There's something that makes a parent want to take care of, or maybe even worry just a little bit about, Lauren Ambrose.
Even at 23, the actress--who plays Claire Fisher, the youngest and most fragile member of the very odd and highly dysfunctional family on HBO's drama "Six Feet Under"--seems a little vulnerable.
As she crosses the street on her way to a popular cafe not far from Venice Beach, she looks like all the other fresh-faced dreamers who flock to Southern California in search of something they can't find--or don't want to look for--someplace else.
Her bright red hair, visible even at a distance, is pulled back, highlighting a bright and gentle smile that broadens considerably when she bumps into a couple of friends in the middle of the intersection. Where she stops, briefly--but tempting fate nevertheless when you consider the pedestrian risks--to offer something more than just the usual hello.
"That was a girl who was the sister of a guy I was in a movie with," Ambrose says. "His sister and his mother."
In fact, before Ambrose makes it to the restaurant door, her television mom, Frances Conroy--who plays Ruth Fisher, the newly widowed head of the Fisher family, the owners and operators of a Los Angeles mortuary--passes by as well, calling out to Ambrose from her car.
Very L.A. for a New England girl who's been in town for just a few months.
"I've been back and forth," Ambrose says, when she sits down for an interview and a salad. "When I had a job, I would come out here and work, and then when I got this job, I moved out here because it was more permanent."
Ambrose is no novice. She made her film debut playing a student of Kevin Kline in the feature "In & Out," which was followed by a co-starring role in another movie, "Can't Hardly Wait." On TV, she has appeared on "Law & Order" as well as "Party of Five," in which she had a recurring role.
She's excited because she has just been told that "Six Feet Under," a series created by Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning writer of "American Beauty," has been picked up for another 13 episodes.
She had never read anything quite like the script for "Six Feet Under," a drama that, like "American Beauty," makes much use of black humor to offset the dark circumstances its characters face. Claire has it particularly rough, getting the news of her father's death (he was clobbered by a bus in the opening moments of the first episode) while she's peaking on a new and unfamiliar drug.
"It was a strange place to enter in as a character because it's incredibly undefined," Ambrose says, "because this person is on drugs, and when you meet somebody who's on drugs, they're not themselves."
Claire's intensity level has remained high in the first several episodes. Much like that of her on-screen older brothers, Nate (Peter Krause), a man who has been running from responsibility most of his life, and the extremely uptight David (Michael C. Hall), the good, gay and closeted son who stuck around to run the family business and got little thanks for it.
Now they're all together again.
"My favorite stuff on the show is with the family," Ambrose says. "That's what I respond to the most, that's what I love the most, when it's really about the dynamics of the family and exploring that. I think that's so interesting because it's such a surreal environment they're in."
More than a few things are on Ambrose's mind right now.
She has a pie baking in the oven at home just a few blocks away. And she's recently gotten engaged, with plans to marry in September. She turns into a lovesick pup whenever she mentions Sam Handel, who works in Internet advertising. At the same time, her parents have recently split.
"I'd prefer not to talk about that," she says quietly. "It's very sad."
She initially resists delving into the philosophical and psychological effects that working on a show about death might have, although it certainly has nothing to do with her being intelligent or deep enough to tackle the subject.
But then she opens up.
"It affected me so much," she says about the first read-through. "And I called my mom pretty much immediately, and I was like, 'Look, if anything happens to me, I don't want to be embalmed. Just put me in a box. Stick me in the ground right away.' " Then, with a laugh, she adds, "I've had too many incredible makeup artists work on me and make me look beautiful to have somebody paint me with salmon lipstick."
* "Six Feet Under" can be seen Sunday nights at 9:30 on HBO. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17).