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In Our Name - Joanne Froggatt interview

Joanne Froggatt in In Our Name

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOANNE Froggatt, one of the star’s of TV sensation Downton Abbey, talks about playing a British soldier in gritty new drama In Our Name and some of the issues of post traumatic stress disorder that it raises.

She also talks about the success of Downton, winning the best newcomer award at the recent British Independent Film Awards, preparing to go back into theatre [at The Bush Theatre] and the Royle Family Christmas special.

Q. In Our Name is extremely hard-hitting. I can imagine you were quite physically and emotionally drained afterwards?
Joanne Froggatt: [Laughs] I was pretty tired by the end of it yes, because it was very full on. But I did love doing it because I loved Brian [Welsh]’s script. I think he’s a writer-director we’re going to be hearing a lot more from and I really enjoyed working with him. He’s very much an up and coming talent. But the subject matter was also really interesting and very current. I also liked that it was told from a female perspective, which is different for something of this nature.

We still often think of soldiers as being men, I think, and sometimes women get slightly discarded. But it shows how returning home safely, and the celebration that comes with getting back from a tour of a war zone, isn’t necessarily the end of the story. It’s actually about what affects you after that. Often, these men and women come back with mental scars as well as physical ones. And I think the Army is still not massively well equipped to deal with that.

Q. Did you speak to Army veterans, or existing soldiers, who had served tours in places like Iraq?
Joanne Froggatt: I had a really great chat for about an hour on the phone to one girl who was still in the Army and another female veteran and then I visited a combat stress centre… it’s basically a residential unit for ex-veterans suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) that enables them to visit for two weeks at a time for counselling and personal therapy, or group therapy, where they can do activities and be in an environment with other sufferers. So, I got to spend the day there, which proved invaluable. I spoke to counsellors, psychologists and sufferers who were so candid. They were very open and very friendly and spoke very openly about their stories and symptoms. It was a huge help.

Q. Are the events that Suzy witnesses on tour factual?
Joanne Froggatt: The events that Suzy witnesses aren’t factual per se, but they are loosely based on real life reports. So, yes things like that do occur. For Suzy, this was supposed to be a hearts and minds mission… the war is supposed to be finished, but it’s not and there are still things happening, such as bombings. There are still some horrendous things going on. For any human being, to be put into those severe conditions, it’s going to have an effect on you. We’re not robots and we can’t just switch off those emotions, or bury them afterwards. So, I think there could be a little more help and support for them when they come back and have to start dealing with what they’ve seen.

Q. How was working alongside Mel Raido, who plays your husband? He gives a very intense performance…
Joanne Froggatt: Mel was great… he’s a tough actor but he’s so good. He has real presence about him. But I really enjoyed working with him and going up against him in those scenes. And he was so helpful. We both really worked hard on this because we both really cared about the film.

Q. Did you keep things as light as possible on set in between some of those intense scenes? Or did you try and stay in character where possible? How do you approach some of the intense scenes between you?
Joanne Froggatt: It depends on what’s happening really. Sometimes you do get really into it and Brian would sometimes choose to shoot certain scenes in different ways. So, we’d do it three or four times within a different emotional context each time, to try something new and think out of the box a bit. Sometimes we’d also improvise bits and pieces. I personally have to really concentrate to get into that kind of head space, but we did have a lot of fun as well. You can’t be constantly intense and miserable… mentally and physically you need a break from that, so you do end up having a giggle. There would be moments at the end of a day, or certain scenes, where we were tired and would just break down into laughter.

Joanne Froggatt in In Our Name

Q. And how was bonding with Chloe-Jayne Wilkinson, who plays your daughter in the film? Did you get to spend much time together beforehand because you have a very believable chemistry?
Joanne Froggatt: I’m glad you found that. We had a great time together and Chloe is gorgeous. We did spend quite a lot of time together before we started filming. We went bowling and to arcades… the type of things we’re seen doing together in the film. But Brian was also keen to get her used to Mel and I, to try and make us bond as a family. We also went to dinner with her and her mum before filming and I spent as much time as I could talking and playing with her. Luckily, we did get on brilliantly and we’ve since formed a strong friendship. I actually met up with her again in London last week, so that’s been nice.

Q. Is it nerve-wracking, especially when it comes to working with children, gauging whether you’re going to make that bond?
Joanne Froggatt: Oh, it’s a huge relief when you naturally gel with each other, especially with children as you say, because they can see straight through you. If they don’t take to you it shows and the work suffers if they don’t feel completely comfortable with you. Chloe is very savvy and very intelligent and her performance is so raw and honest in this film. So, it was lovely that we were able to become so close.

Q. How did you find tackling the Middlesbrough accent?
Joanne Froggatt: I did it once before, years ago for a TV drama when I was 19. So, I was just brushing up on it really. I was a little bit rusty [laughs]. So, it was just practice because I wanted it to become second nature, otherwise it comes across in the character. So, you keep perfecting it until it eventually feels real to you.

Q. The opening scene of In Our Name finds you in full military gear running up a mountain. How was that? Was it as exhausting as it looks?
Joanne Froggatt: [Laughs] If I’m honest, I didn’t have that much in my back pack but we filmed one take where I had a camera mounted on me, while running up the hill, so it was really tough. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do it that many times. I remember it was a really cold, wet, drizzly, foggy morning on the moors and I was waiting at the house, which was our unit base, waiting to go on-set… I think it was our first day. I kept hearing over the radio: “We’ve got somebody down!”

