Ashley Jensen “I Remember”

Simon Hemelryk

Actor Ashley Jensen, 45, found fame alongside Ricky Gervais in BBC’s Extras and is most known for her role as Christina McKinny in the US hit series Ugly Betty.

I remember...

…getting covered in dog poo

I was walking home in Glasgow when I was about four and got scared by a fight between some Celtic and Rangers fans. I ran, tripped, rolled down a big hill and was coated from head to toe—in my mind, anyway—in canine faeces. There was a lot more sectarian fighting in Scotland in the early 1970s, with the Catholic and Protestant rivalry all mixed up with football. But it wasn’t a big issue in our house, so I didn’t know a lot about it. Kids would ask, “What’s your favourite colour, green or blue?” and I’d answer “Erm, green?” and they’d shout “WRONG! BLUE!” Or vice versa, depending on who was asking.

…moving to the country just before my fifth birthday

My parents had divorced when I was tiny and my mum Margaret, a teaching assistant, and I lived with my grandparents. Mum wanted me to have a rural upbringing, so we all relocated from Glasgow to Annan, south-west Scotland. I’ve done the same thing with my five-year-old Frankie, taking him to live in Bath rather than London, so he can faff about with babbling brooks, play on rope swings and look at conkers.

…a recurring childhood dream about Laurel and Hardy

It involved me sitting watching them in a theatre and to my right was a giant meatball. Years later, I was working with Ricky Gervais on Extras and he was saying how our characters Maggie and Andy should have a Laurel and Hardy-type relationship. I thought, Ah, maybe my dream was a little look into the future! What the giant meatball pertained to, I’m not sure.

…loving the Brownies

We used to skip round wooden toadstools singing, and we’d collect bottle tops for the blind. For years, I thought it was because they were reflective. I got an armful of badges. I think I’ve always been a little competitive.

…pretending to be Terry Wogan

I was a theatrical child and would make radio shows on a cassette recorder. I’d also do Miss Piggy and Frank Spencer impersonations. Frank Spencer made me want to be an actor. I loved his character, his naivety, his physical comedy. At secondary school I was very good at athletics, but that tailed off as I got older and fell in with some arty farty kids. I’d make my school uniform more flamboyant by teaming a long Victorian skirt with a Peruvian-style hat and bits of lace in my hair. The teachers would look out the window and say, “Oooh, here she comes, Dame Flora Robson.”


With her mum on a holiday in France

…there was no drama department at school

but I loved the idea of acting. So aged 16, I joined an amateur dramatic company with a load of old people—who must have been at least 40. Then my mum heard about the National Youth Theatre down in London, I got a grant from the Prince’s Trust to go (it was expensive for a working-class Scottish girl) and I appeared in a play called The Dream Ticket. I went home and said, “Acting is definitely, definitely what I want to do for a living,” and my mum was like “OK, right [deep breath].” But she was incredibly supportive and it had been very brave to let her child get involved in a world she knew nothing about.

…feeling cold at college in Edinburgh

I was in a big flat with no heating and my friend Alison Banks and I had to use hairdryers to warm our beds. I did three years at Queen Margaret Drama School, which later became a university. I think a monkey could have done the course. But I was that monkey and I absolutely loved it, hanging out with people like me who wanted to act, tell stories and arse about playing at fame.

…doing a real acting apprenticeship

My first job after drama school was The Crucible at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. I played Betty Parris, a child who lies comatose in a bed for the first 40 minutes. I was under no illusions why I was there—I cost less than a child and a chaperone. I also played Oor Wullie in a cheapskate liveaction version of the cartoon strip. The bucket I had to sit on was a 2D prop that gave me welp and we toured all these little theatres where rain would come through the ceiling.

But, weirdly, I always felt successful. I just wanted to entertain people, and I was earning a bit of money. But I didn’t have an alternative career or rich family to fall back on, so I would never say no to things. I’m still a bit like that. I’d have done some terrible parts if my husband Terry [Beesley, a fellow actor] hadn’t stopped me.

…a barbaric courtship

I met Terry in 1999 when I was Regan and he was the Duke of Cornwall in King Lear in London. We fell in love plucking the Earl of Gloucester’s eyes out, although they were only lychees. My career was going quite well and I was doing a fair amount of TV, such as BBC oil-rig drama Roughnecks. But after we got together, Terry and I would buy neglected flats, do them up and sell them to earn more money.

I knew he was the man I wanted to marry because he could take a toilet out and put one in, and he was an actor. It was a really happy time—hands-on work, but we’d have music playing and sit in the rubble at the end of the night, drinking beer.


Meeting her husband, Terry, in 1999 in King Lear

…my first day on Extras with Samuel L Jackson

By 2005 I’d done a few more TV roles, such as Babs in BBC1’s Clocking Off, but this was my big break and here I was doing my first scene with a major Hollywood actor. I just thought, OK, I can be intimidated by this or I can just jump in with both feet and go, “We’re all just human beings, even though that’s Samuel L Jackson and that’s Ricky Gervais.” Then Ricky and I started arseing about, dressed as policemen, and I was fine.

Buy Clocking Off, £7.99 and Extras series 1, £12.99 

…a photograph my husband took of me, just before going to the Emmys

I’d been nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress for Extras and I was standing there with someone doing my dress, someone doing my nails and a man waiting with a £500,000 necklace for me to borrow. That was a world I’d never anticipated being part of, but I was able to see it for what it was and enjoy it.

 

…feeling sad in Los Angeles


"Living the dream" in US show Ugly Betty

I moved to play Christina McKinney in the US series Ugly Betty in 2006. Terry couldn’t join me for a while, so I was alone, British, self-deprecating and relatively quiet among all these loud, ambitious Americans with five-year plans. It was difficult. My flat had two resident cats that the landlady expected me to take care of. It stank of p*** and s***.

I was too scared to drive in LA, so I ended up getting taken to the set at 6am in a minibus with the guys who cleaned the toilets. I’d be sitting freezing in this wee cold trailer before anyone had arrived, thinking, This is Hollywood. I’ve made it. Living the dream. LIVING THE DREAM! My agent sent me some cupcakes for my birthday and I was almost in tears. Why couldn’t it just have been wine?

…weeping while doing a voiceover for Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies in 2009

People always remember the amusing penises, but that show has so many other stories about people recovering from cancer or some facial deformity. I was pregnant and hormonal, so I was crying all over the place.

.…lying on the ground in a burning room, with flames inches from my face

I was filming Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death and we were doing a house-fire scene. I turned up and thought, Where’s the stand-in in the blonde wig, dressed as me? Oh, there isn’t one. Next thing I knew, I was on the floor with the stuntman saying, “You can tell people you do your own stunts now.”

…learning to live in the now

In America particularly, people are always aspiring for the next thing. Even in Britain we’re constantly Tweeting or on our phones. But Terry and I have got a little house in Italy now and he’s great at admiring the sunset and appreciating the moment. Also, my child makes me want to be as kind and calm a person as I can, look at things with new eyes all the time and say, “Oh, my God, a conker. That’s amazing.”

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