The Apple TV+ series is genre bending exploration of a Philadelphia couple who are in mourning after an unspeakable tragedy when a supernatural force enters their home.
The latest season premiered on January 15th and picks up directly from the end of season one as Dorothy starts to unravel from her delusional state. In the opening episode, we see her fighting to find her missing baby, Jericho, as her husband Sean (Toby Kebbell) and brother Julien (Rupert Grint) attempt to cover their tracks.
Dorothy’s ability to maintain control comes to a head in her search for Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), leading to Dorothy committing acts of rage that become more terrifying as the season progresses. Ambrose is incredible as she uses heightened emotion and extreme physicality to portray Dorothy’s manic state of mind.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the premiere of the hit HBO series Six Feet Under, in which Ambrose played the troubled Claire Fisher.
Ambrose spoke to Awards Focus about filming Servant’s second season in quarantine, her experience under M. Night Shyamalan’s direction, and reflecting on the 20th anniversary of her work in HBO’s hit Six Feet Under.
Awards Focus: Firstly, congratulations on season two of Servant. What are you excited for audiences to see this season and how was it filming in quarantine conditions?
Lauren Ambrose: I’m excited for audiences to see the work, we all went into a bubble to complete the season. We lived and worked together, and somehow six months later we went back to work and picked it all up again. That was pretty extraordinary.
The show takes a darker turn, and for my character (Dorothy), in the first season she was so fragile and vulnerable and there was so much of ‘is she going to wake up?’ ‘Is she going to wake up and be able to look at this trauma, and what will happen?’ Instead, she takes this crazy turn into a very real world problem that she believes her actual baby has been stolen and is going to get him back by any means necessary.
AF: Can you talk a bit about how the production changed during the pandemic and how you were able to wrap the season under those circumstances?
Ambrose: We actually finished filming in March, and then we went back in the fall to finish the season. I give so much credit to our company and to Apple for supporting us to go back to work. We had tons of testing and there were different zones, and you had a colored mask that went with your zone and you couldn’t go outside of your zone.
The actors obviously get to take an inherent mask break during the work day because we can’t shoot wearing masks, which is definitely vulnerable in its own right. Then the rest of the crew are wearing shields and crazy PPE while still doing fine motor skill work like focus pulling or special effect makeup… that was extraordinary to see.
We’re a relatively small production in terms of actors and locations, which I think is one of the reasons we could go back to work during this time.
AF: Your performance in the show is so emotionally and physically demanding. In season two, at some points you’re literally crawling on the floor screaming. How were you able to dive into this complex character and leave her on set each day?
Ambrose: Well, as you know, obviously she’s put through so many horrors in the show. As an actor, it’s always a challenge and that challenge is fun to figure out how to go deeply into it.
Sometimes I read the script and I go, ‘Oh my God, I just don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ Or ‘I don’t know if I should do it.’ I used to say, as an actor, ‘I’m never going to be able to figure this out.’ Now I’ve pivoted to, ‘Well, I’ll figure something out.’
In terms of leaving it all there on set, I think, again, as I get older, it’s like, it’s easier to get dropped into it, and it’s easier to drop out of it.
AF: Toby Kebbell is an incredibly calm presence in the show. Can you talk a bit about working with Toby this season, and the shift in of power in Dorothy’s and Sean’s relationship?
Ambrose: I love working with Toby Kebbell. He is such a beautiful actor. It’s just been interesting to explore, through the genre of thriller or horror, these big themes of what is it like to be in a marriage and to go through grief in very different ways. Sometimes it’s really unconventional, or refusing to go through it. I really enjoy that aspect of this grown-up look at grieving, and family life.
This season I think it’s a really beautiful storyline where he’s sort of going through this faith crisis where he’s so unbelieving last season, and now he’s come around to believing in this possibility of a supernatural, or holy, element that maybe brought the baby back to us, and he’s struggling with that.
I think what’s underneath all of their rage at each other is this secret and inability to grieve together. She can’t even look at this tragedy that has happened and he won’t help her see it, and he won’t look at it either. Their relationship is sort of existing in this lie, and, you know, they both want everything to be okay so badly that they’re just not being truthful with each other.
AF: Dorothy really starts to take charge this season, which is great to see because the people who are supposed to be looking out for her best interests, like Sean and Julien, are the ones denying her the truth. Does she play along because she’s comfortable avoiding the truth, or is she still compartmentalizing her trauma?
