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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Harriet Gibsone

Ashley Jensen looks back: ‘Somehow I got to the point where I was sitting at an awards show with Glenn Close winking at me’

Born in 1969 in Dumfries and Galloway, Ashley Jensen is a stage and screen actor. Raised by her mother, Margaret, in Annan, she left home at 14 to study drama at the National Youth Theatre in London. After graduating from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Jensen got her first TV job in 1990, finding fame in 2005 with her Emmy-nominated role as the guileless Maggie in Ricky Gervais’s Extras. Supporting parts in TV shows Catastrophe and Ugly Betty, and movies The Lobster and How to Train Your Dragon followed. Most recently, she has starred in Agatha Raisin and Shetland, which is now on BBC One and BBC iPlayer. She lives in Bath with her son, Frankie.

This photo was of a Christmas show at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. I was 22 and performing in The Treasure of Wookimagoo. It’s not one of your classic pantos – it was created by a Scottish writer called Bruce Morton, who also starred in the show – but the atmosphere was lively, with a full audience every night. My character was Shona, the cheeky wee Buttons-type. I loved every second of it.

Making people laugh was always something I enjoyed. It’s an intoxicating feeling to command the atmosphere of a room in a positive way. Even before I started doing theatre I was a comedy-centric child and a keen observer of people. I’d do daft voices and put on little shows for my mum. At school I always felt like I was an outsider, but in a positive, eccentric way.

As I turned into a teenager I became aware I was never the best looking girl in the room, but I wasn’t the plainest. There was an upside to being somewhere in the middle, and I was grateful I never had the pressure that comes with being beautiful. Instead of thinking: “Poor me. I’m not the prettiest person! I’ll never be the lead!” I always felt sure of who I was and realised there were better parts to play. The supporting parts are the funniest ones, and much more interesting, too.

At drama school, my friends gave me the nickname Donald Wolfit – he was this old theatrical actor from a time when thick panstick makeup was all the rage. I loved to dress up, and could often be found painting freckles on my face or sticking a bit of facial hair on my chin so I could look like a man. My mum used to say to me, “Why are you dressing like that?” because I’d experiment with weird clothes. I carried a kettle for a handbag at one point, and I got Dr Martens shoes that I sprayed silver, dipped in glitter and stuck tartan bows on. I would be a bit goth one week, then a bit 1940s another – it was fun to skate around with styles and experiment with different versions of myself.

This photograph was taken pretty soon after I graduated from QMU. I was a theatre actor for 10 years in Scotland, doing tours around the country and at the Edinburgh festival. Most of the year was spent piling into a van, trekking off to a venue, setting up, doing the show, then driving somewhere else to do it all over again. We’d be performing in a little village hall, and bored children would be shouting “Fuck off! Fuck off!” at us, but we’d plough on. It was an apprenticeship into the industry and very character-building stuff.

I look at some young people that are elevated to stardom in their early 20s and I don’t think I would have coped with it. I was very single-minded and focused, but acting was never about fame and celebrity. Even going on TV seemed a little bit out of my grasp. So it came as some surprise when one of my first telly roles was “Girl 1” in Rab C Nesbitt. A few years later I had the pleasure of playing the role of Billy Connolly’s daughter in the film Down Among the Big Boys. There was one scene where he was walking me down the aisle at my wedding, and we spent a lot of time between takes together talking in the graveyard of the church. I got in that night and called Mum to say: “Guess what? I made Billy Connolly laugh! I was telling him a wee story about the milkmaid’s badge in the Guides. He was pissing himself laughing!” I really felt like I had made it.

My career has been full of wee moments like that. I met Matthew Perry when I lived in Los Angeles. I thought: “Oh my God – you’re Chandler!” And he turned to me and said: “Oh my God – I know you from Extras!” My first day on the set of Extras was similarly bizarre. I was dressed as a policewoman and doing a scene with Samuel L Jackson where I had to look at him and say: “I thought you were brilliant in The Matrix.” I couldn’t quite believe what was happening, but to me Ricky was just as big a star as any Hollywood A-lister because he had co-written The Office. I spent most of my time thinking: “Oh Christ, Ricky’s cast me. I can’t let him down.”

When I got my role in Extras I was told: “Ashley, your life is going to change for ever.” While I doubted it at first, it ended up being true. That show allowed me a little more choice about the acting jobs I took. I got to live in Los Angeles for six years to shoot Ugly Betty and another sitcom nobody ever saw called Accidentally on Purpose. All of a sudden, I was going to the Golden Globes and getting nominated for an Emmy. I was “newcomer Ashley Jensen”, even though I’d been going for 15 years! Suddenly my life was a flurry of stylists, limos and dresses – sitting there with someone painting my nails and doing my hair, and a security guard knocking on the hotel room door with diamonds for me to wear worth half a million dollars. I found it so surreal coming from my childhood in Dumfries, especially when the first part of my career was spent doing theatre in front of a handful of people and staying in a room above a pub that stank of beer. Somehow I’d got to the point where I was sitting at an awards show with Glenn Close winking at me.

After six years of Hollywood, I came back to the UK with my face all in the same position – a remarkable feat for any woman in this industry. I was 38 by the time I went to America, and because I was predominantly playing comedy parts there was maybe not as much pressure to be perfect. Yet I still feel so saddened that we are in a society where women, especially, feel they can’t embrace the wisdom of ageing. There isn’t as much collagen in my face as there used to be, and I’ve got laughter lines and a tummy that’s there because I’ve given birth to a child, but at least it all still works! I can walk and talk and see and hear. I’m in the middle of the menopause, and there have been times when I feel as if I am wearing someone else’s costume, like I have completely forgotten who I am, which has been quite disconcerting. But I still believe it’s an honour and a privilege to get old.

While my Scottish instinct is to think, “Don’t get too carried away with yourself,” I do feel proud of what I’ve achieved. It may have taken me until my 50s to get into the lead roles, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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