Though she’s worked steadily since the end of Six Feet Under — a half-dozen indie films, two acclaimed Broadway shows, one failed network sitcom — Lauren Ambrose is still best remembered as HBO’s soul-searching teen Claire Fisher. Now 33, the redhead is redefining herself in some unexpected ways. Currently, she’s playing Torchwood: Miracle Day’s amoral publicist Jilly Kitzinger, as seductive a villainesss as has ever wore designer heels. She has a supporting role in the upcoming David Wain comedy Wanderlust. And it was just announced that she’ll be taking her little-heard, classically trained singing voice to Broadway, as Fanny Brice in the fall revival of Funny Girl. Though she declined to discuss the latter when we pressed her about the rumor (it was still under wraps when we interviewed her late last week), Ambrose talked to Vulture about her first foray into sci-fi, her obsession with Welsh accents, and why doing Wanderlust made her feel like the hippie Carrot Top.
I just watched the upcoming episode of Miracle Day and it was really upsetting!
That’s the thing about Torchwood: It will pull the rug out from under you. It goes along being cute and campy and gay, and then all of a sudden it’ll nail you.
Were you familiar with the show when you signed on?
I was not, although now I realize what a cult sensation it is. People came out of the woodwork when it was announced that I would be on it, e-mailing me. It was crazy, like, “Torchwood? Are you serious? Can you get me something from the set?”
So what made you choose this project, if you hadn’t seen the show?
I spoke to [creator and producer] Russell Davies about it, and I just enjoyed speaking to him so thoroughly. He’s so smart and Welsh and talked in his very fast tongue — absolutely a million words a minute — about this world he created. And what was most appealing was that there is truly a reason for everything. Every detail has been considered. Obviously, there’s this unnatural phenomenon where people stop dying all over the world, and he explores the repercussions of an event like that. My character represents the people who would sell it and profit off of it. She’s in publicity; it’s kind of been a meta, weird trip, to do interviews about the character, knowing that some publicist somewhere set it up. [Laughs.]
I’m a big fan of watching people really sink their teeth into villain roles. Is that something you’ve been wanting to do?
To play a villain? Yeah! Of course. I thought it would be a really fun thing to do, and just for me personally, it was pretty unlike anything else I’ve ever done. “Ruthless PR woman” is not exactly my usual fare. The good thing about playing a villain is to realize that everyone has a soul; she’s got a lot of good qualities; she’s just doing her job. I mean, I might not make the same choices or be able to stomach the same things. I mean, it’s true. It’s a pretty despicable job.
Who do you think is more despicable: her or Oswald, the convict played by Bill Pullman?
[Laughs.] I mean, I think I’m gonna go with the pedophile every time. Even though globally, she might be doing more damage, I think you gotta go with the pedophile.
One thing that I love about you in this role is the sense of authority you command as soon as you walk into the room. Did you model that after anyone in particular?
Oh, I think she’s just sort of an amalgamation of all of those — I say this very diplomatically! — all agents and publicists I’ve ever met. Those who sell people, and all the worst versions of that.
Working with Russell Davies and Eve Myles, did you get a crash course in Welsh culture?
Eve, who I just love, I worked hard to even make sense of her accent; it really is a tricky one. But I’m obsessed with her, and I became obsessed with the Welsh accent.
So how well can you do it?
[In an Eve Myles accent.] “Ooo!” Everything sounds like that. Super sing-songy and fabulous. It’s such a grandma accent. Somehow, she makes it super cool. She’s kicking ass with that grandma accent.
So you’ve also shot Wanderlust with that David Wain–Ken Marino–Paul Rudd crew. Is working with them like sitting at the coolest cafeteria table in the world?
Yeah, they’re funny dudes, man. I play this character named Almond who’s one of the hippies on the commune, and she’s really into birth. I brought all my props with me, my spiritual midwifery books — I live out in the woods a lot of the time, so I was able to draw upon my life and immerse myself in hippiedom. A lot of the research for that role I did unknowingly. I was like Carrot Top; I showed up with a trunk load of hippie props. I had my own clippers with me, my mason jar, my hat, my gardening tools — I was going to bring a Kombucha mushroom, but I didn’t think they’d let me on the plane with it! They were laughing at me because I literally showed up with a suitcase full of props. To the point where they were like, “Lauren, seriously? What are you doing?” I was like a traveling vaudeville performer. I had my raspberry leaf branches for my raspberry leaf tea, my knitting. The prop people were like, what is going on?