The Virgin Mother

Photo: Peter Hapak; hair by Laurent Mole for Artists by Timothy Priano; makeup by Anthea King for Artists by Timothy Priano

This article is giving Lauren Ambrose nightmares. When we first meet at the Public Theater, we have a nice, candid chat about the finer logistics of Ambrose’s trying to breast-feed her 4-month-old, Orson Halcyon Handel, while rehearsing the role of Juliet for Shakespeare in the Park. But by nightfall, our talk has left her tossing and turning. And when she sees me 24 hours later, she grabs my hand. “You asked me about my day, and I just started talking about, you know, breast-milk production for no fucking reason,” she says, laughing, but clearly meaning it. “And then I had a dream I was looking for you everywhere and I found you in a movie theater and I asked you not to write about it. And you were like, ‘Yeah. Uh-huh. We’ll see.’ ”

As Ambrose is well aware, it’s pretty hard to ignore the irony of a new mother’s playing one of the most iconic virgins in English literature. But other than, you know, not actually being 14 and virginal, Ambrose certainly seems to fit the part. Growing up in New Haven and going to day school at Choate, she was a self-described “tortured” and “restless” teenager. She married photographer Sam Handel at age 23, and, six years later, still looks like someone whom bodega owners really ought to card. Her best-known character, the oft-flailing younger sister Claire Fisher on Six Feet Under, is a pop-cultural poster child for irrational decision-making, having dated a bipolar guy who didn’t like his meds and explored the effective subtlety of leaving a foot in the locker of a boyfriend who’d wronged her. The show may have given her, says Public Theater director Oskar Eustis, “a very noticeable and striking familiarity with death,” which should prove rather useful in a Shakespearean tragedy.

And yet at the moment that she’s landed the quintessential role of tempestuous adolescent angst, Ambrose is being thrust into a daily grind of nursing while soliloquizing about youth and impetuousness. There’s baby in the morning, then rehearsal, then baby at lunchtime, then more rehearsal, then baby in the evening. “I read my lines while I’m eating my cereal and holding my baby in my arms and my husband is trying to go over what we’re going to do for the day and then I do the same thing at night,” she says. Not that she’s complaining. “Having my son, I mean, I feel already that it makes me a better actress. Just the feeling and the love that expands in my … being is more than I ever thought possible.”

Actresses dream their whole lives of playing, as Ambrose says, “the Big Three: Portia, Rosalind, and Juliet.” But the major downside of Romeo and Juliet’s being so beloved and familiar is that our own resident summer Shakespeare program has hardly ever staged it. This is only the second time since 1968 that the play has appeared at the Delacorte. (Then, Martin Sheen was Romeo and an actress named Susan McArthur was Juliet.)

Ambrose read for the role three times, beating out, among others, Sienna Miller, whose mere hint of interest set off an international frenzy. “Listen, Sienna is a wonderful actress, and she actually gave a really moving and terrific audition,” says Eustis. “But it was just so clear that Lauren was righter than anybody else that we saw. She was fearless. The emotional size of where she was willing to go with the death scene and how much she was willing to fall in love with Romeo [Oscar Isaac] was just heartbreaking to me.” And what of the loss of media attention that comes with not casting Miller? “The great advantage is that we give away the tickets,” says Eustis. “So it actually makes no economic difference to us whatsoever if the line of people who don’t get in is a mile long or five miles.”

Talk to Ambrose for a minute and you get the sense that she won’t be commanding those five-mile lines any time soon, if she can help it. She admits to a “general phobia of anything involving the press, including talking to you.” Like Claire, she moved to New York at the end of Six Feet Under, and since then, she’s laid pretty low, following up her 2004 stint in the U.K. revival of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child with Lincoln Center’s Awake and Sing!, opposite Mark Ruffalo. During that play, in which she played a Depression-era Bronx girl hiding her pregnancy from her family, she found out that she too was pregnant. “It was wild!” she says. “You wait twelve weeks to tell anyone, so I’m literally hiding my pregnancy from this family that I’m working with. My character kept puking offstage. I was lucky; I wasn’t puking, but I was sleeping a lot.”

Ambrose having a pissy sulk in Six Feet Under.Photo: HBO/Everett Collection

She’s also wrapped a couple of independent films, including Tonight at Noon, based on a Jonathan Lethem story, and Starting Out in the Evening, about a graduate student who attempts to coax an underappreciated novelist (Frank Langella) out of retirement. Her most curious move, though, was shooting a pilot for an old-fashioned sitcom that Fox picked up for mid-season, The Return of Jezebel James (a working title, thank goodness), written by Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and co-starring Parker Posey. (Curiosity No. 2: Parker Posey is doing a sitcom.) Ambrose plays “this hippie disaster living in grungy, like … I’d say the East Village, but that’s not really grungy … whatever the new grungy neighborhood is now,” who agrees to move in with her type A sister and act as her surrogate. Why a sitcom? Credit Orson again. It shoots in Astoria. “To work where I live, isn’t that the whole idea?”

With so many projects about to descend upon the world, it’s easy to see how Ambrose has become paranoid about protecting the sanctity of her daily minutiae from the evil, cannibalizing celebrity press. Six Feet Under was perhaps the best-loved series among “snooty intellectuals on the coasts” in the past ten years, but she’s still able to ride the subway. (Snooty intellectuals, after all, don’t approach TV stars.) Little Orson, though, makes her instant paparazzi bait. Suddenly, celeb weeklies that didn’t think she qualified as a celebrity have sent out their packs to hunt down her and Orson and Sam. Well, this happened once and it really freaked her out.

And if Juliet isn’t enough to wreck her celebrity-on-the-down-low lifestyle, says Ambrose, “I think the sitcom will do me in.” So, in many ways, this summer seems like the calm before the storm. This week, previews begin in Central Park, where she will slosh around onstage in water she’s nicknamed, variously, the Hypothermia Pool, the Hepatitis Pool, and the West Nile Pool. On occasion, she’ll likely have to shoo a raccoon from her dressing room, or act in pouring rain or around turtle eggs. (Turtles often make their nests in the Delacorte, and theater employees could be jailed for touching them.) But mostly she gets five blissful weeks of alternating between being a mom and being Juliet. Though, she adds, “arguably, now that I’ve had the baby, I could play the Nurse.”

The Virgin Mother