ASH­LEY JENSEN

‘THE BOT­TOM LINE IS THAT WOMEN ARE NOT AL­LOWED TO GET OLD’

The Herald Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

LONG be­fore Ash­ley Jensen be­came a house­hold name thanks to Ex­tras, Ugly Betty and Catas­tro­phe, there was a lesser known role in a tour­ing pro­duc­tion called Drink, Smok­ing and Tok­ing. The poignant, com­ing-of-age tale – set in deep­est, dark­est West Loth­ian – was writ­ten by my then 15-year-old brother as part of the 1996 Royal Court/Marks & Spencer Young Writ­ers’ Fes­ti­val.

Jensen played a Mean Girls-style, older sis­ter called “Su­san” who mer­ci­lessly teased her younger sib­ling. There’s a gasp and a hearty laugh from the ac­tor as the penny drops. “Oh my gosh, I played evil you,” says Jensen. “That is so funny.”

I can still re­mem­ber sink­ing lower into my seat at the Mac­robert Arts Cen­tre in Stir­ling, cheeks burn­ing with em­bar­rass­ment, as I watched Jensen por­tray my bad self on stage. Reader, let it be stated for the record I wasn’t that ter­ri­ble a sis­ter as a teenager. Was I? Erm …

Re­turn­ing swiftly to the present day,

Jensen is here to talk about BBC drama Love, Lies and Records, which sees her re­turn to our tele­vi­sion screens this week. The six-parter, writ­ten by Band of Gold, The Syn­di­cate and Fat Friends creator Kay Mel­lor, is set in the of­fices of a births, deaths and mar­riages regis­trar. Jensen plays newly pro­moted Kate Dick­en­son, who is torn be­tween grow­ing work de­mands and be­ing ma­tri­arch of a “blended” fam­ily.

The 48-year-old ac­tor clearly rel­ished the role, speak­ing highly of the way in which Mel­lor fleshed out that world. “Kay writes bril­liantly for women and in a very hon­est, some­times slightly un­com­fort­able way. She taps into hu­man­ity,” says Jensen.

“Her char­ac­ters are not spies or amaz­ing doc­tors; they are just or­di­nary peo­ple get­ting on with their lives. Be­cause this show is to do with births, mar­riages and deaths, all of us have to deal with one – or all of those – at some point in our lives. So it is em­i­nently re­lat­able.”

Ac­cord­ing to the BBC blurb, the se­ries “ex­plores how women in par­tic­u­lar have to jug­gle their lives”. Some peo­ple may roll their eyes at what sounds like a slightly hack­neyed idea, but we’re talk­ing Kay Mel­lor here. I’m en­vis­ag­ing it is a touch clev­erer than that? Jensen cer­tainly be­lieves so. “I think be­cause she writes so hon­estly. She is not tak­ing a stand­point. It is a re­flec­tion on real peo­ple with strug­gles.

“Noth­ing is par­tic­u­larly cut and dried. No­body is black and white. There is no baddie and there is no goodie. It is just hon­est peo­ple try­ing to get on with life. Hope­fully that is what will be re­lat­able.”

Jensen, who hails from An­nan in Dum­fries and Gal­loway, was cat­a­pulted into the pub­lic con­scious­ness with her break­through role as so­cially in­ept Mag­gie Ja­cobs in the Ricky Ger­vais com­edy Ex­tras in 2005. Her star con­tin­ued in the as­cen­dant when she was cast in hit US sit­com Ugly Betty, set in the cut-throat world of a fash­ion mag­a­zine, along­side Amer­ica Fer­rera. The show ran for four se­ries.

In more re­cent years, Jensen has had parts in Robert Car­lyle’s di­rec­to­rial de­but The Leg­end of Bar­ney Thomson, dystopian black com­edy The Lob­ster with Colin Far­rell and as lov­able am­a­teur sleuth Agatha Raisin in Sky 1’s mur­der-mys­tery se­ries based on MC Beaton’s books.

Other ca­reer high­lights in­clude voic­ing char­ac­ters in big bud­get an­i­mated chil­dren’s films such as Gnomeo and Juliet, Arthur Christ­mas and How to Train Your Dragon. She has given us plenty of laughs as Fran in award-win­ning Chan­nel 4 com­edy Catas­tro­phe, the neu­rotic, aw­ful friend of lead char­ac­ters Sharon and Rob (played by the show’s co-cre­ators Sharon Hor­gan and Rob De­laney) and ex-wife of Chris (as bril­liantly de­picted by fel­low Scot Mark Bon­nar).

A fourth se­ries is in the pipe­line – “I will be film­ing that at the end of the year” – and Jensen says she feels in­cred­i­bly lucky to be part of a TV show that has gar­nered such cult sta­tus. “What is in­ter­est­ing about Catas­tro­phe is that ev­ery­one is a lit­tle screwed up and slightly un­like­able,” she says. “Even the he­roes are fal­li­ble. Ev­ery­one is fal­li­ble. I think that is what makes an in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter. It’s not like your ob­vi­ous hero in the con­ven­tional sense. What they seem to be able to do is get an au­di­ence to ac­tu­ally give a s*** about the char­ac­ters. I ask peo­ple, ‘Do you re­ally like Fran?’ and they say, ‘I do! I mean I kind of hate her, but I feel sorry for her …’ That is a real tes­ta­ment to their won­der­ful writ­ing.”

