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Interview: Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose
by David R. Guarino
2003-06-04

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Perhaps one of the most beloved characters on HBO's premier dark comedy/drama Six Feet Under is that of daughter Claire Fisher, painstakingly brought to life by Emmy-nominated actress/singer Lauren Ambrose. No stranger to performing, this redheaded native of New Haven, Conn., recalls singing and acting at a very early age. She also recalls attending an inordinate amount of funerals as a young child, thanks to her now 94-year-old beloved Italian-American Grandmother, who took Lauren along to wakes and burials because 'she knew just about everybody in town and somebody was always dying.'

Viewers already familiar with the wide range of Ambrose's acting abilities know that her previous roles include a critically acclaimed and sensitive portrayal of a mildly retarded girl who is raped by a group of high school students (Law and Order), a teen introvert turned popular surfer chick with multiple personality disorder in the campy murder mystery Psycho Beach Party, a rather shy tomboy with a subtly lesbian nuance in 1999's coming-of-age film, Swimming, and one of Kevin Kline's best pupils in the 1997 Frank Oz comedy, In and Out. As the reclusive 'Denise' in 1998's Can't Hardly Wait, Ambrose crafted a relatable albeit cynical portrayal of an unlikely love match for hip-hop wannabe Kenny (Seth Green). In 1999 Ambrose joined the cast of Fox's Party of Five playing Myra, a troubled teen who attempts to escape her personal problems through alcohol and irresponsible sexual activity.

Few people are aware that the talented Ambrose is also a classically trained singer who has appeared in such venues as a recent Charlottesville, Va. 'Indy Opera' production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice in addition to her many jobs in choruses, choirs and the like. In 2001, Ambrose returned to TV after winning the coveted role of 'Claire Fisher' on the HBO original series, Six Feet Under. Now in its third season, Six Feet Under has catapulted its talented ensemble of actors to worldwide recognition. Ambrose's stunning portrayal of the ephemeral Claire won her an Emmy nomination—her first, in 2002.

Married to photographer Sam Handel, Ambrose recently participated in a reading of Brooklyn Boy for director Daniel Sullivan as part of The Pacific Playwrights Festival. She also took part in a charity-driven reading of All About Eve, which included performances by Stockard Channing, Kirk Douglas, John Ritter and Calista Flockhart among others.

David Guarino: When you first signed on to play the role of Claire Fisher did you have any clue as to how popular this series would be or what a phenomenon it would become?

Lauren Ambrose: I don't know, I mean sometimes I don't think I have enough of a sense of what a phenomenon it is. People say that to me and I go, 'Oh, I don't know, is it that big a phenomenon? I guess it is.' In LA, you know, there are billboards all over the place and it seems like a big deal but I just assume that that's just in LA, because everybody's bonkers about show business here. But I guess not. I don't know! Of course I didn't think of that (when I signed on to do the show). I just thought it was a really great job and I wanted the job.

DG: My favorite scene of yours thus far is one from the first season. It's the one where you come into the kitchen one morning and you are thinking about your new boyfriend Gabe (Eric Balfour) and how you're falling in love with him, and all of a sudden you are dressed in an evening gown and you break into song with your brother David (Michael C. Hall) and your mother Ruth (Frances Conroy) dancing behind you.

LA: The musical number? My music video? (laughing) We got to shoot it. It was like making a music video, David. I've never made a music video but I assume that's what it's like making a music video. Because I went into the studio and recorded the music for it and then we learned the choreography for this little moment, and then we put it all together and filmed it. It was all very fabulous, I felt like an old show business girl.

DG: Was that fun to do?

LA: Oh, yeah! I think that's one of my favorite moments in the show too. For me to participate in certainly. Because I sing and I love it … any chance I get to use that I relish.

DG: Many people do not realize that are a trained classical singer. How is it that you came from that background and now find yourself concentrating on acting? Or do you kind of fuse both disciplines whenever possible?

