Scene Stealer

After making Claire Fisher the most achingly realistic young woman on TV, we can't wait to see what Lauren Ambrose does next.

By Lori Leibovich
August 10, 2005 10:59PM (UTC)
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The cast of HBO's "Six Feet Under" is among television's most talented, but still, Lauren Ambrose stands out. Part of it is her luminous, Botticelli-like beauty. But mostly it's the way she imbues her character, Claire, with layers of vulnerability and a mercurial complexity; just as quickly as Claire can slay someone with a caustic one-liner, her pool-blue eyes can well with tears.

The frequently tortured, brutally sarcastic, unlucky-in-love youngest member of the Fisher family could easily be played as slacker caricature. Over the course of five seasons, though, Claire has consistently evolved -- she's searched for her identity in art and in men, tried to make peace with her family's gloomy business -- and yet she hasn't always moved forward or learned from her mistakes. No matter how much she wants to be treated like an adult, she can't seem to forsake her adolescent poutiness.


Ambrose, 27, grew up in New Haven, Conn., the daughter of a caterer father and design consultant mother. She attended Catholic school, had roles in several off-Broadway productions, and studied piano and opera -- even singing arias at weddings and, yes, funerals. Ambrose has had small roles in a series of teen movies ("Psycho Beach Party," "Can't Hardly Wait") and a starring role in the 2000 independent film "Swimming." She married Sam Handel, a photographer (whose photo of his wife accompanies this article), four years ago.

In the final season of "Six Feet Under," Claire is dealing with three issues that have dogged her since the beginning of the series: sex, art and family. She has dumped her live-in bipolar boyfriend Billy, had a one-night stand with a friend of her older brother, Nate, erupted at her mother, and reluctantly taken a temp job at a law firm, where she has entered an unlikely relationship with a young Iraq-war-supporting, pop-music-loving Republican lawyer.

Salon spoke with Ambrose by phone from her Los Angeles home two days after she finished shooting the final episode of "Six Feet Under" -- and before the broadcast of this season's big surprise. As we chatted, she packed boxes for her move back to the East Coast.


So, you just finished wrapping the show?

That's right. The day before yesterday was the last day of "Six Feet Under" shooting.

How do you feel? Was it emotional?

Yeah. We've all been together for a long time and have strong connections to each other. It's going to be such a strange adjustment to not see those people. After five years, the show has become our lives.


Actors always claim that it was "just like a family on set." Was that actually your experience?

There are some people that I've developed really close relationships with, but mostly it was just a really great place to work -- a really great job. And it's just strange that the job is over. It's not like leaving a job where you can go back and visit the office and people are still there -- it's just done. Everyone scatters and goes off and does different things.


Does it feel like the right time to end the show?

Well, it really doesn't matter what I think. It was Alan Ball's choice to wrap things up this year, to find some closure and bring it all to an end -- and thereby that makes it the right choice, because it's his vision. I think it's a testament to his good taste to end it now, rather than carry on and carry on and struggle to come up with new story lines and whatever happens with those shows that go on for a hundred years.

It's sometimes difficult to watch the show week after week, to see so much dysfunction and despair. The first four episodes of this season were especially bleak. How do you deal -- or did you deal -- with the intensity of the material? Was it ever difficult to click back into everyday life?


Well, working with this kind of subject matter is very difficult at times, but it's also kind of exhilarating as an actor to get to deal with the big issues -- death, love and life. So for me it was exciting when I had to work with material that was very sad and dramatic. But there were things that we did this year, especially toward the end of the season, that nearly killed us all -- it was very exhausting and very intense, but somehow it made sense to have it get very difficult and very taxing and really exhausting and tiring and challenging as it ended. And that made it very painful to leave.

But yeah, there have been things over the years that I've seen and done that when I think about it in retrospect, were very hard.

Like what?


My character wasn't involved in the family business, so I wasn't dealing with all the gore and the bodies and all that. But just the moments that I did come up against it, I'd have to try to make it normal. And it does become normal, because you see it every day, just like the characters do. There was this one funny moment, I think it was last year, where blood started coming up out of the sink where I had just put my cereal bowl. That was pretty horrifying -- but also really funny and kind of a good memory now that I look back at it.

Was it ever hard to play a character that was younger than you?

The biggest difference between Claire and myself is the age, not that there's such a huge age discrepancy. I'm 27 and Claire is about five years younger than I am. It was the perfect age gap between the character and myself, because it was close enough that I could really remember what it was like to be her age.

Do you see yourself in Claire at all, or are you two very different?


I can relate to Claire's relationship with her artwork. Since I work in a creative field I've had similar struggles about whether I can do this, or should do this, and if I will be able to do this -- all of that is resonant to anyone working in a creative field.

What about her angst and her sarcasm? Claire always has the wittiest comebacks.

It's so convenient when Alan Ball pens your quips! People always say, "Claire is so me." It's funny how people like to think of themselves as clever -- as do I. I wish I could be as funny as Claire.

I think a lot of Claire's edge comes from growing up in the environment that she did, with the family she did. She was sort of an afterthought. Her brothers were practically adults when she was born. She was fairly neglected because the business was more important than parenting the last child; she developed an interesting perspective on life because of that.


To me, one of the most interesting relationships on the show is between Claire and her mother, Ruth. They do this dance, one that I think is very specific to mothers and daughters. They do battle with one another -- this season, Ruth is furious at Claire for dropping out of school -- but then they always come back together, slowly and deliberately. They need each other, but they don't want to admit it.

