Many viewers were first acquainted with Ashley Jensen when she played Maggie, the dowdy, dim-bulb sidekick to Ricky Gervais on his show-biz spoof “Extras.”
Then she landed a plum supporting role on ABC’s “Ugly Betty” as Christina, the worldly wise wardrobe mistress for a high-fashion magazine.
Those characters, past and present, are quite different. Not so different: What it took for Jensen to portray them, she says.
“It’s amazing what a bit of makeup and standing up straight can do,” she volunteers in her plush Scottish accent.
To demonstrate, she droops into Maggie’s identity (slouching in her chair, with a vacant gaze), after which, as Christina, she snaps to high alert (recommended for surviving the predatory culture that pervades the offices of Mode magazine on “Ugly Betty”).
To play Christina, “You just sit up,” explains Jensen, “and close your mouth when you’re thinking.”
With the series’ third season (premiering 8 p.m. EDT Thursday), production of “Ugly Betty” has moved cross-country to New York, where the story had always been set. Now its eye-popping studio shots can be supplemented with location scenes all over real-life Gotham, making the show more visually stylish than ever.
Not only has “Ugly Betty” uprooted itself from Hollywood. So did its large company of actors — except Jensen.
“I shuttle over here for a couple of days, then shuttle home again. But don’t take that as an insult,” she adds, as if to assuage any sensitive New Yorkers. “It was only because I had done the great big move with my husband (actor Terence Beesley) and my dog from London to L.A. two years before.”
They found a rental ideally located in the Hollywood Hills near two parks, the better to accommodate their 100-pound pooch Barney. They have since bought a house and fetched their furniture from storage in England. Barney is happy. The family feels settled.
“But I still feel like I’m on holiday,” Jensen confesses. “When I first arrived, I had a suitcase full of sarongs and bikinis. I didn’t have one jumper. I still look at the Hollywood sign and think: What am I doing here?”
What she’s doing, of course, is a hit series, where she’s pleased to be appearing alongside its star, America Ferrera, whom she describes as “a delightful young woman, a good soul who’s on the right track — and she’s not gonna go giddy with it.”
From Scotland to Hollywood
In short, Jensen, 39, has come quite a distance from the Scottish town of Annan, where she grew up.
“I had a great life there,” she recalls. “My ambition was never really to get the hell out of that place, and it was never, never to be in Hollywood! I just knew that I wanted to act and tell stories.”
So she did, by throwing in with a troupe of actors who toured Scotland in a van, unloading and putting up their scenery, then, after each performance, striking the set and heading for the next town.
“Then I did little bits of television in Scotland, and then I thought: I’d quite like to try it down in London.”
There she landed work in theater as well as on British TV, “playing an awful lot of sensible policewomen.”
She was having fun but feeling stuck in a routine.
“The only power an actor really has is to say, ‘No, I’m not gonna do that, I’m gonna hold out and see if there’s anything else.’ But sometimes it’s quite difficult to be that brave. In fact, I was offered one job, and it was my husband who went, ‘Why are you contemplating that part?’ So I turned it down and two days later, I got interviewed for ‘Extras.’”
Created by and starring Ricky Gervais as his follow-up to “The Office,” “Extras” was an inside look at celebrity as seen through the eyes of fellow “background artists” and odd-couple chums: Gervais’ character, who felt unjustly overdue for stardom, and Jensen, who as Maggie wanted nothing more than to find a nice boyfriend. But she was scarcely noticed by anybody, in or out of the movie business, other than for her many social blunders.
“But everybody makes faux pas,” says Jensen. Like herself, “when I was walking from my room in the Mondrian hotel in L.A. through the lobby and out to the valet with my skirt tucked up into my underwear. It was all bunched up and my (rear) was on show.”
Another guest discreetly broke the news to her, Jensen says. Things were put right. But judging by her laughter in telling the tale, it’s clear she was no worse for the wear.