As the final sighs of winter blow through New England, Lauren Ambrose is suddenly surrounded by snow—thankfully, it’s only that and not a crashed airplane or high school soccer players stranded in the wilderness. That’s more territory for Showtime’s Yellowjackets, which Ambrose has joined for its upcoming second season.
“It’s a snow day,” Ambrose says over Zoom, apologizing for the drum sounds in the background coming from her kids in the next room over. Nestled in a semi-quiet corner of her home, she has all the essentials for a restful day in: a fuzzy lavender sweater and a giant mug of tea. But Ambrose has more on the agenda than sipping a hot drink as the flakes fall: “When I hang up with you, I’m going to go back to helping construct the Cherokee corn crib for the fourth grade diorama.”
Beyond this one-off gig as school project architect, Ambrose is in a period of transition. Today, her Apple TV drama Servant draws to a close after four seasons. Then one week later, viewers can see her don the varsity jacket of Yellowjackets’ Van—one of the ill-fated high schoolers stranded in the forest for 18 months following a plane accident.
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“I was out there foraging,” she says, quite seriously. It’s unclear at first if she’s talking about Van the character or Lauren the mom. “You know…for stuff for this diorama,” she says with a laugh. “For me, it’s usually like: work is over. Jump on the plane, go home, make dinner. That’s the phase of life that I’m in.”
Ambrose brings up phases of her life more than once. After a string of TV and film roles in the late ’90s, her breakout role as Claire Fisher in Six Feet Under earned her two Screen Actors Guild Awards and two Emmy nominations. After the series ended in 2005, she dabbled in film, TV, and stage work before her Tony-nominated turn as Eliza Doolittle in the 2018 revival of My Fair Lady.
“I do believe—not in a witchy way…well, maybe in a little bit of a witchy way—that the work that I need to do comes my way for whatever reason,” she says. “Today’s my dad’s birthday. He died right when I was going off to do Servant and finishing My Fair Lady. There’s so much dad stuff in My Fair Lady, and then there’s so much loss and grieving and not wanting to grieve and not wanting to face the reality of mortality in Servant.”
Unless you’ve seen both, it’s impossible to stress how incredibly different the two projects are. My Fair Lady is this timeless, romantic musical that allowed Ambrose to show off her formal vocal training, and Servant—that’s a dark one. Starring alongside Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, and Rupert Grint, Ambrose plays Dorothy: a perfectionist news anchor whose newborn dies from hyperthermia after she mistakenly leaves him in the car. Dorothy’s husband and brother get her a therapy doll, designed to help Dorothy grieve, but the haunting plan goes ever further awry when the baby’s nanny, Leanne, turns out to have some connections to the supernatural. Oh, yeah, did we mention that the doll comes to life?
The M. Night Shyamalan series is haunting, tonally and visually, but it also has these moments of levity and twisted humor, which Ambrose finds a touch of comfort in. Though Ambrose’s loss doesn’t directly mirror Dorothy’s, she admits that there’s a similarity in those pangs of grief, as well as lessons learned from inhabiting Dorothy’s state of mind. “I think that it’s wise if we look for the opposite in everything,” she explains. “If it’s a broad comedy, surely there’s some tragedy there. And if it’s this tragedy about this family, surely, there’s moments of giggling. It’s like, like laughing at the funeral kind of thing.”
The show kicked off at a complicated time for the world as well. After the first season, the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe; it also halted production for the burgeoning series. Thanks in part to the small core cast and the insular setting, Servant was in the early wave of series to go back to filming.
Most episodes are filmed inside a home in Philadelphia that has this eerily suffocating quality. After four seasons and a world-wide health crisis, Ambrose says that saying goodbye to Dorothy and Servant is a difficult process. “It was pretty intense in terms of long form storytelling…to really be working with those souls. There have been marriages, births, deaths. They’re really carved into my heart.” She isn’t bidding everything about the show goodbye though. “They were having an auction of all the stuff in the house, and I just couldn’t even I couldn’t even bear it…but I didn’t say goodbye to all those clothes,” she says, before quickly covering her tracks. “Many of them were tailored for me! It’s true! [Costume designer] Caroline Duncan is brilliant. I feel like she’s half of my character.”