For me too, it's been my favorite ongoing thread, that mother-daughter dynamic, because I think it's very real. What makes it so real -- and this is a testament to the writing -- is that they're both flawed and the progress they make in their relationship stalls. They don't continue to heal or move forward. They make a little progress and then revert backwards. Claire acts like she's 12 but wants to be treated like an adult. Claire is flawed and yet struggling to be noble and do the right thing -- she wants to figure out what her life is about.

I always looked forward to doing scenes with Frances [Conroy] -- who is one of the greatest actresses to ever live -- in the kitchen. The kitchen was sort of a touchstone: We would always go back there. No matter what tangents our characters would go off on and/or what wild experiences Claire would have with this boyfriend or that boyfriend or whatever, we'd come back to the kitchen and it would sort of be like, oh, OK, this is who I am, this is where we started.

You got married when you were 23. What it's been like to be settled in your 20s at a time when most people your age, Claire included, are experimenting with their identities and hopping from one relationship to the next?


Well, it's been my experience, so I can't really compare it fairly. I just met the right person, and I really can't imagine my life being any different or any better.

Claire's relationships with men have been sort of disastrous. As a viewer, there have been so many times -- especially with Gabe and Olivier, but Russell and Billy too -- where I just wanted to pause the scene, step onto the set, and shake Claire, and say "What are you doing? You're too smart to be falling for this shit!"

Yeah, that was actually frustrating for me at times. And sometimes I had the same impulse you describe, but I tried not to focus on that and just play this other person. Having her go from one boyfriend to the next was boring for me at times. But television is so bizarre -- it's such a strange little medium, for a drama especially, because the writers are trying to come up with story lines that are interesting and will keep people coming back and the actors want it to be totally organic. But that would mean you might have an hour of people eating breakfast, which would be a drag. So there has to be some kind of middle ground, and it becomes the actors' job to smooth out any inconsistencies and follow the trajectory that is handed us and just make it work.

That's actually been a really fun challenge, once I melted into it and succumbed to it, rather than being like, "Oh my god! What are you doing?" I guess the control freak part of me was like, "Where is this going? What are we doing?" but then after a few years of that, it was like, "Oh, who cares, that's the job -- if it doesn't make sense, figure it out." Unless something was really glaring, and if something really didn't make sense, it was always a really nice collaborative environment, and no one would bristle or be upset if there were questions asked or anything.

You looked very different at the beginning of this season. Have you lost a lot of weight?

I lost a few pounds, nothing dramatic, but even my friends are like, "You look totally 'ano.'" I think it just showed up in my face. When we were on hiatus I did a Sam Shepard play, "Buried Child," in London at the National Theatre, and I was just working, working every night and working onstage and walking, and I think I just burned a lot more calories than I do in L.A. Also, the food in London was really bad. I didn't want to eat it, so I was cooking for myself and eating really healthy stuff like salads and chicken breasts, and I felt good. I'm also contrary by nature, and so when I'm in London seeing people shove candy bars in their mouths and smoking millions of cigarettes, it makes me want to be really healthy. But in L.A. all I want to do is go to In-N-Out Burger.

Does being in Hollywood -- and having the pressure to look a certain way, to be thin and flawless -- ever mess with your head?

When I was a lot younger, I was out here doing a screen test for "Can't Hardly Wait." It was a hard job to get and I was up against all these other actresses, but I got it. One day we were rehearsing, and the director came in and told me they wanted to get me a trainer. And I thought, "Oh, fuck, I'm getting fired, they want to get me an acting coach! I can't believe this! What I am I going to do?" I said, "I haven't gotten much direction, but if you can just tell me what you want, I'm sure I can adjust the character..." An exercise trainer was just the last thing on my mind. So they got me some trainer and I said, "Oh yeah, yeah, I'll do that" but kind of ignored it.

So you didn't do it?

Yeah, I mean I was really skinny then, too. I just have a baby face. Some of these girls now are really emaciated -- it's an epidemic. But I'm Italian. I love food; it's a point of joy in my life. I love eating and cooking for others and eating with them, and my dad is a cook, so I have a pretty good relationship with food.

So, the name of this column is Scene Stealer. If you had to pick one scene in all five seasons of "Six Feet Under" that you think you really nailed, or stole, what would it be?

Well, there's some stuff coming up at the end of the series that I'm really proud of. But the first thing that comes to mind are the fantasy numbers because they're just so outrageous and fun, and getting to sing and go into a recording studio and record the music and then do the choreography and then lip sync -- it's like making a little music video. And then there's one scene in the first season, an episode that Kathy Bates directed of me and Peter Krause [Nate] that she just let us do in the master. I was upset about some boyfriend and it was an emotional scene about my father's death, and instead of going in for the traditional coverage, she just let it play as a two-shot, let it play in the master, and that was pretty rewarding. It's like a play -- it couldn't be fiddled with, couldn't be edited -- that was all we shot. It was pretty cool.

Has working around death for all these years made you think about your own death at all -- and what you might want done to your body when you die?

I'm not interested in being embalmed and set out on display. I think the Jews have it right, you know, stick 'em in the ground. But we learned about this kind of funeral process: It's a "green" funeral. You're buried in this very idyllic setting -- sort like a park -- and there aren't markers and there aren't even coffins. You're just in a shroud, a beautiful shroud. I'm not really interested in being pumped full of chemicals and painted with salmon-colored lipstick.

So what's next for you now that the show is over?

I'm going to go to my little house in New England to chill out for a while. I was going to do a play, but the last episode ended up being so enormous and cut into rehearsals so badly that I had to drop out of it, which was fine. It was worth it to have this really cool, enormous final episode

Are loose ends going to be tied up, or is a lot going to be left to our imagination?

Kind of both. I mean, there ain't going to be a reunion.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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Alan Ball Six Feet Under