Actress Lauren Ambrose admits she likes being scared. “I like to do things that frighten me in my work,” she says, in the lobby of a banquet room of a hotel here. “Things that are challenging and that will require a lot of me, a different part of me than has been used before. But in my regular life, I’m not jumping out of airplanes. I’m a very conservative gal,” she laughs.
Ambrose is best known for her dramatic turn as the conflicted younger sister in a family of morticians on HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” But her latest leap is a farcical comedy. Ambrose plays the hippie sister of an addled book editor (Parker Posey) on Fox’s new “The Return of Jezebel James.”
“Comedy kind of scares me,” says Ambrose. “And I like to do the things that scare me. I think it will provide many challenges. The script is just beautifully written. And I’m such a fan of Parker. And also, sitcoms were such a big - really, when I think about it, such a big part of why I’m an actor and what formed me as a kid. You know, `I Love Lucy’ and `All in the Family’ - they just informed the acting.”
Ambrose was relatively unknown when she auditioned for the role of Claire Fisher on “Six Feet Under.” “For television they make you test for the network and the producers and everything. It felt like this high pressure thing with other actors doing the same thing and I wanted the job,” she says, her trademark red hair cascading over her shoulders.
In fact, Ambrose hadn’t worked for a while when the audition came along. “I’d done a lot of independent films and nothing was right,” says Ambrose, who’s dressed in a navy blue A-line dress with red flowers and red sling pumps with crepe soles.
“I’d done `Can’t Hardly Wait’ and people wanted me to play the same role over and over again and it wasn’t that interesting to me. I came out to L.A. and went back to New York and wanted to work in the theater again. And then `Six Feet Under’ came along.”
Ambrose, who grew up in Connecticut, was on her own in L.A. “It was a weird time,” she sighs. “I was striking out on my own. I stayed with people and tried to learn from people ... it’s scary when you’re not getting what you want. Now I’m very blessed and get to work all the time and work on things I’m interested in.”
She has been acting since she was a kid. “I’ve always wanted to be an actor and feel fortunate to do what I love and get paid for it. It seems like a dream because I would do it if I wasn’t paid for it - and to get to be one of the storytellers in our world. I hope that it’s an important function. I feel it’s an important function, and I feel like it’s something I can do.”
As a child she was never quite at ease, she confides. “I was restless and tortured and always wanting to be somewhere I wasn’t. I was a daydreamer and I think I still am.”
She performed in various plays while she was growing up and was already doing off-Broadway while she was still in high school. “That’s where I realized, `Oh, this is a great way to make a life,” she recalls.
It was a slow process, though, small films at first, larger films including “Psycho Beach Party” “Swimming” and five episodes of “Party of Five.”
The 30-year-old is married to photographer Sam Handel. They met in passing while she was studying at the Tanglewood Music Festival. “I went to study music there. I was 17 years old. It’s where the Boston Symphony Orchestra keeps its summer home and I started singing there and it was an incredible experience where I had a glimpse of what is possible as an artist.”
But her first encounter with Handel wasn’t something out of a romance novel. “He asked me what I did and I said I was an actress and he said, `Oh, are you a working actor?’ At the time I wasn’t working, and I was very defensive. I was offended by him.”
He was not working in photography at the time, either. “I’m sure I gave him a hard time for whatever computer thing he was doing,” she smiles.
Now they are parents of 14-month old son, Orson. About that, she says, “Having my son, as every woman knows, it’s just an upheaval, but a glorious one. I feel sort of relaxed in my life because having a baby seems a very purposeful thing.”
Tracey Ullman unpacks her suitcase of characters in “Tracey Ullman’s State of the Union,” a five-part series premiering on Showtime March 30. Ullman will play a gaggle of goofies from Cameron Diaz to David Beckham. She tells me she’s always been able to imitate people. “I just always could mimic everybody. I’d go further than mimicking people,” she says. “I’d analyze their social status and why they ARE like that.” It was a natural for her, “coming from somewhere as class-ridden as England where as soon as you open your mouth you know how much you earn, what car you drive where you went to school what you can aspire to, what you cant aspire to.”
Jason Lee is so good as Earl on NBC’s “My Name is Earl,” that it seems he’s been acting all his life. Not so. Lee was originally a skateboarder who watched movies like anyone else. He recalls how he first got into acting. “I was 24. And my girlfriend at the time, her mother was a manager for actors and she’s still my manager to this day. She knew the casting director of `Mallrats,’ Don Phillips. I went in to meet with him. He said, `He seems like a nice kid but he’s a skateboarder, he’s not even an actor. But I’ll have him come back and read as sort of a favor.’ So I came back and read for (director) Kevin Smith a bunch of times, and he finally gave me the part.”
“My Name is Earl” returns with original episodes on April 3.
Robson Green returns with Season 5 of “Wire in the Blood,” premiering on BBC America April 6. The first episode is the only one shot in the USA and Green’s character really walks on the wild side as far as Texas. Green, who came from a working class family in Newcastle, says it was a Disney movie that first inspired him. “It was going to the cinema the first time, `Bed Knobs and Broomsticks.’ What a movie that was! Actors interacting with animated characters, the wizardry and motion. I was 6 or 7. I just had this amazing experience. I thought, `That’s what I want to watch. I don’t want to go outside and play, chase or anything like that. I want to watch films all the time.’ Which is what I did.”