Ashley Jensen: 'Ricky and Extras changed my life'

A Ricky Gervais sitcom made Ashley Jensen a star and helped her land a role in 'Ugly Betty'. In her first interview since becoming a mother, she talks Hollywood, Botox, and her new comedy with Rosamund Witcher
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The Independent Culture

I find myself thinking, 'how did I get here?'", says Ashley Jensen, shaking her head in disbelief. "When I'm walking up the red carpet at the Golden Globes. Or they're announcing my name next to Dame Eileen Atkins in the Emmy nominations, I just think, 'this is mental'."

It was 2005 when Jensen landed the role of Ricky Gervais's adorable-but-dim best friend Maggie in his much-lauded comedy series Extras, and her life changed dramatically.

"I found the sudden attention very weird," she admits. "I still do, because I'd been working steadily for 16 years, doing a wide variety of stuff but, I suppose, nothing that really put me on the map."

We're sitting in the late afternoon sun outside a deli near Jensen's home at the foot of the Hollywood Hills. She is positively glowing – particularly considering she gave birth less than a month ago – in leggings and a BCBG Max Azria smock.

"I remember the producer of Extras saying, 'things are going to change for you'. I was like, 'really?' But he was right, it did change my life. Because of Extras, I got work out here in LA. And, suddenly, people are interested in me."

As if to illustrate her point, a man at the next table politely interrupts to say what a huge fan he is. "Oh," she says, turning pink. "Thank you very much, that's really sweet."

Does that happen a lot? "It does sometimes, yeah," she shrugs. "It's lovely, but a bit embarrassing."

Pre-Extras, Jensen paid her dues, doing the obligatory rounds of Casualty and The Bill. "I've actually played a lot of policewomen on television," she says, proudly. "Ricky finds it very amusing; the fact that I've carried guns and arrested people. But I do quite like wearing the uniform."

One of Jensen's earliest jobs was with a Scottish theatre company alongside David Tennant. "It was a Brecht play called The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which is about the rise of Hitler," she says with a grimace. "We did this vaudeville production and it was all white faces and mental make-up. I was playing an old man, so I had a fat suit, a bald wig, glasses, a walking stick, fake sideburns, rotten teeth, liver spots and a false penis." She laughs raucously at the memory.

"I had been out of drama school a year so I was the old hand," she continues, "and David was the green new boy. It was so funny, but very strange."

Clearly, there's nothing like a bit of Brechtian vaudeville to forge lasting bonds. "We've been friends ever since," she says. "I remember being in the dressing room in Pinewood when I had just got Extras, and he was in Cardiff about to start filming Doctor Who. We were on the phone to each other going, 'Can you believe this? I can't believe it!' It was so strange because we've worked together several times, on some amazing shows. David was in King Lear at the Manchester Royal Exchange, which was the job that I met my husband on."

Jensen's husband is British actor Terence Beesley. Six years after meeting among the Shakespearian costumes and greasepaint, the couple tied the knot in a low-key ceremony in Big Sur. Now it seems they have both completely embraced the Californian way of life. But what prompted the move to LA?

"I never had a game plan," she shrugs. "We actually came out here on holiday, to do a Californian road trip. It coincided with Extras, so Terry said I should mention to my agent that I was going to be in LA. I didn't think anything would ever come of it. I was happy in London and didn't feel this burning desire to crack Hollywood or anything. But, before I knew it, my agent was putting me up for jobs.

At first, I was like, 'hang on, I'm on holiday!' So we did our road trip around Vegas and Napa Valley, then I decided to hang around for pilot season, and that was it: I got Ugly Betty. And I'm still here."

As Christina, Betty's seamstress friend on the show, Jensen was propelled from the role of Gervais's sidekick to bona fide American television star. But she left Ugly Betty after three years because "they didn't quite know what to do with my character. Everyone was like, 'why are you leaving a show that's successful?' I guess I could have stayed for another 22 episodes, sitting quietly and taking the money but..." she trails off. "Actually, maybe I should have done that!"