LA: I hope to fuse them more in the future. That's my dream, to sing on film. ... For real, in a musical or something. That would be my absolute dream come true. I was always singing and performing growing up and then (I was) studying singing. I don't know, in a way I think it comes from the same place because it's storytelling and using your body and all these different tools. … Music is a tool that I don't get to use often enough. I try to study, but especially out here (in LA) they (music and acting) don't really come together very often unless you're doing opera or musical theater or something.

DG: Have you ever sung professionally?

LA: Well I've done little things here and there. And I've sung in lots of choruses and at lots of weddings and funerals (laughs) when I was in high school and made money that way. My friend is an opera director with an opera company in Charlottesville, Va., and she called me up and asked me to participate in a production of Orfeo ed Euridice by (the classical composer) Gluck … that she was mounting. She asked me to come down and sing a part in it and I was so nervous because I hadn't really sung in front of an audience in a while. But I bit the bullet. ... She did an incredible job, it was really amazing. My friends are all these professional opera singers, incredibly talented. I always look at them and go, 'Oooh, I wish I could do what you're doing!' (Lauren chuckles)

DG: And I understand you were born back east, in the New Haven, Conn., area?

LA: Yeah. And so growing up around Yale, I was able to suck them dry. Musically, I studied something there, and I was using the music teachers there and I was going to music theory classes, singing with all the different choruses, and eventually the choruses started hiring me to be a soloist. And that's a bit of my 'singing life.'

DG: I think the character of Claire Fisher on Six Feet Under has a fascinating persona; she's quite bold in many ways but also very vulnerable. In what area would you say Claire is the most vulnerable?

LA: Oh, well … I mean, she's kind of lost. I think about it this way, it's not overt … now that we're at the end of the season (Season Three) and it's sort of 'happened,' like at this point I really just sort of try to step back and listen. Everybody else has their opinion and mine is just one of many as a viewer. But I've been watching and I think sometimes (that) Claire is suffering now because of not having a dad around. And I think that that's really starting to show in her relationships. I don't know if it's just because of her dad being dead but I do think maybe it's starting to show in her relationships with men. With all men, her teachers and her lovers and boyfriends, whatever. I think in some ways she's trying to come into her own as a strong woman; now as an artist. But in a lot of ways, she's pretty lost.

DG: What is it like to work with Michael C. Hall (David Fisher), Peter Krause (Nate Fisher), and Frances Conroy (Ruth Fisher)? It would seem you have a great rapport with one another.

LA: Well I've learned so much on this job and (have) learned so much from those actors every day … it's an incredible group of actors, an incredible group of talented people. But it's become very easy actually ... we're certainly working hard over there. But there's a real comfort in going to work and having this working relationship with these people you've been acting with. And I think that defines the 'family' relationships also, that we've been around each other for a long time now. I mean I love working with every single one of those people you mentioned. They're very special people also. I didn't think that I would make any friends on a Hollywood TV set. A girl from New Haven, the East Coast, you don't think that you'd actually meet nice people; you think they'd be a bunch of cuckoos! … They're so devoted to what they do and they're just so even and not full of themselves and not crazy. They're crazy in their own good ways … (laughs). That's something about this job that's really special. There are no out-of-control egos or diva behaviors. It's pretty ideal. Everybody just seems to check their ego at the door and is there to do what we're there to do. It's been such a wonderful educational experience for me and a learning experience. I'm so grateful.

DG: Lauren, I also understand that you're Italian-American?

LA: Yes, my father's family is Italian-American.

DG: I also heard you have a grandmother you are very close to who once owned a tavern or something like that?

LA: Right. Actually my grandfather, 'Buckeye,' owned a tavern in the town that my dad grew up in … this small town in Connecticut … this little blue-collar factory town. My grandmother's amazing, she's just my favorite person in the world. She's 94. She's the coolest person that I've ever met. I mean, everything about her.

DG: Is it true you often like to tell little anecdotes about the number of funerals you went to as a child?

