Ashley Jensen

To read the Guardian’s ‘corrections and clarifications’ column is to tap a rich seam of unintended comedy: ‘We misspelled the surname of actor Ashley Jensen as Jenson in a preview of the new Ricky Gervais comedy series Extras,’ one entry began. ‘An accompanying photo caption mistakenly described her by the name of her character, Maggie Jacobs, and we called her a newcomer when she has two feature films, 28 TV dramas and 23 stage appearances to her credit.’

That was last summer and, with a lilting Scottish accent, Ashley Jensen says of it now: ‘It doesn’t pay to take yourself too seriously.’

She has a nice line in self deprecation, this Jensen with an ‘e’. When I mention a recent TV appearance of hers — Jonathan Ross’s chat show — her raised hand goes limp at the wrist. ‘I was only asked on because someone dropped out. They rang me at half twelve on the day and said, “Will you do it?… Great. We’ll send a car at five thirty.” All I could think when I put the phone down was: ‘But I haven’t got anything to wear.”

Ashley Jensen is a gentle woman with a slightly camp manner and an easy laugh. She is, she says: ‘Quite Scottish in that if I’m having too much fun I have to find something to worry about. Don’t get too carried away with yourself.’ She has a ‘ditzy blonde’ side to her, she adds, and is prone to getting distracted half way through a sentence. ‘I will suddenly look out the window and say, “What is that bus doing on that route?” My boyfriend Terry will say, what conversation are we on now?’

The self deprecation, though, rings a little hollow now that she has won two British Comedy Awards for her role in Extras, as well as a nomination for a comedy Bafta (the winner to be announced on May 7). She says she finds the accolades flattering but a little disconcerting. ‘This time last year I was a 35-year-old jobbing actress, doing some jobs for the money, some for the art, some simply because they were in London. A lot of the work was serious acting. I hadn’t thought of myself as a comedy actress particularly.’

So is she expected to be funny at dinner parties now? ‘I do feel a bit of pressure to be more funny or, rather, less boring. I still think of myself as an actress first, but now I’ve got two comedy awards I suppose I am OFFICIALLY FUNNY. Twice.’

Extras, written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, was the eagerly-awaited follow up to The Office. It managed not only to live up to expectations but surpass them, and a second series is about to begin filming — under great secrecy. The first, you see, featured cameos from big Hollywood names such as Ben Stiller, Samuel L Jackson and Kate Winslet. Even so, the surprise star, with her fine comic timing, was Ashley Jensen. Gervais had wanted her character, Maggie, to be a foil to his, Andy —  as he put it, he wanted a Stan Laurel to his Oliver Hardy. They play platonic friends — as one writer put it, ‘they generate less sexual tension than an episode of Songs of Praise’ — and they make a gloriously understated double act. Maggie is hapless and embarrassing, but also vulnerable: a hopeless romantic who can’t find love, only sex. She always seems to dress inappropriately for her age: ankle socks with high heel shoes.

Today, sitting in the high-ceilinged drawing room of her flat in Holland Park, Ashley Jensen is casual in jeans, sheepskin boots and a loose-knit cardigan. She has the face of an Edwardian doll — with large blue eyes set wide apart, puffy lips and a doughy softness to her skin. ‘I think I have grown into my face in the past ten years,’ she says. ‘Felt more comfortable. That said, I do sometimes think I look half baked, as if I’ve come out of the oven too early.’

Is there anything about herself she would change? ‘I don’t think so, though I am always shocked at how short I am — I’m only 5ft 3in. I feel like a taller person. When I’m walking along and I catch my reflection in a shop window next to other people I think: You really are a runt.’

Despite what people tell her, she doesn’t think she is conventionally attractive. ‘I can look really bad, really easily,’ she says with a laugh. ‘For one episode of Extras, I had to dress up as a Bosnian civilian in a war zone. Ricky wanted me to look as ugly as possible so I was given this ratty wig and black eyes. But I was supposed to be flirting with this good looking actor and as soon as we started filming Ricky started giggling: “Stop! Stop! She looks like a witch. You can’t have a witch flirting with a good looking man, it doesn’t work.” So they took off the wig and make up and made me television ugly rather than real life ugly.’

In the Holland Park flat there is a piano, a designer stack of old leather suitcases and, on the floor, a rubber bone. I discover who this belongs to when, in a blur of pale hair, a large wolf-like animal jumps on the sofa between us. ‘This is Barney,’ Jensen says roughling the beast’s main. ‘He’s a cross between an Alaskan malamute, a German shepherd and a Siberian husky. The breed name is  utonagan.’ Delivered with Scottish vowels, it sounds musical:  ‘Oot-on-aa-gan.’

An only child, Jensen was born in Dumfries and brought up in the Scottish border town of Annan. She was an athlete at school, running the 100 meters for her region. After taking her highers she studied drama at Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh. She adores her mother Margaret, who teaches children with special needs and still lives in Annan. Her mother raised her single handedly from an early age after her father had an affair, walked out and re-married. He is now a wealthy property developer. Does she have any contact with him? ‘No.’ This is said with a pursing of the lips. ‘And that’s the end of that story.’

Does her parents’ separation make her nervous of commitment? ‘No not at all. I don’t know what it’s like to have two parents, but I don’t feel deficient, or cautious, or commitment phobic. No more than anyone else.’

She lives with Terry Beesley, an actor. They met in 1999 when they were both appearing in King Lear at the Royal Exchange. Does she ever feel as if she is in competition with him, or vice versa? ‘Not at all. We are never up for the same parts. We try not to talk shop too much at home or behave like actorly actors.’ They have just returned from a trip to Italy where Terry was filming on location. What about when they are working in different locations? Does that put a strain on their relationship? ‘We’ve been lucky because our work hasn’t kept us apart too much. We always try and get back at weekends. If you value your relationship you have to find a way to make it work. Have big phone bills.’

Are they planning to marry? ‘I don’t know when we will fit it in. Maybe, if there is  a window.’ Does the same wait-and-see approach apply to having children? ‘Yes, when we can fit it in: we’ve only been in this house a few months and are stilling doing it up. That’s our big project at the moment. We’ve got a dog, that’s a start.’

I wish her luck at the Baftas and ask if she has picked out a frock for the big night yet. ‘No, and I didn’t buy one for the Comedy Awards either. Do you think I should have one of those tits-up-to-here dresses?’ She demonstrate with two cupped hands. Yes, I say. Definitely. ‘No, I think I’m too old for that. Besides, I’m too Scottish to spend a fortune on a new frock. I’d love to be able to buy a dress without feeling guilty.’ She stares out of the window. ‘I bet I wake up on the morning of the Baftas with a bloody great cold sore.’