Ambrose: I think that this new real world issue of needing to decide that this baby is missing, and that she is going to get her baby back, is her way of continuing to stave off having to grieve for this incredible loss. They’re all doing that together.
It was kind of fun to not just be the, I mean, obviously she’s still pretty crazy, but she’s sort of tired of the men around her pushing her into whatever direction they want. So she kind of takes this left turn into insanity and rage, and you know, even criminality to get what she wants.
AF: There’s no doubt that Julien cares for Dorothy’s well-being, no matter the cost, but he also hides the truth from her. How did you establish this complicated dynamic between the siblings?
Ambrose: Well, I love that there’s a brother and sister relationship, and a brother-in-law relationship. I love the scenes that I have with Rupert, and his character is often so brash.
When we have these scenes together, it’s usually just an exercise in finding things that could relate to history that they’ve had together, and the kind of softness that comes from growing up together. So that’s always fun to find if it’s in the physicality, and how they touch each other, or how they’re near each other, that’s kind of lovely.
AF: It’s interesting that Dorothy has her sibling relationship, and then with Leanne it’s almost like a mother-daughter relationship. How does their relationship evolve this season?
Ambrose: Dorothy has this new will and then Leanne is coming into her own strength and teenage will. That’s clashing and they have this sort of showdown. I really enjoyed shooting the scenes with Nell. Sometimes it was like, how on earth are we going to do these things?
But I remember reading the script for the episode that Night (Shyamalan) directed in episode four, which really goes into the horror genre. I was like, oh my god, I shouldn’t have read that one night right before bed. I got really angry when I read it because I was like what is this? This is really scary. Now we’re really going to scare people.
AF: That episode (season two, episode four) is fantastic because there is that confusion as to whether Dorothy is sleeping, or sleep walking, or if she is actually awake. How was it shooting those scenes where the relationship with Leanne goes a step further into aggression and rage?
Ambrose: That really felt challenging, and like, how are we going to do this? But again, you know, rely on the actors to sort of dig into the scene and figure out how to do the scene, the arc of the scene itself, and usually something interesting happens.
I think especially with Night (Shyamalan) directing that episode, it’s always just a creative environment when he’s directing. It’s a pretty creative environment regardless, but when he’s directing he’s just so good at what he does, and specifically like when it’s right, and it frees up a lot of space to try different things.
AF: Did he do anything that surprised you?
Ambrose: He storyboards everything and at first I was really shocked by that, because I work in the theater and I had just come from doing a musical on Broadway, you know, eight shows a week. When I came into this, as the actor on stage you’re so in control of what the audience is getting, like farm to table, there you go. But when I started working with Night (Shyamalan), it was just everything storyboarded, and this is exactly what the shot is going to be and this is exactly how it’s going to go.
You could go into his office and look at the whole episode on his wall. And I thought, wow, this is wild. What am I going to do? But it’s funny how modern art frees up so much room for creativity within the strong framework of the style he approaches it with.
AF: Servant has already been renewed for a third season, and M. Night Shyamalan has mentioned on social media that he has also mapped out a fourth season. What are you looking forward to viewers seeing at the end of the season?
Ambrose: I don’t know what comes next in our show. I’m really interested in finding out! I feel like I probably said too many spoilers already in this conversation.
We leave them, I was going to say peacefully, but there’s a lot of unresolved trauma still. Even just unresolved in terms of what’s really happening. And then, you know, what’s interesting about the show, is its reality versus perception and depending on who’s doing it and whose eyes we are seeing it through.
I’m really excited and I think we’re going back to work in March, and hopefully in another bubble. But I’m really excited to put Dorothy back on, and see what kind of nightmares we can drag these core characters through. See if we can get any resolution in their lives too.
AF: I want to close with talking about Six Feet Under because this year marks the 20th anniversary of the show’s premiere. You also garnered two Emmy nominations for your role as the troubled artist Claire Fisher. How did the industry recognition influence your career after you left the show?
Ambrose: It’s hard to believe that 20 years have gone by but you know, I was this kid and it was basically one of my first jobs. I got to go to work as an actor every day, and at the time I didn’t even realize how rare that is, to have a show that goes for a long time. Also, the cast was so extraordinary, both kind and talented.
I learned so much from these incredible veterans that I got to work with. It was just such a beautiful working environment, so I feel so grateful but that was the beginning of my career and I learned so much and feel so incredibly honored to have that, that experience to work with the incredible Frances Conroy, who I think is the world’s greatest actress and I got to watch her work every day for those years. It was five seasons but took us about seven years to do, and it was just a really wonderful time.