With the show’s March 17 conclusion, Dorothy finds her own version of peace after a thorough battle with denial, grief, and sadness. For context, the entire series takes place across a year, give or take a month or so. That’s wildly slow pacing for a TV show. In that time, the series has featured swarms of bed bugs and basement sinkholes and human sacrifices that take the story to eerily Biblical places. At the end of season 3, Dorothy takes a fall that leaves her paraplegic, rendering her more vulnerable than ever. It’s not until the series finale that Dorothy is able to stand up, both physically and emotionally, and address her reality. On the surface, all of that is full horror, but between the lines, Ambrose finds something very apt about Dorothy surviving what honestly seems like the end of the world.
“Poor Dorothy has had everything taken away,” Ambrose says. “She now has to relinquish complete physical control as well. She’s broken physically in addition to being fractured mentally…ultimately, it’s [about] literally being able to cobble her body together and be able to walk for herself again.”
I point out to Ambrose that she seems to have a thing for survival stories. Six Feet Under centered around a family running a funeral home, and Ambrose’s character famously outlived the entire family. Servant’s Dorothy has been clinging to life after tragedy for four seasons. Now, Ambrose is taking on a survival story that was, at least until recently, all buttoned up. When viewers last saw Yellowjackets’ Van Palmer, she was beginning to be evangelized in the blood of teammate Lottie’s perceived supernatural powers. Unseen in the future, the fan base theorized that Van might not have survived the ordeal in the woods, but Ambrose’s involvement confirms that’s not the case. According to Ambrose, Van was doing well. Keyword: was.
“That sort of light and faith in her is, to me, clearly dimmed and something’s going on,” Ambrose says of adult Van. “That question of faith is actually at the forefront of the character and wherever this character will go.” In terms of the connection she and her classmate Tai share in the woods, Ambrose says, “Tai and Van have this very intense relationship that is life changing, so…” She pauses and makes an expression that seems to indicate a yikes moment. “That will…I would imagine…be explored. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say!” Last week’s Yellowjackets season 2 trailer, confirmed as much, giving viewers a glimpse of Van holding Tai in her lap in present-day.
Ambrose was a massive fan of the series before taking the role but says that the experience of joining the cast is unlike any other she’s had. “For me, looking at the call sheet in the morning and seeing all the people at the top of it are women my own age, like, made me cry. It was just such an awesome sight.” She was quickly welcomed by the cast, and Tawny Cypress, who plays adult Taissa, immediately added her to the group chat, titled “The Team.” When I asked her who was the star of the group chat, Ambrose sort of panics, like you’re asking a high schooler who her favorite friend is. “I feel like everybody is a superstar!”
Yellowjackets is a refreshing change of pace for Hollywood. The series touts a strong group of women, from the cast to the directors and writers. Ambrose remembers one moment in particular, early on, when the cast got together to watch a rough cut of an episode. Each cast member sat behind their teenage counterparts, so she sat with Liv Hewson, who plays young Van. “Liv is such a gifted actor,” Ambrose says. “It’s just so beautiful to watch them watch their work.”
Ambrose admits she was intimidated those first few days on set, adding that she’s unsure she’ll ever not feel like the new girl in school. “They all took this risk on starting this show and creating these characters and this crazy story first, so I usually just defer to them and ask them lots of questions,” she says of working with the cast. “I’ve admired their work for so long. Like, truly, since I was a teenager. I’ve wanted to be doing this work, watching Christina [Ricci] and Melanie [Lynskey] and Juliet [Lewis], especially.”
I remind her that the admiration likely goes both ways. After all, she’s been on TV and film and Broadway. She was nearly Funny Girl’s Fanny Brice a decade before the current iteration. In 2011, she was set to star alongside Bobby Cannavale in a Bartlett Sher-directed revival before the plug was unceremoniously pulled. When I ask her if she’s willing to return to the stage, she lights up. “Oh gosh, I love to be on stage. These other acting jobs and pandemics happened, but I love working on stage and I can’t wait to do it soon, in any form. Any roles, I’ll be there.”
Currently, though, she’s all in on Van. Though it’s unlikely that Ambrose will get to showcase her singing chops on Yellowjackets (she did say she’s pushed for Van to bust into some Tori Amos karaoke), Van has enough on her plate to keep Ambrose busy. “I think adult Van seems to be doing ok,” Ambrose says, coyly. “For now…” With present-day Lottie in a Swiss mental institution and Van in tow for the big reunion, that’s surely going to change quickly, and that kind of drama is a dream for the actress bringing her to life. “My experience with joining this show was that I watched the show and loved it and said, wait, why can’t I be on this show? And then they called me,” she says. “I’ve never watched a show and loved it and then got to be on it. I feel very grateful.”
Justin Kirkland is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers culture, food, and the South. Along with Esquire, his work has appeared in NYLON, Vulture, and USA Today.