Monday 20 November 2017

Animated adventures of Ashley

Ugly Betty star Ashley Jensen was inspired by her son in her latest role as a Christmas elf, writes Evan Fanning

Evan Fanning

ASHLEY JENSEN makes a lot of hand gestures as she talks. There is the "hands in a ball rotating in opposite directions", like she's working a Rubik's cube, which, she explains, signifies the film industry. There's also the pushing of the palms to the floor, which indicates that she's down to earth.

With each of these gestures she provides a little description of what she's doing, a running commentary of her actions delivered deadpan in her dry Scottish way. "That was the industry there," she says, gesticulating a ball in her hands.

With her relaxed but droll and self-deprecating manner, you could quite easily imagine you are idling away time on a film set with Maggie from Extras, sipping tea out of a styrofoam cup. The only thing missing is Ricky Gervais.

Six years ago it was Extras that propelled Jensen, now 42, into the public eye and enabled her to land the role of Christina in the hit US show Ugly Betty, a part which required her to move to Los Angeles, where she has remained with her husband, the actor Terence Beesley, and their two-year-old son Frankie.

Extras may have given her the push, but the hard yards were done before. There were walk-on roles in The Bill and Casualty and Taggart, two episodes of EastEnders. Overnight success it most certainly was not.

"If success had happened to me earlier on it would have been more difficult to deal with. I think it's hard for people in their early 20s to be grounded when there's people flapping and fussing about them.

"Extras put me on the map and in the public eye, and I am where I am today and in America because of it," she explains. "I never aspired to go to Hollywood. It wasn't the game plan to go there. I always just wanted to be able to support myself as an actor and do a wide variety of work.

"So I feel as if I've served my apprenticeship as an actor. I've done the one scene in The Bill and been the guest actor in whatever else. And that's really scary because you go in and all the crew know each other and all the cast know each other and you've got to go in and shout at Helen Mirren. It's scary."

These days, there are different things that cause her to worry, such as the bizarre exercise routines in her new hometown, but at the beginning of her three-year stint on Ugly Betty things were tough.

"I thought I was going to New York and then they told me they were moving the show to LA and my heart sank. I had been to LA and I hadn't quite got it. I didn't connect with it. I understood New York because it's quite like London.

"It can be quite lonely if you don't know anyone. I went out there on my own in the beginning and the husband and the dog weren't there yet and I remember thinking 'how did I get here? How did this happen?'

"Little things like how do you pay your gas bill and being stuck with a pay-as-you-go phone and where do you post a letter and buy a stamp and get a decent pair of underwear? Because there ain't no Marks & Spencer in LA."

Now Jensen is voicing one of the main roles in Arthur Christmas, the big family animated adventure for the festive season. But it's only November? Surely it's a little early for the year's Christmas film which could have come and gone from most cinemas by the time Santa finishes loading up his sleigh on Christmas Eve?

"I'm doing that thing of saying 'it's not Christmas yet. We've just had Halloween,'" Jensen says though she'd better adapt quickly -- as soon as our interview is over she is heading off to turn on the Christmas lights on London's Regent Street.

"I think everybody can get carried away running around asking 'what do you want for Christmas?' Most of the time what do we really need? It seems to have gone a wee bit material. I think the message in this film is to think about each other and care about each other." This last line gets its own bit of director's commentary: "She said in a philanthropic way."

Given that Arthur Christmas comes from the same stable as the Wallace and Grommit films and its writers, Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith (who also directed), count among their previous credits the Bruno and Borat films, The League of Gentlemen and the Chris Morris projects The Day Today and Brass Eye it's perhaps not surprising that the film is sharp, witty and lots of fun.

"It's got all the ingredients that a good Christmas movie should have," Jensen says.

She voices Bryony, a feisty elf who specialises in gift-wrapping and embarks on an unlikely escape with Santa's son Arthur and his grand- father. "She's a wee firecracker," says Jensen who perfected her elf-voice by listening to her son. "Having a small person, my own little elf, made it easier."

Like Bryony, Jensen admits she likes rules and order but is finding it increasingly hard to come by. "Since I've had a child it's all gone out the window. I live in chaos now. I used to like a neat and tidy house."

It's the second time this year Jensen has voiced a character in an animated film having played a frog in Gnomeo and Juliet, and she did another animated project, The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists, on the way. So what is the attraction with animation?

"They're really good fun. I really enjoy it. And as an actor it doesn't take up too much of your time so I've been able to spend a lot of time with him [Frankie] these past couple of years." Presumably her son may now be becoming aware of what his mum does for a living? "Well he does watch Gnomeo and Juliet and call it the Froggy Film, through no prompting of my own. So this will probably be the elf film."

When Jensen made the decision to leave Ugly Betty, where she played the amiable Christina, friend to unlikely fashionista Betty, she landed a role on the sitcom Accidentally On Purpose but CBS cancelled the show after 18 episodes, leaving her at a bit of a loose end.

"This year, I've taken a wee bit of time doing voiceovers and looking after my wee man and it's been good because I've been able to be quite reflective."

But she has remained in LA where she and her husband are working to get various projects off the ground. She admits she "may come back to the UK one day" but for now the family is content.

"We sort of pride ourselves on not being very actory actors. I think I'm a person before I'm an actor. Acting is what I do and I don't get involved in all the carry-on. I'm quite down to earth and I don't really go in for a lot of the nonsense."

So what kind of nonsense brings the strangest looks from Jensen? What would Maggie from Extras be gossiping about to Andy while dressed as a nun or an SS officer? "There's the strange exercise routines, the fad diets and unhealthy obsession with their pets. I've seen people taking their two pug dogs dressed in baby clothes in a pram for a walk. There's all that and then there's the wind-tunnel ladies who are probably about 28 but look about 40 because they've had so much work. If you're young enough and vulnerable enough you can get consumed by it. But if you've been around the block a few times, you can sit on the outside."

There are some things she can never quite get her head around. "Only in LA between 5pm and 8pm on a Thursday can you bring your dog to see Santa."

She has no hand gesture in her arsenal that is able to explain that.

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