Many of the one-lin­ers are eye-wa­ter­ingly close to the bone. How are the cast not con­stantly corps­ing? “Oh, we do,” says Jensen, be­fore adding that Catas­tro­phe re­minds her of the great fun she had film­ing Ex­tras with Ger­vais. “We do have a laugh, it has to be said.”

How­ever, the most re­cent se­ries was tinged with sad­ness too. Shortly af­ter Car­rie Fisher, who played Rob’s mother Mia, wrapped film­ing last De­cem­ber she suf­fered a ma­jor heart at­tack on a flight from Lon­don to Los An­ge­les. Fisher died a few days later at the age of 60.

The scenes in Catas­tro­phe were her fi­nal per­for­mance. Jensen says that all of the cast and crew were hit hard by news. “The first time I had met her was last year just be­fore Christ­mas be­cause we had never been in the same scenes be­fore,” she says. “We were film­ing Sharon’s dad’s char­ac­ter’s fu­neral. I had the most won­der­ful morn­ing just lis­ten­ing to her. She wasn’t like some of these peo­ple who just talk and you lis­ten – she was happy to lis­ten to other peo­ple as well. I feel re­ally priv­i­leged that I got to spend a morn­ing with her.

“Then within a week she was dead. It was just so shock­ing. She was such an amaz­ing part of the show.”

Jensen re­counts be­ing at the At­ti­tude Awards with Hor­gan and De­laney in 2014 when the idea to ap­proach the Star Wars ac­tor, who was also among the guests, was first mooted. “I think that’s where they thought: ‘What about Car­rie Fisher?’ They ba­si­cally asked her, think­ing, ‘We won’t get her,’ and then they got her. Ev­ery­one was like, ‘Oh my God, we have got this Hol­ly­wood leg­end in a Bri­tish sit­com and she is amaz­ing’.”

Jensen is based in Bath where she lives with her ac­tor and writer hus­band Ter­ence Beesley, 58, and their eight-year-old son Frankie. “I was in Amer­ica for six years,” she says. “I bounced into Lon­don and thought: ‘I’m not sure I want to bring a child up here.’

Love, Lies and Records is just hon­est peo­ple try­ing to get on with life. No­body is black and white

Not that there is any­thing wrong with Lon­don, be­cause I love Lon­don, but liv­ing in Amer­ica there is so much more space. To be hon­est, I didn’t have the £14 mil­lion to buy that amount of space in Lon­don. So, like a lot of peo­ple do, we moved out. My son is able to run about in fields and climb trees here, which is like what I had grow­ing up, a more ru­ral up­bring­ing.”

She reg­u­larly re­turns to her home­town of An­nan. Her mother Mar­garet, who worked in a school for chil­dren with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, was a sin­gle par­ent (Jensen has no con­tact with her fa­ther).

“I look back and re­alise how brave she was as a par­ent to have let me pur­sue what I wanted to do,” says Jensen. “There was never any doubt about what I wanted to do. I al­ways knew I wanted to do this. I used to do lit­tle daft ra­dio shows when I was wee and put on funny voices. I would in­ter­view my mum and she is so not ac­tory at all. I was al­ways quite sin­gle-minded about what I wanted to do. She let me go to the Na­tional Youth Theatre and I look back now and think, ‘What a brave thing for my mum to let her 14 or 15-year-old daugh­ter go down to Lon­don’.

“I’ve since spo­ken to her about it and she said, ‘Yes, I thought it might put you off’. Of course, it didn’t, clearly.” Rather it merely strength­ened Jensen’s re­solve. “I felt I was among peo­ple who wore kooky clothes like me and did funny voices and I sup­pose were quite ex­tro­vert and rel­a­tively con­fi­dent, but from all dif­fer­ent walks of life,” she says. As a teenager, Jensen wore glitzy Doc Martens and car­ried a ket­tle for a hand­bag. That may not have stood out much in Lon­don, but in An­nan? “Peo­ple oc­ca­sion­ally used to go out just to see what me and my friend – who sub­se­quently went to art school – were wear­ing on a Satur­day night at the rugby club.”

They were the talk of An­nan? “I think we were the joke of An­nan, to be hon­est. I look back and think about the pur­ple lips and the ket­tle hand­bag and the sprayed glit­ter Doc Martens … Things like that are quite cool now, but in 1983 it was a bit weird.”

I’m cu­ri­ous what first drew her to act­ing? “Com­ing from a small, ru­ral farm­ing mar­ket town, cul­tur­ally there wasn’t much go­ing on there. It wasn’t one of these things where trav­el­ling troubadours and theatre came to the town and I was in­flu­enced that way.

“For me, it was ba­si­cally sit­coms from the 1970s and the main one be­ing Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em and Frank Spencer. It was that which drew out my pas­sion. I think [Michael Craw­ford] is ge­nius. I show it to my son and he laughs too. The tim­ing and phys­i­cal com­edy still stands to­day.”