Another burst of laughter accompanies this indiscretion, the like of which you never get from Hollywood stars. "But, no," she goes on. "That isn't why I became an actor. I realised it was time for me to be a little bit scared again."

Next up for Jensen is the festive comedy Nativity, about a grumpy primary-school teacher (Martin Freeman) who is forced to embrace the spirit of Christmas when he's asked to direct the school nativity play. Jensen plays Freeman's love interest, and acknowledges people are going to make the Gervais link.

"Martin and I are both Ricky protégés," she says. "So it will be a bit weird for people who are used to our characters in Extras and The Office: Maggie and Tim snogging!"

Then there's Accidentally On Purpose, a new TV series that has already been a hit in the US and the posters for which are plastered all over Los Angeles.

"Have you seen the length of my legs in the poster?" she shrieks, with a mixture of horror and delight. "They got a bit carried away with the old Photoshop and elongated my entire body! Not that I'm complaining. It was probably because I was five months pregnant when we shot that poster."

Jensen's son, Francis Jonathan Beesley (she affectionately refers to him as "Frankie"), was born on 20 October in Beverly Hills. The filming schedule for Accidentally on Purpose meant that she could only take minimal maternity leave but, luckily, the live studio format of the show leaves her with plenty of time off.

"I had a week off before he was born, three weeks off after he was born, and then I went back to work last week. But the studio is just 15 minutes that way," she says, gesturing towards the hills. "And it's a proper old-fashioned sitcom in front of a studio audience. So we rehearse on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I only have to work on Thursday if I have any pre-recorded scenes. Then, on Friday, we shoot it in front of a studio audience. I've got a dressing room so I can take my little boy in with me. And it's great on set because Jenna (Elfman, her co-star) is pregnant too. She's about to have her second child in March. Her pregnancy is written into the show but mine wasn't, so it was a case of hiding behind a series of giant handbags and flower arrangements."

So how is she enjoying motherhood so far? "To be honest, I'm stumbling from day to day at the moment," she admits. "Just getting to grips with feeding and not sleeping. It's all about routine, and it's very all-consuming. I had to feed him before I came out, which is why I was a little bit late, even though he wasn't really due a feed. And now I'm worried about whether my breasts are going to start lactating! You can't be away from him for too long. One thing it has given me is a real respect for womankind. Giving birth is amazing, and such a great leveller. It doesn't matter who you are – whether you're Mrs Beverly Hills with your Botox, or someone living in a caravan in Idaho. You both go through that."

What about when he gets older? Would Jensen and her husband be happy for their son to go to school in Los Angeles and – shock – grow up with an American accent?

"That is a worry, let's face it," she laughs. "He'll probably have a mixed-up accent anyway because I'm Scottish, Terry's English and we're in America. But one of the biggest changes for me has been that I have started thinking about the future more. You have to. If we do stay in LA, we were thinking that perhaps he could go to the French School, which is a great school with a European influence. But then we thought, 'hang on, he's only four weeks old!'"

Could a move back to the UK be on the cards? "We always talk about when to go back to London," she says, wistfully. "But then we go on the internet and look at house prices, and then at the weather. Then we say, 'actually, maybe we'll stay here'."

For now, Jensen is happy in Los Angeles. But it's extremely unlikely that her down-to-earth Scottish attitude is going to change at all.

"People think that you'll become a different person from living here," she says. "That you're going to suddenly change your personality and decide that you need Botox and collagen. And I suppose you do see people getting pressurised into that sort of thing because it is a very vain city. A lot of it what goes on here is based on what you look like."

So she's never been tempted to have a little nip or a tuck? "No!" she laughs. "I've had conversations with people who talk about it really casually. They're all, 'oh yeah, Botox, Botox, a little facelift here and there'. But, if I end up like that, I hope I've got enough dignity to leave it all behind. I'll just go and harvest olives in Italy or something instead."

'Nativity' is out on 27 November; 'Accidentally on Purpose' comes to E4 in the Spring