Lucy Davis: We Love Lucy

As Dawn, 'The Office' receptionist, Lucy Davis found herself fêted wherever she went. But now she's looking for a promotion and hoping to get the call from Hollywood. As her latest British film opens, she talks to Johnny Davis about having a famous father, her dramatic kidney transplant and why the secret of happiness is a slice of cake

The last time Lucy Davis got on an aeroplane, a peculiar thing happened. The captain of the 747 welcomed his 400-plus passengers aboard with the usual safety information, expected duration of the journey and weather news, before rounding up cheerfully with the following: "Finally, there's a star from The Office on board today. I know you'll all join me in offering congratulations on those two Golden Globe victories. I'm sure you're all as proud as we are at Virgin Atlantic."

"Oh, how embarrassing," shivers Davis - who played downtrodden receptionist Dawn Tinsley in the series, famously a mere 12 times, plus a two-part special - at the memory. "Still, at least it's nice and not shit. Everyone British has been so complimentary."

But, of course, it's not national pride at beating Friends and Sex and the City at their own game (Best Comedy, plus Best Comedy Actor for Ricky Gervais - the first time a British show has won an award since Till Death Us Do Part, 30 years ago) in the US TV Awards in February that makes people feel compelled to say "thank you" when they spot the real life Tim, Gareth, Brent or Dawn. It's that these people affected us more than any other television characters in living memory.

Dawn and Tim's courtship dance of sideways glances, embarrassed silences and playing-with-each-other's-hair was so devastatingly convincing you could all but hear the nation's collective blub at 10.35pm on 27 December last year when Dawn unwrapped her Secret Santa oil paints and "NEVER GIVE UP" message from Tim and we realised we were going to get the happy ending we all wanted (Davis was some way ahead of us with the tears, crying in a café when she read the script and realised that Dawn would be back from Florida to make a final visit to the Wernham-Hogg paper merchant in Slough).

"From the moment Lucy walked into audition, she gave a performance based on her understanding of real people, real behaviour," says Stephen Merchant, The Office's co-writer and co-director. "There's this universally accepted style of TV drama acting that is considered 'realistic'. But it's only realistic compared with other TV dramas. We spent ages looking for people who didn't rely on those normal drama-school tricks. And you simply couldn't see Lucy's acting."

It's one thing being one of the best-loved characters in The Greatest Sitcom Of All Time (regardless of what Great Britain votes on the current BBC poll). It's quite another escaping the shadow of that character. It's for this reason we feel personally affronted when we see Martin Freeman, who played Tim, goofing about in the so-so sitcom Hardware. It's hardly The Office. But then, what is?

Lately, Davis has been forging her own way forward. She's in two British films Shaun of the Dead (more of which later) and The Sex Lives of the Potato Men (as little as possible of which later), and she's making a concerted effort to break into Hollywood.

"It sounds terribly glamorous, doesn't it?" she says, munching her way through sugar-free Polos and Diet Coke in a photographer's studio in London's East End. "Really, it's not. I read in the papers the other day that I was inundated with offers from Hollywood and I was thinking, 'As soon as someone tells me, that will be great.' Hurr! Hurr!"

She's got a terrific laugh has Davis. She's instantly likeable and no small chatterbox (frequently meandering ditsily right around the subject - a question prompted by Freeman's recent admission that he's had to pack in taking the London Underground because he gets so much hassle, warrants three minutes on why buses are brilliant), and apart from sharing the odd intonation where her sentences sometimes go up at the end - so they become, like, questions? - Davis is reassuringly un-Dawn like.

The Golden Globes were, she says, strange. Of course, none of them thought they had a chance of winning anything. So when, on the morning of the ceremony, BBC America briefed them on what to say and who to thank in the event that they found themselves up on the Beverly Hilton's podium, they weren't really listening and were "pissing about and telling jokes" instead (all this being filmed by Merchant for an upcoming final DVD). Which is partly why Ricky Gervais's acceptance speeches were such a glorious shambles.

Then there was the red carpet. "As you go down you're meant to be stopped to be interviewed," Davis says. "But me and Martin thought that we were lucky enough to be there and we didn't want to push our luck, so we were haring for the mini bottles of champagne at the end when someone who worked for one of the networks said, 'Guys, guys,' and called us over. He went 'Who are you?' I thought that was great. I love that sort of thing. Hurr! Hurr!"

But what with the awards and the upcoming US translation of The Office - Davis has seen bits of it, her character has a new name and hair colour (Pam, "quite mousey") but no new dialogue ("she's saying exactly my lines. So weird!") - she's become more recognisable, if not in person, then at least as a commodity. And she's savvy enough to capitalise on it. So she's got an agent in Hollywood and has been going for meetings with casting directors, for both film and television, comedy and drama.

"If I get somewhere, then that's fine. And if I don't, then that's fine also," she says. "But the main thing is I don't want to get to 50 and say, 'Oh, I wish I tried that. If only I'd got off my arse...' I couldn't bear that. The whole thing with so many people empathising with The Office has made me aware of how people aren't doing jobs they love, aren't living a life they love. Which I find devastating." Which, you'll remember, was exactly the position Dawn was in.

"The weird thing about Hollywood is that it isn't this mystical La La Land," says Simon Pegg, Davis's co-star and the co-director of Shaun of the Dead. "The step you take to get there isn't a giant one. You do something good over here and suddenly you're accepted. The thing about Lucy is she's bubbly and daft and funny, but she's got a good head on her shoulders. She's got a family history of being in this business and she's learnt a lot from her Dad." *

Davis's dad is the comedian Jasper Carrott. Curious about this, Ash Atalla, The Office's producer, once asked her why she'd changed her surname. "At what point did you think Davis was the made-up name?" she replied.

