Lauren Ambrose Delights in the Emotional Extremes of Servant

The actress opens up about wrapping up Apple TV+’s shocking thriller Servant, and what she was up to during the years following Six Feet Under.

by Michel Ghanem

Lauren Ambrose
Courtesy of Getty Images. Image treatment by Ashley Peña for W.

Apple TV+’s Servant contains some of the most explosive—and perhaps most underrated—performances in a psychological thriller on television. The M. Night Shyamalan-produced series has been consistently brooding and ominous to watch, with open-ended mysteries bringing to mind the likes of Yellowjackets and The Haunting of Hill House—but on a more concentrated scale in this series like no other. Approaching its fourth and final season, well-earned twists and reveals are delicious gifts to the viewer as we follow the Turner family into their next trauma.

Although the series is billed as horror, comedy is infused through characters like Lauren Ambrose’s Dorothy. Ambrose is best known for playing Claire on Six Feet Under in the early 2000s, a role that garnered multiple award nominations and an everlasting place in the cultural memory of now-grown angsty teens who watched and felt seen. On Servant, she plays Dorothy, a mother coping with the trauma of losing her newborn baby. A therapy doll planted by her husband Sean (Toby Kebbell) and brother Julian (Rupert Grint) mysteriously comes to life when their nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) arrives at their Philadelphia brownstone. Ambrose has, without a doubt, accomplished a career-defining performance over the last three seasons as the controlling, perfectionist head of the household.

Zooming with W from her home, Ambrose happened to have the day off amidst what she describes as an “insane shooting schedule” as the Servant cast works toward wrapping the final season of the series. She admits she sometimes won’t know exactly how to approach the complexities of her character’s trauma until she sees its construction by the artistic creators behind the camera: “The character is built from all those layers. I start putting on the clothes, and of course it starts to make sense. I go into the space and it makes even more sense. The house is part of her façade, part of the storytelling of her perfectionism.”

Below, the actress shares what it was like to film with a baby strapped to her chest for two episodes, her thoughts on approaching Dorothy’s emotional extremes, that shocking season three finale, and what she was up to during the years following Six Feet Under.

One thing that delights me about Servant is how funny you are on the show. Were you surprised by how much comedy is infused in the role?

That makes me happy. I’m always looking for lightness within this dark tale that we’re telling. I read the pilot as funny and theatrical and big, maybe because I was in a musical comedy at the time when I got it. Maybe if I had been in a dark pit of despair, the character would be totally different. But yeah, I relish those moments. For all of us, we really enjoy it. I actually wish we could just jump from the last season into a sitcom or something. Toby Kebbell is such a funny human being, obviously Rupert [Grint] is so funny on the show, and Nell [Tiger Free] is a very funny lady. We should do a sitcom version of Servant.

What originally drew you to the show and the character of Dorothy?

I suppose it was this genre that was really interesting to me. I’ve never been in a horror or thriller thing before, and I was interested in trying that out. I was a fan of Night [Shyamalan], certainly The Sixth Sense is such a beautiful movie.

Upon reading it, I was like how do you do this? This character who’s so deeply in grief and traumatized that she can’t even look at the problem, she has completely blocked out that the child has died. You see these cracks in this façade, and she has this crazy mask she wears. Everything is perfect in her life. I could see how she’d see it as a failure, because she’s a perfectionist. And then it’s a little play with four characters within the four walls of this house, it felt fun and theatrical in the setting.

I can tell you’re really mindful about when we’re seeing those cracks in Dorothy’s psyche—sometimes it feels like the pot is about to boil over and we see this restraint, and sometimes the pot does boil over. Do you enjoy playing the extremes of human emotions?

Oh my god, yeah. Whichever director you’re working with at the time, you’re like: can I trust you here? I read a quote Nicolas Cage said which I thought was so amazing: “People say I’m always over the top, but you tell me where the top is and I’ll tell you if I’m over it.” I’ve never said that, but…these people in the story have such terrible problems. Dorothy, my god, everything terrible that can happen to a human being has happened to her. But that’s great fun on a TV set—you get to do all of these insane scenes and horrendous moments, push the limits of what a person can handle.

I really just trust my fellow actors, I think it’s such a nice group and we all work really well with each other at this point and really catch each other in those heightened moments. The crew too—a lot of the crew is the same for these seasons and it really is such a nice group of people, working day-to-day on set. That makes a safe environment to do these wild scenes sometimes. There’s also a lot of joking and humor on the set—sometimes the material is so dark that it ends up being really fun.

