pain and I’d rather have a decent bottle of wine any day than a facial.’
“Why are men allowed to get old and not us?”
Ashley’s refusal to surrender to Hollywood norms underpins a more serious concern: ‘Too many celebrities are being judged by their looks. What message are we sending the next generation? Why are men allowed to get old and not us?’ she asks indignantly. ‘And it’s not just people in front of the camera having cosmetic surgery – it’s everywhere, in the office, in the pet shop, on the underground. I’m just grateful my body still works, even though it’s a wake-up call having to wear reading glasses.’
Ashley also bucks the trend when it comes to social media: ‘I know I’d waste time on it and I just pretend it’s not happening,’ she says. ‘I think it’s why people feel shit, posting adverts of what they think their life should be like while they’re really sitting on their own with a packet of crisps and a glass of wine. Celebrity status culture is all a worry. Speak to a ten-year-old and they say they want to be famous, but what for?
Technology is my greatest fear – it’s overwhelming and escalating at such a pace. The world is more scary than twenty years ago and I don’t even have the news on when Frankie’s around. Who’d have thought we’d all be listening to what Trump has to say? It’s like having Ronald McDonald in charge of a children’s party but with a gun.’
‘You’re not a scary journalist,’ she says, grinning warmly as she leaves. Her self-effacing humour, keep-it-real attitude, delight in being Scottish, strong work ethic, joy in motherhood and earthy love of life’s simple pleasures combine to keep her on track, doing what she loves: ‘At first I managed to support myself as an actress for five years. Then it stretched to ten. Now it’s been almost 30 so I feel now I can say I’m an actress.’
Pub Lunch or Michelin Star?
I’d ordinarily say pub lunch but I love being surprised by food so… Michelin star!
Gorgeous Heels or Wellies?
Gardening or Art Gallery?
Gardening – though I fluctuate as we have a place in London and I love being there. But really I do like getting a bit dirty and seeing the difference in growth even when you cut the grass.
Power Breakfast or Long Languorous Lunch?
Long languorous lunch.
Glass of Wine or Green Tea?
Glass of wine every time.
Penthouse or Manor House?
I’d love to have one of those penthouses overlooking Tower Bridge as I like knowing where I am and being able to see the London skyline.
Dog or Cat?
We have a Golden Retriever!
LOVES, LIES & RECORDS will air this Autumn