‘Downton Abbey’ star Jessica Brown-Findlay talks war, romance
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On the wildly popular PBS costume drama ‘Downton Abbey,’ Jessica Brown-Findlay plays Lady Sybil Crawley, the free-spirited youngest daughter of a British earl. This season unfolds against the backdrop of World War I, and there are many changes afoot at Downton Abbey. The sprawling family home has been converted into a convalescent home for wounded officers, and idealistic Sybil has discovered a new sense of purpose through work as a nurse. She may have also found love with Branson, her family’s hot-headed Irish chauffeur.
Speaking with the same posh, velvety diction as Lady Sybil, Brown-Findlay opened up about her character’s forbidden romance, why she would love to play Edith, and her starring role in the indie film ‘Albatross,’ now in limited release.
The second season of ‘Downton Abbey’ has quite a different feel, doesn’t it?There’s a weight to the second series because of the war and how much it changed everyone’s lives. Everyone has to kind of roll with the punches far more than they did before. Before it was just a set of rules, and everyone just got on with that.
Sybil really appears torn about Branson.
There are many things she needs to take into consideration with that because obviously that kind of pairing, if she was to do that, she’d have to give up a lot in her life so it’s a big arc. She struggles with that hugely whilst also just desperately trying to help with the war effort. For me it was far more challenging emotionally to do, which is great.
Did you expect that their romance would develop as it has?
I never read it like that in the first series. It was so funny because we hold hands for about three seconds. The amount of YouTube videos made up of this one moment. People are obsessed with them, and they hardly spoke three words to each other! It was quite surprising to me. The way that she is, she doesn’t see people in terms of categories or where they are. I think she’s rather embarrassed by her status. Maybe in fact it’s a very good pairing.
Did you do any particular research or training to prepare for this season?
I went to the Imperial War Museum. They’ve got letters and notebooks and diaries of young women who went off and trained as VAD [Voluntary Aid Dispatchment] nurses. I read so many of them. I learned to do hospital bed corners. I really wanted to do it justice. It was a huge sacrifice that these women did make. No one had seen people so injured and so changed. They didn’t just have to deal with physical changes from war, they also had to try and nurse and heal the mind. That was a new thing at the time, that shell shock. It’s quite a dark and terrifying prospect. I was really adamant to try and have that in my head.
Have you been surprised by the success of ‘Downton Abbey’?
It’s unbelievable, and you never think that would happen. It makes you want to up your game.
Are you looking forward to filming Season 3?
We start shooting in February. I can’t wait to read the script. We all like to come up with really ridiculous story lines which we know won’t happen, but we like to see how far we can push it. We get very silly. On set last year we were thinking about hilarious spinoffs, trying to come up with great spinoff titles. One of my favorites was ‘Anna Bates Investigates,’ so Anna and Bates become this detective team. We thought that was hilarious.
Do you have a favorite character?
I adore Edith, I really do. I just think she’s fantastic. It’s a really interesting character to play because she doesn’t fit in. And I will say the downstairs characters are cool. I love them all, but maybe Carson.
Is there a divide between the upstairs and downstairs cast?
There’s really not. You think there would be, but more often than not we’re filming in both sections in a day, so you’ll see everyone, and we also hang out as a massive group. It’s really quite nice.
You play quite a different character in your new movie, ‘Albatross.’
I filmed ‘Albatross’ before I got ‘Downton.’ It’s a coming-of-age movie about this girl who leaps into this family’s life, like a whirlwind. She’s ballsy and brash and wonderful, it was such an amazing character to play. I could just explore so many emotions with her, and she was very challenging and very different to myself, so I had to let go a lot. It was fantastic.
— Meredith Blake