Lauren Ambrose’s face registers extreme emotions like we’ve never seen before in M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant. Whether it’s joy or total abject horror, the camera captures every, minute gesture and slight movement. In the first season, Ambrose’s Dorothy was adrift in her own world as her trauma threatened to destroy her home life. In the second season, Dorothy is an unpredictable whirlwind of anger. We never know what Ambrose’s character is going to do next.
The end of the first season is every parent’s nightmare. Their child was taken from their home. Well, at least the baby that was brought into their home was taken away. Dorothy has been under the impression that the mysterious child living in her home her Jericho but we know that Dorothy’s child died and no one really knows who the baby belongs to. The second season is better than the first thanks to a more thriller shift and the scripts allow for some dark humor.
Ambrose has never worked explicitly in the horror genre, but she was able to connect to Dorothy’s emotional undercurrent. She does some dark and questionable things in season two that will make you question your allegiance to the character. This mama bear is more ferocious than you originally thought.
Awards Daily: What do you like about the horror genre? You haven’t done a lot of that in your career so far.
Lauren Ambrose: You get to do really bonkers things and explore the limits of people’s capacities for handling horrible traumas. If these things happened to me in real life, it would be really horrific, but it’s fun to get to go to those extremes. You’re right, I haven’t worked in the genre really before, so it was interesting to learn about this style of storytelling and be a part of it.
AD: I like how this second season Dorothy take charge in a way she didn’t get to in the first season. She is fortunate enough to lean on her journalism background but she goes to some really extreme places. How does that harken back to her days before her son? Is this the most ambitious she has ever been?
LA: This is the most driven she’s ever been. She is very much this ambitious, type A personality but now the stakes have never been higher for her. She believes her baby is missing and has been taken and will stop at nothing to get him back. All the rage that goes with her reporter skills and sleuthery is very different than the first season where she was so vulnerable and delicate. It was all about her facing this trauma and finding out that trauma. I felt very sympathetic for her in season one, and this strained my empathetic ability for Dorothy. In the end, I do feel sympathy and empathy for her. She’s had every horror imaginable happen to her.
AD: One of the things that I enjoy so much about Servant is how it goes to the edge and then pulls back. It does it so well to the point that when my husband and I watch it, one of us will end up yelling, ‘What is going on?!’ at least once an episode.
LA: (laughs) That’s fantastic. That’s so nice to hear that actually because my perspective is so different than the viewer’s. We are trying to bring this reality or humanity to this moment or scene with and then when you see some of it back, it’s so very different. What I’ve learned from working in the genre is the tone is created by everybody collaborating. Night [Shymalan] is so good at what he does and he’s surrounded himself, wisely, with such talented people. From the composer to the special effects to the camerawork and the writing all go into setting the tone. Caroline Duncan, our costume designer, is brilliant and I think the costuming is such an interesting part of the storytelling.
AD: All those floral, patterned dresses give off a mother earth vibe a little bit but the fabric is really chic and expensive.
AD: Ever since the first season I’ve been obsessed with that apartment.
LA: Ah, yes, the brownstone. The brownstone is this incredible set. It’s a historical brownstone that’s been recreated on a soundstage outside of Philadelphia where we shoot. It’s the most incredible set that I’ve ever been on with how the walls move and the cooking is actually happening. All the plumbing and it rains inside. It’s a testament to Night and Apple.
AD: I find it so interesting how sophisticated everything looks and feels but all these horrible things happen. Even the way the camera moves is elegant. There’s constantly the juxtaposition of the sleekness of the house but the actions are so batshit.
LA: I do think it’s interesting that it takes place in this privileged world. Sort of lends itself to an exploration of class in the show.
AD: You have a line where Dorothy tells Sean, ‘I thought you’d be a better father than this’ and she doesn’t hold back her emotions with the men she’s surrounded by. She tells Julian, ‘You know what? You’re an atheist.’ Has she always felt that way or is it just a way of hurting the ones around her to secure that leadership role in the house?
LA: A couple things, I think. Part of the stylistic way of this show is how nasty the characters can be to each other. It’s a hallmark to the writing and still love each other or stay in this thing together. It’s so intense, these four characters in the confines of this small set. As we all know that all thing of being stuck at home can be very intense. That was something I was also thinking about. We shut down filming for a while and then we picked back up to finish it during the pandemic. We all quarantined together and we lived and worked together to finish the second half of the season.
AD: Oh, wow. I didn’t know that.
LA: Yeah, I think that’s an extraordinary feat. The company cared enough to let it happen safely and put us all in a bubble where we all worked. There were such incredible measures put in place. There were certain zones on the set and those zones had a certain colored mask went with the zone. So that was a layer of intensity of being all together. Dorothy is at her lowest. Well, I don’t know what she is going to do in season three (laughs). That’s the lowest she’s been thus far and so desperate. That scene with Sean is interesting and then they have that fight where he’s about to say the truth and she’s about to see it. They are speaking in this code. When she says that, I think she’s really saying that she thought he would never leave her when she needed him.
LA: That plays into his guilt and his feeling of fault of what happened. He was needed when they lost this child. He’s about to tell her and she’s close to seeing it all.
AD: The emotions in this are so much more complex than one would think. Sean has to tiptoe around everything because he knows certain things and he’s trying to not let Dorothy know certain things. Julian is supportive of Dorothy to her face and then he shows his true colors with Sean behind her back. That heightens everything but everyone is operating at a different level.
LA: Yeah. Oftentimes it feels like a play. I always think of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with that nasty dialogue and not quite knowing what’s real and what’s someone’s perception. Or who to believe or whose eyes we are looking at it through. At our best moments, we can try to approach that. Night, in his style of directing and the way he encourages the other directors, wants it shot cinematically and not done in a typical television way where everything needs to be covered. That makes it so we are sometimes doing these long, long takes and it makes it feel like we are in the moment so long and it can feel like a play.
AD: Since we are talking about plays, I wanted to mention how impressed I was by everything that I saw of the last revival of My Fair Lady. It’s always great to see an actor surprise us with something in their arsenal. Whenever things calm down and Broadway can reopen again, what role would you pick for yourself if you were given carte blanche?
LA: Oh god. I would never want to have so much ego to say what job I would like to have (laughs). There’s so many great roles and so many talented actors and directors that I would love to work with. I loved working with Bart Sher. He’s a great collaborator and he’s been big artistic force in my life. I do look forward to a time when we are in the theater together. It’s a magical space and in the meantime, I’m so grateful that I am an actor who can still work. And work with other actors on set. Our company made it possible to do our work when I know so many productions are closing down and I have so many friends in the theater who have not been able to work.
Servant drops new episodes on Fridays on Apple TV+.