Three of our supporting artists fell over. One poor girl twisted her ankle, another fell over and another person was sick. I was like: “Oh my gosh, what are they doing out there?” But the terrain so tough that people kept falling over. I was a bit nervous, but the crew gave me a big round of applause afterwards, bless them. I literally ran out of steam at one point, but they didn’t make me do it too many times. And I think it looks really good as a result.

Joanne Froggatt in In Our Name

Q. I gather Brian decided to keep the film deliberately open-ended so as not to wrap things up too neatly, as had initially been shot?
Joanne Froggatt: Yes, and I think that was absolutely the right decision. Brian felt that when you’re dealing with subject matter like PTSD, it’s not a condition that does just go away. It’s not that it can’t disappear completely, but it largely depends on the circumstances and at what point people are able or fortune enough to get the help they need and the counselling. Some people can never really fully recover. So, to tie up the loose ends and make it fit together neatly would not necessary have been true to life. Brian wanted to leave you with a feeling of what happens next, both for the characters in the film and for the real-life troops that experience this. He wanted to leave audiences with a sense of responsibility as well [to keep asking the questions and thinking about the issues].

Q. How was winning the British Independent Film Award for best newcomer?
Joanne Froggatt: It was amazing. It was such a shock because I really didn’t expect it. The ceremony was amazing and it was a magical evening.

Q. Did you have a speech prepared?
Joanne Froggatt: [Laughs] You’re gauging things beforehand but I didn’t really have anything prepared at all. I was quite emotional actually. But I think I remembered to thank everyone I needed to.

Q. So, what’s been the most pleasing reaction to it now that people have started to see it?
Joanne Froggatt: Well, the most surprising thing so far was winning the award on Sunday! But we also had some charity tickets available through Tickets For Troops, which meant that some members of the Armed Forces were able to attend the premiere, I wasn’t able to speak to them afterwards but Brian did and said we had great feedback from the troops. They said that it was obviously the story was extreme and fictional but they really believed it and that we had succeeded in making something that, while obviously fictional, was still realistic.

Q. This has obviously been an amazing year for you, especially in light of the success of Downton Abbey. Did you ever expect it would sweep the nation off its feet in the way that it did?
Joanne Froggatt: I don’t think any of us could have imagined just how big it would become. I mean, we knew when we started doing it that we loved the script and thought it could be fantastic. We all believed in it and knew we could be part of something special, what with Julian Fellowes writing, and Dame Maggie Smith on board. The right elements were in place. But no one dared imagine that it would start this Downton fever [laughs].

Downton Abbey

Q. And to be at the centre of the storyline that really captured people’s hearts must have been truly special?
Joanne Froggatt: It was one of those where you go: “Who’d have thought it?” It was really nice for me to play a character who is really sweet, kind and tough in her own way, but who is a genuinely nice person. She’s so lovely.

Q. So, confide in us… what makes Brendan Coyle – aka Mr Bates – so special and the new housewives’ favourite?
Joanne Froggatt: [Laughs] Well, Brendan is obviously a very fine figure of a man, but he’s also a fantastic actor. If you put those two things together… And Mr Bates is such a wonderful character. He’s complex, loyal but a genuinely lovely man, so it’s easy to understand why people fell for those traits.

Q. And, of course, he has a strong woman in Anna in his corner, because he didn’t always help himself?
Joanne Froggatt: Absolutely! And he didn’t always help himself… so it was good to be able to show that aspect of Anna and fun to play.

Q. Will they find happiness in the second season? Or can’t you say?
Joanne Froggatt: We really don’t have a clue, honestly! We’re all just as keen to find out as the public, I think.

Q. When do you start filming?
Joanne Froggatt: We start in February, I think, so the beginning of next year.

Q. You’re also working at The Bush Theatre in the New Year I believe? And have completed a part in The Royle Family Christmas special?
Joanne Froggatt: Yes, I’m doing two plays at the Bush. I’m the lead in one, and have a part in the other, and the two plays focus on the education system. The first one is called The Knowledge, which is the one I’m leading, and that opens on January 12, 2011. The second one is called Little Platoons and that opens shortly afterwards.

As for The Royle Family, I finished a couple of weeks ago and it’ll air on Christmas Day. That was really good fun.

Q. What was it like joining such a well established family? Were you at all nervous walking onto the set on the first day?
Joanne Froggatt: I was really nervous because I’ve obviously watched so many episodes and enjoy it so much. So, it really was… I play Ralf Little’s girlfriend, so I’m not quite one of the family, and that meant I did feel like a newcomer. But by the end of the two weeks I was with them, I felt like one of the family, which was lovely.

Q. What appealed to you about doing The Knowledge?
Joanne Froggatt: I really wanted to do some more theatre and I’ve always wanted to work at the Bush and, again, these were two really great scripts. I read The Knowledge first, because that’s the one I auditioned for, and I just loved John Donnelly’s script. It tackles a lot of issues and is very cleverly done but the dialogue is beautiful. It has a lot of expletives, because I play a teacher who is working with a difficult group of children in Essex, so there’s some colourful language from the kids as well, but it also is quite sing-songy and has a lovely rhythm to it.

Q. Given the success of Downton and the recognition In Our Name is starting to get, have you noticed more and more scripts starting to arrive?
Joanne Froggatt: Well, I’m just so busy at the moment that it’s hard to say! I’m doing the two plays and then heading straight back into Downton, so I’m fully booked for the next six months or so.

In Our Name is released in cinemas and Curzon on Demand (CoD) on Friday, December 10. Find out more about CoD

Read our review of In Our Name

Read our interview with writer-director Brian Welsh