Lauren Ambrose Talks With Us About Working With Creepy Dolls And M. Night Shyamalan On ‘Servant’

Lauren Ambrose is used to starring in popular TV shows that deal with unsettling subject matter. Her biggest role to date was as the rebellious Claire Fisher on HBO’s Six Feet Under, a show about a dysfunctional family that runs a funeral home in Los Angeles. Death may have been a constant for the Fisher clan, but it didn’t seep into the very fabric of their lives in the same strange, supernatural way it does in Ambrose’s latest project for Apple TV+, Servant. That might be because the series is the brainchild of M. Night Shyamalan. That might be because a chillingly realistic baby doll plays a key character. It’s probably a bit of both.

Uproxx spoke to Ambrose about inhabiting Night’s bizarre world, tackling a new genre, and working with TV’s creepiest prop.

You’ve been doing Broadway for the last few years. How do you make the leap to a thriller like this?

I feel very fortunate to be able to jump from one thing to something else that’s so different from it. Working in a new genre, for me, that was what I was most excited about. I’ve never been in a thriller before and I was interested in learning how to make one, learning how to do it. And I felt like it was such an amazing education for me to work with Night, who’s definitely a master of the genre. He’s called that and then you work with him and you realize why. He is so meticulous in his filmmaking. Every detail is thought out, every shot is storyboarded. So, I’d find myself in these long camera dances where we’re doing a scene that’s six minutes long in one take and all of that contributes to the tension. So, it was pretty interesting to work with him.

M. Night Shyamalan is a very exacting director. He likes to plot everything out. Does that help or hinder your creative process?

I like having the structure to rely on. I can do my part of my creative work within the structure. The reason I like this work is that it’s collaborative and everybody’s part matters. In a thriller, it feels like even more so. In a more straightforward genre, the story is just the story. There’s this family, there’s been a tragedy and the mother thinks that this doll is a baby and they hire a nanny to take care of the doll. There’s that going on. And then Night does all of this supernatural stuff, the swirling chaos underneath all of that, including the camera angle and the lighting and the color palette and the music. The composer, (Trevor Gureckis) he’s playing violins with pencils and doing all kinds of crazy things to create tension. I don’t watch my work all that often, but I did watch some of the episodes recently and I was really moved to see everyone’s artistry. It’s inspiring.

Let’s talk about the baby, the most important character of this thing. Do you remember the first time you met Jericho?

Yeah, we were doing these camera tests before we started shooting, just to test wardrobe and lighting and they unlatched the metal case …


Yes, that the dolly lived in, with its two interchangeable heads and we were all just like, ‘What the hell?’ They handed it to me, we’re in this cold soundstage and it’s made of silicone so it’s chilly, it retains the temperature. So, it’s like this ice cube. Heavy as hell too. I mean, it’s sort of the ultimate prop. And everyone is also very aware of the extreme expense of the prop, especially the prop people. They treat it like liquid gold. Of course, as actors, it’s our instinct to do all kinds of jokes and bang it into the wall by accident but we have to respect the prop people’s nightmare, which is to keep this billion-dollar prop looking good.

I can’t imagine that being a fun job.

Every little detail, every little eyelash, and the little fingernails, everything is hand-painted. The fingers are like delicate silicone. I have a young daughter and I was like, ‘She would love this, it would be the best present for her.’

What does that say about kids I wonder? Other than that, they too can be scary as hell.

Well, I think it’s actually more than scary. A doll is, they call it a transitional object in child psychology. It’s not quite just a toy, it’s this human form and it means so much more to a child. It’s somewhere in-between. I thought of Dorothy that way too. That she’s in this childlike state of the dream. She’s just in such deep denial that she can accept this doll as a stand-in for the baby she lost.

Anytime Dorothy is on screen, she feels a bit forced. Her reactions and expression are just off-putting enough to make you question it. Was that an intentional choice on your part, or a script direction?

I had to figure out a way to make this person make sense to me. She’s a type-A person, an ambitious person. The only way she came out of her total catatonia or depression, the only way they brought her back was with this doll. So, that’s her lifeline and so she’s not able mentally to deal with this tragedy at all. She’s not able to look at death at all. I guess, I feel like she’s wearing sort of a mask, which contributes to the mania, the ‘everything is okay.’ She needs that veneer to be in place to get through the day.

What does this show say about how men and women grieve and how we perceive that process? Is it harder for Dorothy than it is for her husband Sean (Toby Kebbell)?

I feel so sorry for Sean because he’s not really able to even grieve. They’re all trying to hide what’s really going on. I think that’s a big theme in this piece: appearances versus reality and perception versus reality. They’re trying to keep up appearances because she’s this local celebrity because of the news reporting and they don’t want what’s happened to get out. They don’t want her to be overwhelmed with grief. They say they don’t want her to have to deal with a wave of sympathy, because they don’t want her to wake up, they don’t want her to face it. So, that’s his own version of denial. They’re making terrible choices.

They’re going to have another season to make even more terrible choices. Are you excited to get back to the genre?

It’s a rich world and I think there’s lots more to explore. What I’ve learned through the process is, the thriller genre makes it so that you can explore these big ideas of family and grief and perception versus reality genre in a really arty, interesting way. It’s not so literal. It’s a cool approach to these big ideas.

‘Servant’ is currently streaming via Apple TV.