Davis may not have altered her identify, but she's certainly not too keen to broadcast the family connection. Ask her about her upbringing and the bubbliness evaporates into reticence. One mention of "Funky Moped", Carrott's novelty top-five hit from 1975, and she looks like she wants to murder me. "When I started this job I wanted our careers to be separate," she says. "So that whether people believed me or not, which most people didn't, I knew that I'd done things off my own back. I didn't want people to say about Dad, 'Oh, his daughter's an actress' and suddenly ruin everything he's done for the last 20 years. I know that when actors start to get recognised, they're asked about their families. But it's different for me because I'm talking about family people know."

Still, Carrott's TV shows frequently pulled in 14 million viewers in the 1970s and 1980s. He was massive. That must have had some effect on her growing up? "When I was at sixth-form college, that was the hardest time. I was campaigning to be one of the student governors - I have no idea why, it's ridiculous - and you have to put up campaign posters and people would scrawl over them: 'Thanks, Daddy Carrott for the jokes'. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter. If people want to be an arse, that's fine."

In interviews, Carrot used to be fond of saying that all his daft observations of family life were based on his children, but Davis says this isn't the case. Really, he made them up.

Davis was born 31 years ago. She grew up in Birmingham, a happy child - "I'm annoyingly optimistic. Our family is quite Waltons-y" - the eldest of four brothers and sisters. Mum was a journalist. At school she'd pester everyone to put on plays, and drive her sisters mad dressing them up and telling them to be various characters. When everyone else was trying to sneak into pubs on a Friday night, she'd be at the Birmingham Rep Youth Theatre. Her first TV role was in 1995 as Maria Lucas in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice. It was during a medical for this that she was diagnosed with kidney failure. Mum donated an organ. Today, they both have to take medicine - 12 tablets, twice a day - to prevent any complications (one unfortunate side-effect of which, she says, is that it makes her hair prone to fall out).

Some other names on Davis's CV: Holby City, Murder In Mind, One Foot in the Grave and, since 1995, the role of Hayley Tucker in The Archers.

Some Smash Hits stuff: Katie Melua is the CD currently playing in Davis's car. A book she's read more than once is Robert Lacey's The Life and Times Of Henry VIII. Her drink of choice is whisky and Coke. She used to love to watch the cheap-and-cheerful 1980s sitcom Duty Free and still loves Laurel and Hardy. There was once a lucky stripy top she used to wear to auditions, but having failed to get three in a row, she gave up on that. She's never wanted to be a man, never kissed another woman and thinks the secret of happiness is "cake".

Recently, Davis got back together with boyfriend Richard Manson, an actor and writer she split with last year, after 11 years ("Dawn: I'm back with my old flame," said the Daily Mirror).

If British TV comedy has scored a glorious victory in America this year, British movie comedy is still lagging behind. While no one believes the highs of the Ealing years - The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets - are coming back anytime soon, you'd hope we could manage better than The Sex Lives of the Potato Men, the dismal filth fest that had Ann Widdecombe spitting feathers about wasting Lottery money when it was released last month.

Davis is in it. Briefly. She has her terrier stolen by The League Of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss. "Well, I laughed out loud at the script," she wails, though it's hard to see how. "I feel so sorry for everyone involved. I thought, 'That can't go wrong.' But between casting, filming and editing... something changed."

Happily, Davis's next film, Shaun of the Dead, is something of an improvement. Billed as "a romantic comedy with zombies", it's from the same team as the hugely successful television programme Spaced. And it is also an affectionate nod to George A Romero's zombie films.

Released this Easter, it should be a success and early screenings have produced laughter, the odd spontaneous round of applause and even comparisons to An American Werewolf in London. Davis's mum got to play a zombie in it, as did hundreds of diehard Spaced fans who answered an Internet ad. "It was the best job I've ever done," says Davis. "Every day was bashing zombies with driftwood or doing car stunts. Doing amazing things I've never done before. Much better than having to act out answering the telephone. I hope it does well. It deserves to." She sighs. "But you just never know..."

A week after our meeting, Davis is back in Los Angeles, talking with casting agents. She's had a call to try out for Cameron Diaz's sister in a comedy. "My manager rang and said, 'Are you sitting down?' It was for the lead with Diaz, so it wasn't just a couple of scenes. And Curtis Hanson [LA Confidential, 8 Mile] is directing. I was really smug about it. 'Cameron Diaz's sister... yeah, I could do that.' Then when I got the script it was 'and then we meet Whatever-her-name-was, Cameron Diaz's Fat Ugly Sister.' Hurr! Hurr!" It's a mixed blessing, perhaps, that the part has gone to Toni Collette.

So if Hollywood doesn't work out, and the BBC offers her a big bag of cash for a prime- time Dawn & Tim spin-off, would she...? "I can't imagine that would ever happen. But I'd never not look at a script. The more you do this job, the more you find out it's the whole package that's important. It's, like, sometimes things can go horribly wrong and it's just not your doing."

Would she be talking about the Potato Men film here? "I would have to say 'No comment' on that," she's says. "That's the first time I've ever said that. I quite like it."

That's the thing about Lucy Davis. She's bubbly and daft and funny. But she's got a good head on her shoulders.

'Shaun of the Dead' is released on 9 April