Ashley Jensen: 'I felt like an interloper on the set of Ugly Betty'

Boudicca Fox-Leonard
Ashley grew up in Annan, Scotland - Getty Images Europe

We asked the actor, 48, what her younger self would make of her today... 

When I was about eight years old I vaguely thought I was going to compete in the Olympics. I was quite athletic and I remember watching the 1976 Montreal Games and thinking, “My God, that could be me.” I had the aptitude for short distance running, which continued through to my early teens. 

I was an only child, and it was just my mum and me, so I had a fair amount of attention. I was always eager to please and while I hadn’t exactly set my ambitions on Hollywood, I was the kid who was always determined to be the guide with the most badges, or come first in the Scottish Schools Girls’ 100-metre Championships. I was focused and a bit of a doer. I still am. I’m not good at having down time.

When I went to America I was the only person who didn’t have a five-year plan

Ashley Jensen

My mum has a drawing I did aged about 10 which I’d captioned: “Me when I’m an actress on the TV”. Mum didn’t know where that notion had come from; I certainly wasn’t from an acting dynasty. My family background was working-class and single-parent. Annan in south-west Scotland in the Eighties was a cultural void. There wasn’t any theatre and once in a blue moon you’d go to the cinema. I grew up on sitcoms. Michael Crawford, who played Frank Spencer [in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em], was an idol of mine, and still is. I loved all the Seventies classics like Fawlty Towers and The Good Life, which is why when I got Extras, I thought, “If I die now I’ll have been in a cult sitcom that has kudos, so I’m happy”.

Ashley as a wee girl

I was never one for planning ahead. When I went to America I was the only person who didn’t have a five-year plan. And when I landed a role in Ugly Betty I felt like an interloper that had sneaked in through the backdoor of this glossy sitcom. It was surreal. Fifteen years earlier I was putting up theatre sets in community centres and being told to p--- off by local children. I’d worked my way up from the bottom. It took me a couple of years to get used to finding myself at awards ceremonies and having a man come round to the house with half a million dollars worth of diamonds for me to wear on a red carpet. Suddenly someone is doing your hair and telling you what to wear to make you look amazing. You’re 40 and someone’s dressing you because you’ve lost the ability to dress yourself. It was a brilliant six-year period of my life, but I never thought it was going to last. 

I look back now and think how brave it was of my mum to send me off down to London when I was 14 to the National Youth Theatre. I told her as much the other day and she said, “I thought it might put you off, if I’m honest.”

I’ve always been a confident person. In my teens I was quite theatrical in the way I dressed. Hats featured quite heavily, and old men’s clothes. It was the Eighties so you were allowed to look like Bananarama, Robert Smith and Madonna.

Extras was Ashley's big break Credit: BBC

I was never short of a boyfriend. Mum said, I’d never find a boyfriend dressed like that, but I thought, “That means they’re not the right kind of boyfriend for me”. I always found the one who liked my Victoriana skirt, Dr Martens and the 18 bows in my hair.

In 1984 I bought a biker jacket off a boy who was hard up and I’ve still got it. I’m thinking of shining it up and keeping it for my son for when he’s 14. Maybe he’ll think its cool.

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I feel quite lucky that I slipped in kids quite late on [Jensen is married to actor Terence Beesley and they have one son, Francis]. I didn’t think I’d be emotionally ready until I had my property and career at a certain level. But I was fairly lucky that I managed to have a child when I did. 

My younger self would be amazed by everything I’ve done. However, I think she’d be disappointed by how conventional my dress sense has become. I still wear cowboy boots and clogs, but she’d probably say, “Where’s the hat?” 

Ashley Jensen stars in Love, Lies And Records, Nov 16, BBC One