Joanne Froggatt: Downton Abbey role was tailor-maid for a change
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JOANNE Froggatt is well aware that some actors may find the role of a “very nice and sweet” head parlour maid a bit boring.
But two things swung the role of Anna in Downton Abbey in her favour: firstly, the fact that the new ITV drama is based on an idea and subsequent script by Julian Fellowes – the man behind such hits as Gosford Park and The Young Victoria.
Secondly, and perhaps even more pertinently, the role of Anna made a refreshing change for an actress more associated with being ‘traumatised’ in her roles.
Froggatt is one of Britain’s most consistently brilliant young actresses, but her success thus far has come in darker roles, from playing a teenage prostitute in her breakthrough role in The Bill to playing the the sister of Myra Hindley in See No Evil: Hear No Evil.
She’s even recently completed playing a traumatised Iraq war veteran struggling to adapt to civilian life as a mother and wife in the hard-hitting drama In Our Name (which will shortly be showing at the 54th London Film Festival).
Downton Abbey, meanwhile, shows an altogether different side to the actress’ make-up, that’s almost certain to win her an army of new fans. And it’s something she was very aware of when commenting on the appeal of Anna when we spoke recently.
“For me, she was actually quite a different role to take on, because she’s just very nice and sweet. Some people find it boring to play that kind of role. But given that I often seem to be traumatised, or doing dramatic stuff, this felt like a nice change for me.”
The script, too, helped, and Froggatt credits Fellowes with being another major factor when it came to finalising her decision.
“I started reading the script on the day it arrived, but then had to leave the house for a few hours and I couldn’t wait to start again when I got home… to see what happened with the characters and to sit down with the story again. It’s not very often that a script draws you in that match,” she said.
To write off Anna as merely nice and sweet would, however, be doing her a disservice, as there’s more to her than at first meets the eye.
“She sees the best in people, but she’s also quite strong willed, and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” Froggatt adds – possibly in reference to her visible disdain for the way her colleagues treated lame new valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) in the first episode, and the sympathy she subsequently slowed to his plight. Could there even be the beginnings of a romance there?
If so, it’s sure to bring further challenges and drama, as Froggatt is all too aware of the sacrifices a woman of the time (Britain in 1912) had to make in order to secure a position such as head maid in a place like Downton Abbey.
“At the time Downton is set, the only opportunities for a young girl in a rural area were to work on a farm, get married or find a position in a manner house, on the grounds of the estate where she lives.
“So, this was really quite a high position for someone of her age and background. She’s done well for herself.
“[But] you certainly couldn’t get married if you were working in a country home because it was so all-consuming. You’d only get a half day off every fortnight. So, if you fell in love and got married, you had to leave your job and all that came with it. It’s quite sad really that women had to choose between a career and marriage.”
For a person more commonly associated with dramatic roles, it’s a pleasure to report that Froggatt is such a lovely person to speak to in person. She has a delightful sense of humour to match her intelligence and she speaks candidly about her career and the sense of responsibility that comes with each role.
For her forthcoming depiction of an Army soldier in In Our Name, for instance, she spoke to psychologists, counsellors and veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to gauge the emotional impact of life post-conflict.
While for See No Evil, Hear No Evil it was important for her to know that she had the support of both the victims’ families, as well as Hindley’s relatives.
“It was a real pleasure to do that job… an honour to do it. We had the support of all the victims’ families and got to meet all the remaining families and talk to them. They were kind enough to chat to us and tell us about their lives and what they had been through.
“It’s a subject that’s so horrendous but still so volatile. It still affects people when it’s spoken about to this day and it’s not something that’s ever been pushed to the side or forgotten. So, I felt a big responsibility to try and get it right and do the best job that I could.
“It was nerve-wracking to be put out there and tell story and I’m glad that it came off so well. Neil McKay did a brilliant job of writing a sensitive script. It was nice, too, because her [Maureen Smith, nee Hindley] family said that they felt it offered a little bit of a way to tell their side of the story.”
On the subject of challenging roles, however, I felt compelled to ask why darker material usually proves much more of a draw for Froggatt, to which she chuckled, paused and replied…
“I guess I’m drawn to the kind of stories that I also enjoy watching. I’m very interested in people overcoming difficulties in life. I think it’s amazing what people can do when they set their minds to it, and I find people’s life stories very interesting.
“So, I suppose maybe I do get a bit excited when something like that comes my way, when it’s an amazing part and an amazing story. All you can judge anything on as an actor, or actress, is whether you get that feeling about it and think: “Wow, I want to know what that person’s about and where their story is going.”
Thus far, Froggatt has reveled in being able to take viewers on that journey of discovery with her. She is an addictive presence whenever on-screen and her name alone on a casting script is worthy of anyone’s attention.
So, whether it’s playing it “sweet” for Downton or tackling emotive subjects like post-traumatic stress for women soldiers in In Our Name she has our complete attention.
Downton Abbey is on ITV1 on Sunday nights from 9pm. In Our Name is screening at the London Film Festival on Friday, October 15, and Sunday, October 17, 2010, before being released in December.
You can read our full interview with Joanne Froggatt when In Our Name is released. The black and white photo of Joanne has kindly been supplied by John Sanders.
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