I cannot be the only person whose affection for “Ugly Betty” was immediately redoubled by the presence of Ashley Jensen, who plays wardrobe mistress Christina McKinney, the heroine’s best friend, fairy godmother and guide. Jensen had first come to American attention as the haplessly forthcoming, slightly dim, love-unlucky Maggie in the Ricky Gervais BBC series “Extras,” which has just finished its second season domestic run on HBO. You hardly knew she was there at first, but gradually she emerged as the Laurel to his Hardy, the soul to his cynic; there was something truly beautiful in the way a thought would work its way around her face before emerging as speech, usually to some bad effect, though meant with all the goodwill in the world.
Jensen, who is 37 and has been acting since her teens, grew up in Annan, a small Scottish town where the cinema used to alternate movies with bingo. “I didn’t have a game plan other than to have a career as a working actress and to be able to support myself and to have my own flat,” she said recently, in the rented home she shares with husband Terry Beesley. (They met in a production of “King Lear,” in which Jensen played serpent-toothed ungrateful child Regan, not a part her recent roles would necessarily suggest.)
She had years of theater and television work under her belt, including a host of roles as “very sensible policewomen” and a run in the venerable BBC soap “EastEnders,” when she was cast in “Extras.” That series, which has so far earned Jensen three British Comedy awards (including “best newcomer”) and a BAFTA nomination, also got her big-time American representation and a bemused crack at the Hollywood pilot season -- “a weird old time.”
“Ugly Betty” emerged as “a little gem among the melee of scripts.”
“It was colorful and charming and fun and intelligent,” Jensen said recently. “There’s a lot of froth on the cappuccino, but there’s a big, dark espresso underneath it. People can really escape in it, but it deals with things like body issues and that it’s all right to be yourself, and things like being good and decent and hardworking, like Betty is.”
Those are qualities also common to Maggie and Christina. In most respects worlds apart, they share the quality of being good souls in corrupt worlds, and also their Scottishness -- in neither case originally written into the character, but in each case crucial to the way we read them.
“I try to pretend I’m very different from Maggie -- and I am -- but there is just finding that part of you that’s on the page. Maybe it’s because she had this naivete and that was something to do with the fact that I come from a place that is not a very streetwise place, it’s a place in the country that’s surrounded by hills. Of course I think I’m much more intelligent and savvy than Maggie is.”
A solid screen presence
AS to her “Ugly Betty” persona, “Christina was meant to be a straight-talking New Yorker, and she became a straight-talking Scottish person. I come from a very pragmatic country -- there’s a work ethic and we’re very sensible and practical and thrifty. We have a kind of ‘no nonsense, say it how it is, no frills, don’t get carried away with yourself’ quality. So when you say it how it is with a Scottish voice, it adds another little side to it.”
It can be a difficult and thankless role, the best friend: You’re largely there to facilitate exposition, to ask or answer questions, dispense advice. Your job, in a way, is to have less of a life than the heroine. Even within an ensemble piece such as “Ugly Betty,” Jensen’s Christina competes with other, more brightly colored minor characters who have the benefit of belonging to Betty’s family or being her enemies at work. Although she has lately, finally, been given some more complicated, more personal moments to play, Jensen has had to make herself felt in quick strokes and has indeed made out of Christina a character who exists apart from the lines she gets to say -- solid, but not without weakness; smart, but capable of being deceived; capable, yet not completely sure of herself.
“I think sometimes that is much more difficult than being in every scene,” she says of the smaller-part life. “It can be quite scary -- you come in and you’ve got to make your point in three lines.
“There’s also the fear of doing too much, of coming in and” -- she waves her arms and makes an accompanying noise -- “notice me, notice me. There’s a tendency if you have a small part to over-complicate and overwork. You have to have a bit of an idea, how [your character] got there and why, but these are things that, to be honest, nobody ever need know. And sometimes you’ve got to go, ‘OK, that’s all there is, what’s on the page -- I’ve got to make that come to life.’
“Sometimes I look at myself in ‘Ugly Betty,’ ” Jensen says, “and I feel I’ve been superimposed onto this big, glossy American program. And it’s, like, ‘How did I get here?’ I had a really nice career in Scotland. And then I began to get itchy feet and to think this is a little bit too safe, I want to be a little bit scared. So I moved to London and almost started again. And I’ve kind of done that here as well. Which I think is good, because it keeps you on your toes.”