LA: (laughs) Yeah! Exactly. I always say that I think that because my grandfather ran this tavern … it was a meeting place in the town and everybody knew my grandmother, and a lot of those people have since left us. But, growing up, everybody knew this woman. Whether it was in church or around the town, she's still sort of the unofficial 'mayor's wife.' I never knew my grandfather, he died before I was born. But because of her position in the community my grandmother knew everybody, and so there was always somebody dying … . And since I spent a lot of time with her growing up, I have very vivid memories of spending a lot of time in the Spinelli Funeral Home. (laughs) So I would always go to wakes and funerals.

DG: So growing up you had a lot of practice (going to funerals) which helped prepare you for your role on Six Feet Under?

LA: It really was kind of like that, actually. Yes. Because my grandmother always presented death in such a way (as to convey) that it wasn't something to be freaked out about. She'd go 'It's just a part of life and we're going to pay our respects and this is how it is.' I mean, it was a weekly thing! Sometimes more than three times a week.

DG: I remember an episode of Law and Order in which you portrayed a mildly retarded girl who is raped.

LA: That was a great job, I loved that job. Actually I did three episodes of Law and Order playing different characters. They recycled me several times. A lot of people have seen the rape episode and have commented on it, I think it was a very powerful story. People would come up to me in the subway and say, 'Oh that judge! What's wrong with that guy?' It really affected people. How did I prepare? I knew somebody who taught at a special school for kids who had various learning disabilities and I just poked my head in one day and hung out for a while … I met this one girl, she had red hair. And I was sort of drawn to her, she was really cool. And I met her and just sort of hung out with her for a while and I tried to base my character on things I learned from her. I was grateful for the experience; it was very helpful for that character.

DG: Your character Claire always seems to be very supportive of her brother David's gayness, and in particular his relationship with his boyfriend Keith. (Mathew St. Patrick) How closely does that portrayal mirror your own feelings about the gay and lesbian community?

LA: Oh, I mean, first of all, I would be nowhere without the gay and lesbian community ... because of Psycho Beach Party! (laughs) And In and Out and every single project I've been in has a gay following which I am so grateful for. And it's always an exciting experience for me to walk around West Hollywood. I feel like Cher. (laughs) ... But I am eternally grateful to the gay community for supporting my career. And I do as many of the (gay and lesbian) events as I can. OutFest has been kind to me and I try to be there for them … . It's funny, people always say, 'Some of my best friends are gay. David, ALL of my friends are gay! (laughter) I'm the only one ... I'm married—to a guy. I'm like, the weirdo. (laughter)

DG: Is there any famous person you would give just about anything to meet? LA: Well somebody who comes to mind immediately is somebody that I got to meet, just last year at the GLADD awards actually. I met Shirley MacLaine who was receiving an award and our show (Six Feet Under) was being honored. I just almost fell down dead because she stopped me and said, 'Hey, I'm such a fan of yours' … and I started gushing. I said, 'Oh, I'm Lauren' and she said, 'I know who you are! ... 'You're great!' I thought that was just about the coolest thing in the whole world. She's just absolutely an idol of mine—here is somebody who incorporates the music, the singing, the dancing, all of it, the acting … .

DG: And she's done so much work on her own personal stuff, don't you think?

LA: She really has, and she gave an amazing speech, it was really great! She's a cool lady … I hope I can work with her ... .

DG: You are now doing a reading of Brooklyn Boy for Daniel Sullivan?

LA: Did it yesterday. It was really great. You know Donald Margulies, the playwright? He won the Pultizer Prize for Dinner with Friends, this is his new play.

DG: Do you ever get nervous before a performance?

LA: Ugggh! Of course! Actually I'm fortunate because I don't have a 'fear' reaction; I don't panic and then get scared. I think I just get like the good kind of nervous that sort of feeds the adrenaline ... . But the more I do it the more comfortable I get with my own nerves.

DG: What annoying habit do you have that you might want to break?

LA: Sometimes when I get nervous I sort of destroy my fingernails. I attack my cuticles ... it's some version of self-mutilation that I really need to stop ... .

The Season Finale of the Third Season of HBO's Six Feet Under aired Sunday, with repeats during this week.

E-mail: DavdRonald@aol.com


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