Jensen spent six years liv­ing in Los An­ge­les but, start­ing her ca­reer, that wasn’t even on her radar. “I never ever had am­bi­tion to go to Amer­ica. That was never on the cards. My am­bi­tion was much more than that. It was ba­si­cally to sus­tain and sup­port my­self as an ac­tress in my cho­sen pro­fes­sion.

“The things that have hap­pened are be­yond my ex­pec­ta­tions. I never imag­ined that I would live in Hol­ly­wood and be nom­i­nated for Em­mys and have se­cu­rity guards with half a mil­lion pounds worth of diamonds and a limou­sine wait­ing out­side. To be drink­ing cham­pagne from a mag­num on the ta­ble as you queued be­hind Drew Bar­ry­more in the toi­lets. We had to pinch our­selves some­times when we were in Amer­ica.

“But I was old enough and Scot­tish enough to know that it wasn’t for­ever. The one thing that LA taught me is that show busi­ness is

Peo­ple used to go out just to see what me and my friend were wear­ing on a Satur­day night at the rugby club in An­nan

called show busi­ness and it is a busi­ness. When you are in the hot show, you are hot for that pe­riod of time. Frankly, I didn’t want to grow old there.”

When we speak, Hol­ly­wood is yet to be rocked by the sex­ual as­sault al­le­ga­tions against Har­vey We­in­stein, which he’s de­nied.

Jensen and I dis­cuss the is­sues of gen­der par­ity in the in­dus­try. A re­cent study re­ported that the amount of di­a­logue women get in Hol­ly­wood films de­creases af­ter the age of 40.

“I think we are aware of it now,” she says. “It was a taboo where no one even talked about it. The thing that up­sets me is that women are not al­lowed to get old.

“There is this whole in­sid­i­ous, sub­tle thing that women are hav­ing to do stuff to our­selves to try and main­tain some form of youth. It is not a great mes­sage to be send­ing to any­one. It is kind of sad and quite fright­en­ing as a woman to be in the in­dus­try and to have that.”

Jensen – who re­cently said it was “be­com­ing more nor­mal to see a face that looks like a cross be­tween a hard-boiled egg and a cat” – counts her­self as for­tu­nate not to have been at the sharp end of that per­fec­tion-driven obsession dur­ing her time in the US.

“It is weird be­cause peo­ple used to say to me, ‘Were you pres­surised in LA?’ and I was never pres­surised. Maybe it is be­cause I was in com­edy and played the best friend, so there wasn’t quite that pres­sure to look a cer­tain way.

“Maybe it is be­cause I was never re­ally a lead­ing lady. I’m not do­ing false hu­mil­ity here, but I was never the best look­ing girl in the room. I was never the worst look­ing girl, but I think there is more pres­sure when you have been beau­ti­ful at 25 to try and main­tain some­thing. I was never that.

“My gran used to say, ‘Aye, don’t get too car­ried away with your own self-im­por­tance’. There is that feet firmly on the ground sce­nario with be­ing Scot­tish. I don’t know whether it was with be­ing a lit­tle bit older be­cause when I went over there I was in my late thir­ties.” The ubiq­ui­tous na­ture of cos­metic pro­ce­dures is some­thing she is acutely con­scious of. “I feel more pres­sure, weirdly, 10 years later now I’m back in Bri­tain. It seems much more preva­lent. Peo­ple on UK tele­vi­sion are do­ing things to their faces and you think: ‘Oh my good­ness …’”

Jensen wouldn’t have any­thing done her­self? “It’s not for me. Some­one has to play the old peo­ple, haven’t they? There will be about three of us left in 10 years’ time that ac­tu­ally look our age.

“I have known of some­one who couldn’t be em­ployed be­cause she’d had so much work done to her face and didn’t look like an or­di­nary, 50-year-old house­wife. It is not just about, ‘Oh, I want to try and main­tain my youth’.

“It is a huge cul­tural move­ment. The bot­tom line is say­ing that women are not al­lowed to get old and that is what an­noys me.”

For­tu­nately these days Jensen is in a strong po­si­tion to choose her projects. “I get of­fered quite a lot of stuff and I’m quite dis­cern­ing about what I do,” she says. “I don’t just want to work all the time for the sake of work­ing. Is it wrong to say that?

“There is a bal­ance. I have got a wee boy and I want to be part of his life and not just al­ways work­ing. I don’t want to sat­u­rate my­self too much on tele­vi­sion so that peo­ple be­come re­ally p***** off at the sight of my face and say, ‘Not her again’.”

Love, Lies and Records, be­gins on BBC One, Thurs­day, 9pm

Above: Ash­ley Jensen with co-star Re­becca Front in new BBC drama Love, Lies and Records. Left: In Ex­tras along­side Ricky Ger­vais and Stephen Mer­chant

Ash­ley Jensen as am­a­teur sleuth Agatha Raisin in Sky 1’s mur­der-mys­tery se­ries based on MC Beaton’s books

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