You work with three British actors and a British showrunner. Do you ever feel like the token American?

Yes, completely. Me and the craft service lady. [Laughs.] But those tricky Brits, they’re so seamless that falling into their American accents is easy for them and they’re very believable as these characters. How did it end up this way? Some kind of American self-loathing that goes on. On the other hand they’re all brilliant actors, so I’m glad it’s them.

Dorothy is so glamorous and usually accessorized head-to-toe, except for the last two episodes of the third season. What was on your mind while playing this stripped-down version of Dorothy?

The taken-downness was fun to work with the makeup and hair department on how to tell this story visually. The wearing of the baby was really intense. That was the most challenging thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. We had two sets of twins—so I’m working really hard to hide their faces, or I’m working really hard to clandestinely feed the baby little snackies to make them not cry and scream. That’s basically what I’m up to, and then I’m like, I think I have lines. Massive, giant, glued-to-me babies.

During a set turn-around—meaning turn all the lights and camera around and take 45 minutes—this baby, who clearly needs a nap, falls asleep on me. If I don’t move, we might get some clean takes, so I would just sit and let the baby have a nap on me and wait until they were ready to shoot so as to not disturb the creature.

I remember reading it and thinking, how are we going to shoot this with the baby? They told me we’d use the doll a lot. Not one time did we use the doll. But when you’re shooting a show about a baby who’s a doll who’s come back to life, or whatever this show is that we’re on, you can’t really use a doll or it’ll look like a doll. I have a couple kids of my own so I knew what I was doing—I got to use this skill set. Sorry, I think I’m traumatized by all those scenes and I’m finally talking about it.

Were there discussions when Covid started around how the show might resonate as a pandemic metaphor?

Oh yeah, I think it’s pretty obvious, right? Even now, as we’re processing whatever phase of it we’re in. We shot during the height of the pandemic—there’s so few of us. We’re still testing three times a week. Sometimes it feels like the roof is going to blow. It’s definitely resonant, story-wise, but also the reason we were able to make the show is because of this contained, little theatrical story in one space.

I want to talk about the final scene of the third season. I had to rush to make sure you were still signed on to the fourth season, because it was a bit ambiguous if Dorothy survived.

I could imagine they wanted you to think that.

What do you think it means for Dorothy? My theory is that the physical trauma might finally jog her memory in terms of what happened to her baby.

Well, I like that theory!

Do you think Servant is an underrated show?

As an actor and a human, I try not to pay attention to such things. I know that there are other shows nominated for awards and we’re not. But you’ve just got to do your work and hope you find an audience. I don’t know anything about the numbers of who watches, and I stay off the internet. I just try and do my part in a mentally healthy way. I know there are beautiful performances on our show.

Thinking about the years between Six Feet Under and Servant, what was determining the roles you were taking at that time?

I did a bunch of plays, because I wanted to work in theater—that’s really important to me. Maybe not the wisest choice, to come off Six Feet Under, come to New York and do a bunch of plays. Maybe I should’ve done some TV shows or something, because with plays you’re tied up for a long time. But there it is, I did what I wanted I guess. I worked on some Shakespeare and all kinds of things I was interested in.

I was [also] taking these cool jobs that were possible pilots and then you’d have to wait to see about it happening. They were always these really interesting characters, amazing premises,, with amazing actors. So lots of plays, having children, and each job had to make sense for the whole family.

We got to witness your singing abilities on Six Feet Under, and of course in your theater work. What are the chances of a Servant musical episode?

Oooh. [Laughs.] I better pitch it fast. I don’t think the chances are very likely, I’m sorry to say.

Are there any TV shows you’re watching and enjoying lately?

I just watched Yellowjackets, that was kind of amazing. Juliette Lewis is a genius, I hope she wins every award for that, that was crazy. She’s like, throwing down the most intense performance I’ve ever seen in my life. I’m obsessed with the show called Motherland, this British show about a group of moms in London, it’s so funny. And then my guilty pleasure with my daughter—we watch All Creatures Great and Small, which is so amazing. It’s like getting into a warm bath. I feel my heart rate lower when the credits come on. It’s just a cup of tea of a show. I just want to move there.