MyAnna Buring’s glacier-blue eyes sparkle. “I’ve got a running joke I tell people, that on my CV it says ‘does really good death’. There have been hangings, stranglings and drownings, I’ve even been sucked into space…”
It was in a 2006 episode of Doctor Who, one of her first jobs, that she perished in outer space. Since then Buring’s been an amorous bloodsucker in both James Corden’s movie Lesbian Vampire Killers and Twilight, a corpse, a hitman’s wife, a prostitute who witnesses a murder in the recent Blackout, and she’s just filmed a Miss Marple.
It’s a repertoire at odds with her wholesome Scandinavian features, which are about to become very familiar: Buring joins the cast of Downton Abbey and takes the lead in two new dramas this month.
True to form, the first – The Poison Tree – is a creepy thriller about a woman haunted by her past: a summer spent in a crumbling Highgate mansion with a pair of eccentric siblings. “Slowly, slowly we get to understand in what way these people changed her life and the price she had to pay for loving them.”
Set in the modern day, it’s a break from the corsets and bonnets Buring has become accustomed to of late. In Ripper Street – which begins in the new year on BBC1 – she plays a Victorian madame. “Long Susan is a phenomenal character,” she enthuses. “To play a woman at that time who is financially autonomous, who runs a business that you might argue is a dubious one but nevertheless is a business and one that she runs very, very fairly. I definitely saw a feminist in her.”
Buttoning herself into a maid’s outfit for the Christmas special of Downton Abbey seems rather tame after that but Buring insists not – comparing it to the thrill she felt acting alongside Hollywood hunk Robert Pattinson in Twilight. “When I first walked on set, I felt like a kid! The most exciting bit was sitting in the kitchen with Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan and everyone around; I was pinching myself under the table going, Is this happening?”
Unlike Long Susan, her character in Downton has no skeletons in the closet but she is a feminist of sorts: “She’s got ideas well above her station. I found her a bit like a bouncing ball. No matter how hard she was knocked down she’d come bouncing back up again immediately.”
Off camera, Buring also appears to be more bouncing ball than tortured soul. Early on a sodden November morning, she skips into the studio and doesn’t bat an eye when the photographer suggests posing outside, pouting gamely through her shivers.
The only time those blue eyes lose a little of their sparkle is when – marvelling at how she morphs, seemingly effortlessly, from ingenue teenager to battle-hardened madame – RT asks her age. “I have been credited as being everything from 21 to 36 and I think it’s really useful,” she admits, politely refusing to reveal the true figure. “I’ve made a decision never to. If I confirm it, then I end up sort of lying [at auditions]. It’s a terrible thing to tell casting agents your age because you lose work.”
Buring’s usually described as Swedish but that’s a bit blurry too. Her parents moved to Kuwait when she was two and she spent the rest of her childhood to-ing and fro-ing between Scandinavia and the Middle East. (Her unusual name – pronounced “me-anna” – is a combination of her first and middle name because a school in Oman considered “My” a ridiculous name and started calling six year-old Buring by her middle name, Anna.)
Aged 16, she dropped out of school: “My parents said, ‘Fine, but you have to work and make your living.’ So I worked as a glass collector and pot scrubber and realised that it was rubbish, and that school was actually a good idea.”
She decided to resume her education in the UK and now considers it home. “I definitely feel like a British actress. I’ve never acted in Swedish, I trained here, and all my work has been on British or American productions.”
And like millions of her fellow Brits, Buring will be curling up in front of Downton Abbey on Christmas Day: “My mum’s really excited. I did Downton Abbey and Miss Marple this year and she was thrilled – finally, something she cares to watch!”