It’s been a while coming, but “Six Feet Under” star Lauren Ambrose seems to be staging a comeback. We’re not saying the actress has been resting on her laurels — she hasn’t — but since Alan Ball’s hit HBO funeral show wrapped its last season in 2005, Ambrose hasn’t been in the spotlight as much as she is this month. Credit that to her scene-stealing supporting work in Mike Birbiglia’s hit adaptation of his one-man show “Sleepwalk With Me” (it scored one of the best limited debuts of the year over the weekend) and her upcoming lead turn on A&E’s TV mini-series “Coma” (in which she stars opposite Ellen Burstyn, Geena Davis and Richard Dreyfuss).
A very pregant Ambrose called Indiewire from her home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts to discuss her recent wave of projects, closing the book on “Six Feet Under,” and the challenges associated with playing Birbiglia’s real-life ex in his autobiographical comedy. (“Sleepwalk With Me” is currently in theaters and available and VOD, and “Coma” premieres on A&E on Labor Day at 9pm.)
Congrats on “Sleepwalk With Me.” It’s a hit!
I haven’t even seen it yet!
No, because during Sundance I was working. Now I live out in the woods and I’m so pregnant. I hear it’s really awesome.
How did Mike come around to casting you as his ex? Had you seen his one-man show off Broadway?
He asked me a long time ago when it was being developed if I would be interested in doing it. It hadn’t even become an actual thing yet. There wasn’t even a script at that point. He saw a play I was doing, I saw his comedy, and he was just very nice and hilarious. He asked me to be his girlfriend. There was a long period where I would read different iterations of the screenplay — it changed so drastically over time. Even during the shooting he kept changing it. He was definitely crafting it as we went [laughs]. Yeah, it was a long, long process. There were also many readings and little workshops things that we did.
Were you wary of playing someone so close to him in a story based on his own real-life experiences?
What do you mean?
Well, you’re playing his ex girlfriend.
[Laughs] I don’t know, you know. It’s all so much from his perspective. I mean Mike is really good at knowing what’s funny and knowing what he wanted. He knew what kind of comedy he wanted this to be. I didn’t go to him going, “Oh, is this real?” That wasn’t really the thrust. Really, his comedy is him talking about himself, and his movie is about him talking about himself. It’s really just his take on the whole experience. Who knows if it’s real or not. I was just there to flesh out his take of the experience. The girlfriend might have a very different take on the story [laughs].
So I’m guessing you never met her.
I did meet her! I think she might be in the movie. She came and did this little moment in the movie I remember, I think near the very end where he leaves me. I don’t know if it’s still in there. But I did meet her when she came to the set.
How did that meeting go?
Oh, it was fine. I was worried about her and Mike, but they seemed cool. Mike has a really nice life now with happy marriage and a cool wife. There seems to be a lot of hype surrounding your upcoming A&E mini-series “Coma.”
Well I’m barraged with posters for it every time I ride the subway.
How does it differ from the popular source novel and the 1978 film adaptation that starred Michael Douglas?
I haven’t seen the original film. It was a weird gig for me. They were like, “We’re making this film on Monday, do you come and do it?” I don’t know how it all came together so quickly. They started making this movie without a full cast. It was the opposite of Mike’s thing, where there were years of us developing it. It was like, here’s the 8,000 page script and let’s go. I don’t even think I finished reading it before we started shooting the first scene! I didn’t have my chance to do my usual read the book and see the movie, and all that stuff.
They built all these amazing sets for the movie. It’s all very slick and super modern. I think the main thing is the look of it.
Given that they came you at the last minute, what made you jump at it and say, “OK, let’s do this.”
Well, I was free number one. And I’ve never worked in that genre of the medical thriller, or thriller of any kind. So it was kind of a cool part in that I got to be a man on a mission. And there’s this crazy cast of crazy movie stars. That was obviously really interesting and wild, to have the opportunity to work with all these legends. It seemed like a no brainer.
Now I haven’t see the show so this might be a stretch, but was it odd going back onto a set laden with medical equipment, akin to the Fisher family’s basement workspace in “Six Feet Under”?
Gee, not really. First of all, I was really just making a movie. It didn’t feel like making anything for television because it wasn’t a serial thing. On “Six Feet Under,” I never really mad much to do with the actual business, with the embalming stuff. That wasn’t really my role. This was my first doctorly thing realy [laughs].
Coming off the ride that was “Six Feet Under,” did nothing seem like it would compare following that experience?
You are an incredible “Six Feet Under” fan, that’s what I’m gathering from this conversation. You cannot deal with “Six Feet Under” being off the air [laughs].
I’ll admit, I can’t. I own every season.
See, my perspective was that we had worked on it for a really long time and it was time for it to be done. Even though it was such a great, wonderful job and wonderful experience — it was really just such glorious time of getting to act every day with actors who I love and respect and still just adore — when it ended, it was like, of course. It couldn’t go on forever, because then it would stink. It made perfect sense when Alan [Ball, the show’s creator] said, “All right, I really want this to be the last season, because I don’t want it to drag on.”
I was also really young. I probably didn’t even realize how good I had it. It was the closest experience I had to group theater. They had people write for you specifically!
Did the group theater aspect of the show play a large part in why you followed it up with so much theater work?
Yeah, that’s kind of what I wanted to do afterward. I wanted to be on stage. That was kind of my plan as an actress in the beginning. I was lucky enough to get that job, so I did that for many years. I did a few plays during that time, but it was hard to fit them in. So I was eager to get back on stage. I like it.
I have to ask: Why hasn’t Alan had you play a vampire on “True Blood”?
I don’t know. Great question.
Would you if he were to ask?
It all depends. It’s always so tricky. I think there might have been something once, but the timing didn’t work out. Timing is everything, you know? It’s the nature of the freelancer, you never know where you’re going to be. You get great opportunities and you miss great opportunities all the time.
With that said, what do you have in the works?
In the works! Well, mostly I’m focusing on being enormously pregnant [laughs]. That’s the main project, and with that said my husband, who’s a filmmaker (his name’s Sam Handel), he and I just made a short together featuring the belly. It’s about a super pregnant lady who wants to get into the river on an extremely hot day, and then there are these obstacles to her getting into a body of water to cool off. We had the pregnant lady and we had the river, so we just did it.