Ashley Jensen: Don't call me babe

The 'Extras' star Ashley Jensen has won a top comedy award. But that doesn't mean she's a pin-up - or a comedian, she tells Liz Hoggard
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"I know what I look like," Ashley Jensen insists. "I'm not a babe who's automatically going to be the leading-lady type. I think I would always be cast as the friend. I probably tend to look crap more often than I look good. I like messing around and pulling funny faces and doing funny walks. As a child I always chose a false nose and some face paint and a wig for my birthday."

When she won Best Newcomer and Best TV Comedy Actress at the British Comedy Awards for her role in Extras last week, Jensen was immediately hailed as the new Queen of Comedy. The shock winner against established talent such as Catherine Tate and Tamsin Greig, Jensen is still a relative unknown.

But playing Maggie - Ricky Gervais's best friend, and fellow bit-part actor, in the critically acclaimed BBC2 series - has catapulted her into another league. She's already been signed up by Samuel L Jackson's über-agent (who spotted her when Jackson had a role in the series).

And yet the irony is that Jensen, now 36, isn't a newcomer. "I did have a silent chuckle to myself, it has to be said, when the nomination was announced." Nor is she really a comedian. For the past 10 years she's been slogging away in theatre (Howard Katz at the National, Attempts on Her Life at the Royal Court) and TV drama (Clocking Off, Taggart, Two Thousand Acres of Sky).

When she was invited to audition for Extras, she was called back four times before they were certain. But Gervais and fellow writer/director Stephen Merchant were never going to take the easy option. After creating the role of Dawn for Lucy Davis in The Office, it was clear they have no interest in bland, babe material.

Maggie is a properly rounded character, not just there to make Gervais look good. (Gervais, who was nominated for three awards, went away empty-handed last week.) "That's what's so generous about Ricky and Stephen's writing. It's not like Morecambe and Wise, where there's a straight man and a funny man. In fact, Maggie's probably got more funny lines than Andy."

Extras is pure comedy of embarrassment, and Jensen plays Maggie as a mix of innocence and selfishness (with a whiff of sexual desperation). We watch horror-struck as she compliments Gervais in a Nazi uniform for being "dapper", or rejects a boyfriend for wearing an orthopaedic shoe. Then there's the episode where she's caught trying to hide her golliwog from her black date. Sheer, bloody embarrassment is registered by the slightest frown or arch of an eyebrow. Jensen's face is a glorious thing to watch: one senses her background in contemporary theatre has given her a different screen energy.

"It's amazing, really, that two men wrote such a good part for a woman. I never thought, 'No, a woman wouldn't say that.' Both of them were on the set the whole time, so they'd both be there directing you. I had complete trust in what they were doing. Although it was good fun and we did laugh a lot, it was very focused and very specific."

What's refreshing about the friendship between Maggie and Gervais's character, Andy, is the lack of sexual tension, so rare in TV drama. "Why is it that just because there's a man and a woman there needs to be a romance?" demands Jensen. "The thing about Maggie and Andy is that it's not about innuendo or flirting. They don't have to put on airs and graces. I think they make each other laugh and annoy each other - but they do stand up for each other."

While Maggie is all messy curls and clashing fabrics (Gervais famously gives her six out of 10 for looks), Jensen is rather beautiful in the flesh, with a curtain of ironed blond hair. But as she acknowledges, "I've never been someone who dresses overtly sexually. As a teenager I always thought, 'I want to wear something that's a bit mad.'

"I've always been quite thrifty," Jensen continues. "I can't bear to spend hundreds of pounds on designer clothes. I shop in second-hand shops in Portobello Road and go to Sue Ryder. I get quite excited about things other people have worn. I went through a phase as a student when I wore a lot of 1940s tea dresses. I had this little black straw boater, fingerless gloves and Doc Martens shoes spray-painted silver with glitter. Looking back, maybe the final straw came when I decided to use a kettle for a handbag!"

Jensen comes from Annan, in Dumfries and Galloway. She knew from an early age that she wanted to be an actor. "I used to make my mum laugh by mimicking people; my big inspiration was Frank Spencer," she recalls. "And I love dressing up, so Extras was a complete joy for me. School uniform wasn't even compulsory at my school but I insisted on wearing it. By the time I reached sixth form, my skirt was down to the floor and I was wearing an old man's waistcoat."

She attended London's National Youth Theatre for a couple of summers, then took a diploma in speech and drama at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret College. After graduating, she worked with the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow and the Tron and the Traverse in Edinburgh.

Her first TV role was a Screen One film called Dreaming, starring Billy Connolly. "I was playing the girl in the betting shop and I didn't know what to do in front of a camera. I remember starting to speak when they said, 'The camera's rolling', and the director had to come up to me and say, 'Ashley you've got to wait for "Action".'" She discovered that the Persian cat in the cast got paid more than she did.

As you'd hope, Jensen in person is delightful. "You know, I've made this conscious decision to tell people on the street when I think they're wearing something great," she confides. "If more people did that, the world would be a better place."

Does she get recognised? "People sort of look at me and think they know me. I've got one of these faces where people go, 'You look like the next-door neighbour,' or, 'You look like my cousin's wife.' But I'm still glad to go about my business, walking the dog with no make-up on, while I'm half-asleep."

Instead of quaffing champagne after the British Comedy Awards, she reveals, "I went to a little chip van and the guy was saying, 'I am not doing any more chips,' so I got a fish in a roll. You can take the girl out of Scotland, but you can't take Scotland out of the girl."

She has just moved into a new flat with her partner, the actor Terry Beesley, and their dog. In May she starts filming the second series of Extras. Who would be her dream guest? "I'd quite like John Malkovich - I think he's really brave and kooky and dangerous. Or Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. That would suit me."

But first she's on our screens in the new ITV drama Eleventh Hour, with Patrick Stewart - who also appeared in the final episode of Extras. "My mate Patrick" - she is comedy name-dropping - "only ever works with me now." In fact, Stewart is convinced Jensen put a good word in for him with Gervais.

Eleventh Hour is made up of four 90-minute investigative thrillers set in the world of contemporary science. Imagine Inspector Morse mixed with Doctor Who. There are plotlines around cloning, oncology and global warming. "They are exciting, edgy subjects, so I think it's brave TV," Jensen enthuses. "It was a complete contrast to Extras - I get to pull my serious faces."

Stewart plays a controversial science trouble-shooter for the Government. Jensen is his close-protection officer: a great, ballsy performance. "I think at first she's frustrated to be babysitting an old man, but gradually they develop a professional respect."

Eleventh Hour has come at the right moment, she acknowledges, "because people are so keen to pigeonhole you as a comedy actress". To research the role, she spent time shadowing armed protection officers. "I'm so excited to be playing the gun-toting, door-kicking bodyguard."

Her wardrobe is suitably dull. "They're not clothes that Ashley would wear," Jensen says, with a laugh. "But the thing is, you can't stand out. At first I thought, 'I'll get myself a black Armani three-quarter-length coat', but then I was told that with Special Branch you have to blend in, so I could almost be taken for his daughter."

What was it like working with Stewart? "Patrick's got a really wonderful manner about him, so he makes everyone feel at ease." Arguably the best thing about the show is the raw chemistry between Stewart and Jensen. But once again, the relationship is platonic. "I don't know what that says about me," Jensen says. "With the two jobs I've done this year, they've both said, 'No, no, we don't want any sexual tension from Ashley.'"

'Extras' is on BBC2 tonight at 11.20pm. 'Eleventh Hour' starts on ITV on 19 January