Matthew Salacuse
June 28, 2021

Live by Night

Lauren Ambrose shines through the darkness of Servant, the thriller from M. Night Shyamalan.

Michele Shapiro

Prior to landing the role of Dorothy Turner in Servant, the Apple TV+ series executive produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Lauren Ambrose had never played a mom.

"It's nice to be a woman, a grown-up lady, in this piece, as fractured as she is," says the actress, who has two children with her filmmaker husband Sam Handel.

Until Servant, Ambrose was best known for her performance as rebellious teen artist Claire Fisher in HBO's Six Feet Under, which earned her two Emmy nominations. While both series delve deep into death and grieving, Servant provided another first: the chance to explore a new genre. "I've never been in a thriller before, and M. Night Shyamalan was in charge. He's so good at what he does. I wanted to learn from him."

Even so, Shyamalan's way of working was a bit of a shock, particularly as Ambrose had just wrapped her Tony-nominated turn as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (which, in case you doubt her willingness to choose roles that test her limits, was her first Broadway musical, ever). "I went from feeling so in charge as an actor on stage, where you're delivering directly to the consumer, to a genre where it's all very controlled."

To achieve that control, Shyamalan relies on storyboard visuals of every shot. "You can go in his office and watch the whole script on the wall," she says. This initially threw Ambrose for a loop. "I thought, 'What does this mean for me? Do I just act out the storyboard?' I felt daunted by that."

But rather than constrict her as an actress, the storyboards had the opposite effect. "I realized there's so much freedom in having that structure and someone who's so certain about what he wants." The distinct way that Night, as she calls him, works, "opened something up in me."

While Ambrose, like most actors, winces at the idea of watching herself onscreen, she says, "This show is the most fun to see because it's so different than what it feels like we're shooting." (And that shoot, of course, requires a large team of craftspeople, she notes, with a shout-out for the set designer, who replicated a Philly brownstone with working plumbing and appliances on a soundstage.)

"There's so much that goes into making it scary and creating tension."

Playing Dorothy for two seasons has been both a challenge and a thrill, Ambrose says. "As an actor, it's much more fun to be pushed to the extremes of human emotion."

In season one, after the unthinkable happens and Dorothy, an ambitious reporter, loses her infant son, she compartmentalizes the trauma with the help of a lifelike baby doll. When she and her husband, Sean (Toby Kebbell), hire a nanny (Nell Tiger Free) to care for the doll, things get even more Twilight Zone-like.

Season two takes Dorothy to even darker places. The season was difficult to film last fall, not just because of her character's fractured state, but because of pandemic quarantining.

During the months of living and working with cast and crew, "There was a lot of testing and trusting colleagues," she relates. "I couldn't see my kids. In truth, I got a little more sleep than I would have, being away from my family, but it was really hard."

As for season three, now in production, Ambrose hopes it brings a reality check for Dorothy. "Eventually, she's going to have to face the idea of loss." Knowing how Shyamalan thrives on defying expectations, that day may not arrive for a long, long time.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2021

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