Ashley Jensen joins Shetland with big shoes to fill

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Ashley Jensen is no stranger to travelling for work. The Scottish actor has conquered both the UK and Hollywood, charming audiences and casting directors on both sides of the Atlantic with her indelible screen presence. But one place she’d never been was Shetland, the tiny archipelago off the northeast tip of Scotland. Until, that is, she was cast in the series of the same name, as Detective Inspector Ruth Calder, the new lead in the show’s eighth season. The newness of the location, a part of her own homeland she’d never experienced, was part of the attraction.

Ashley Jensen in Shetland.Credit: BBC First

“It’s like I didn’t realise how much I loved Scotland until I went away and experienced the world, lived in other places,” Jensen muses in her familiar and quite irresistible Scottish brogue. “I’d never been to Shetland in my life and, you know, that was a big draw – I get to go there and it was a landscape that was disarming. It has its own character and its own identity and its own beautiful bleakness. I got off the plane and I … I kind of shut up, which was quite a feat for me.”

Like Jensen, DI Calder is not a resident of Shetland, but a detective with the London Met who must travel there to chase down a witness to the killing of a police informant. It’s not meant to be an extended stay – “She doesn’t intend to be there for very long – she didn’t even pack her hair straighteners!” Jensen points out – but, as is the way of things in drama, the case gets complicated very quickly. Moreover, unlike Jensen, Calder does have a relationship with Shetland, and not necessarily a warm one.

“I loved the fact that the character has a history with Shetland,” the actress enthuses. “I always think that with something like Shetland, the island is as much a character as all the popular characters in it. And she has a very strong relationship with the character of Shetland, albeit a kind of resentment, and a destiny. And she is dragged back – I was going to say kicking and screaming, but she’s not quite as animated as that. More with the kind of morose frown, and yeah, scowl.”

If Calder has a strong relationship with Shetland the place, the fans of Shetland the show have yet to develop a relationship with Calder. Jensen is stepping into the shoes of Douglas Henshall, who played Shetland’s main copper DI Jimmy Perez for seven seasons. Now, Jensen is joining an established show, which has its benefits, but as a replacement for a much-loved central character, also has risks in terms of what reaction from the diehards will be. Asked if she’s feeling the pressure of comparisons, though, she dismisses the idea.

Ashley Jensen with Ricky Gervais in Extras stole every scene.Credit: BBC

“I could have gone down that route, but I don’t think it would have been a very positive route. I literally went, this is a six-part series. If it goes again, let’s see. If it doesn’t, I’ve done this very wonderful beginning to end journey of this character. I’m gonna get, you know, a statement about the world here – I think that’s part of the problem with the world, that people compare themselves to other people all the time now. I don’t think it’s a particularly healthy way to conduct your life. And I think that applies to acting as well: if you start thinking about how good everybody else is around you, you’d never do anything. You’d go, oh God, I can’t do what that actress does, I will never be Judi Dench, what’s the point? I think you’ve got to find your own mould, your own character, your own quirks and your own uniqueness.”

This is something Jensen has definitely done, and in fact is why Shetland is something of a departure for her. She made her name not in gritty crime drama, but as one of the most gifted comedic actresses in the world. From stealing every one of her scenes as Maggie in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, to memorable voice roles in Arthur Christmas, Gnomeo and Juliet, and The Pirates!, to a long-running role in Ugly Betty and the title role in the much lighter-hearted detective romp Agatha Raisin, Jensen has proved herself reliably hilarious. Her skill with more serious roles was shown in Gervais’s After Life, and here in Shetland her dramatic chops are front and centre, as she inhabits the determined, world-weary, and sometimes haunted Ruth Calder.

“I think it’s a sort of thing that quite a lot of actors, if we’re honest, want to kind of have a leg in both camps,” Jensen admits. “Quite a lot of people go, I’m really funny, but I want people to know how serious I can be – or I’m much lighter than this in real life, I can do a pratfall! It’s a really fortunate position to be in, to be allowed to be an actor that just finds the truth of a line.” Although she sees the differences between her comedic roles and the serious stuff, ultimately it’s the finding of that truth that matters no matter what you’re doing.

“I think it’s just about being present and reacting. It’s always about the truth of a line, because if you start imposing things on it, then that’s when for me it doesn’t really work. And ultimately if you’ve got good writing, that’s a strong basis for everything. If you’ve got something on the page that you can have a connection with, it’s all based from that – the whole thing.”

Shetland is on BBC First, Friday 8.30pm, and Binge.

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