Only a brave actor walks away from the biggest drama on TV, especially one that has found a huge audience and won awards not just here but in the States. But Jessica Brown-Findlay, better known to millions of Downton Abbey fans as Lady Sybil, could never be accused of being a coward. As she wriggles around in a big brown leather armchair, her plummy accent, big green eyes and sweet disposition all belie the fact that this is a feisty, articulate young woman who at only 23 has the acting world at her feet.
She has already shed all traces of Lady Sybil, the youngest daughter of the Earl of Grantham, who shocked audiences by dying after giving birth during the last series of Downton. She has dyed her hair red for her latest role and, for a girl used to stiff corsets and intricate beading, is looking very cosy in faded black skinny jeans, a stripy jumper and little brown boots.
“I didn’t want to fall into my comfort zone too much…” she pauses and considers carefully how to explain her decision to leave the hit show. “My contract was ending and I was unsure about signing away another year. Leaving terrified me, and that’s what made me want to do it. Being afraid and going into the unknown excites me, and what scared me more was to keep going and then one day discover it was all I could do and wish I had pushed myself more. I’d prefer to fail and fall flat on my face.”
The chances of that happening are slim. Her latest role is in the fantasy Winter’s Tale, opposite Will Smith, Russell Crowe and Colin Farrell, which she has just finished filming in New York. Meanwhile, we are about to see her take on a much earlier period character, that of 13th-century healer Alaïs, in the two-part dramatisation of Kate Mosse’s bestselling novel Labyrinth. It was the liberating experience of taking on this very different role that convinced her to leave Downton Abbey behind and also gave her the freedom to really let herself go during her final, anguished moments on the show.
“I did Labyrinth in the break between filming the second and third series of Downton,” she says, “and it was such fun to discover a new character. Acting in Downton was quite restrictive – you can find freedom within it but it’s certainly not running around, covered in mud, wielding a sword. So it was liberating to play Alaïs, because she goes through so much emotionally, and that sort of depth of strength actually helped me with what happened to Sybil. I returned to the Downton set and trusted myself to go all out in those final scenes.”
Those of us disappointed that the boldest Crawley sister, who shocked us in the first series by wearing trousers and running away with Tom the Irish Republican chauffeur in the second, will find solace in Brown- Findlay’s new role. “They are both quite modern, strong women,” she says, “but strong women in life inspire me, so when I’m reading scripts I’m attracted to characters who have some oomph about them. My earliest heroine was the stubborn, brilliant Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – I have no idea how many times I have read that book! And I love Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman…”
Radio Times readers may recall Hugh Bonneville revealing how Brown-Findlay and her on-screen sisters Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael all read Moran’s book between takes. The actors were also thrilled when they met Moran at the RT covers party last year. “It was amazing. Laura and I said, ‘We have to go and say hello!’ And since then, whenever we see her it’s, like, ‘Yay!’ She’s such an inspiration.”
Reportedly the writer’s autobiographical book is being adapted for the screen: would she like to take on the character of an angst-ridden, adolescent Moran? “Yes! Everyone can relate to her experience,” she enthuses, despite the fact her upbringing, in Cookham in rural Berkshire with her parents and younger sister, sounds far more idyllic than the Wolverhampton council house Moran grew up in with her seven siblings.
“It can be so incredibly confusing, growing up and feeling that you’re the only one who thinks or feels that way. What if you don’t fit in and what if you don’t look a certain way? I grew up incredibly insecure and awkward… saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
“That is why portraying flawed and unsure women – like Sybil and Alaïs – on screen is so important to me. And I am so glad there are more female writers, directors and producers in the film and television world, so instead of playing a woman as seen, prodded and poked through a man’s eye, there are role models out there, like Lena Dunham, who has written, produced and directed a programme like Girls.”
The boundary-pushing Dunham has fallen under intense scrutiny for her unselfconscious on-screen nudity in Girls. How has Brown-Findlay coped when asked to play a nude scene, as in the 2011 British film Albatross, as well as in Labyrinth?
“To be honest, Albatross was naivety and not knowing that I could say no. I had no idea what was going to happen and thought I was going to be shot from behind. In Labyrinth it is a very fleeting moment that we shot in one take, but I did find it very odd being naked in front of lots of people and I think it’s awful that women get so criticised about their bodies. I think if you’re going to do a nude scene, be honest and natural. Otherwise I’d be starving myself for ever, which I just couldn’t do! The idea that actresses would work out at the gym for a thousand hours beforehand… I was drinking pints and eating burgers. But actually, it’s not something I would do again.”
Does she fear that now she is working with Hollywood actors she might succumb to the pressure of being a size zero? “No, thank you. Hollywood is not for me. I love acting, but I also love London and I love to write…”
So would she follow in the footsteps of Moran and Dunham and write down her own experiences for the screen? “I think it’s best to keep some things to yourself. Actually, my ambition is to own a little tea and sandwich shop one day, write my poetry and short stories and be happy.”
However much she might protest, her future is far more likely to lie in Hollywood than in obscurity and, when the time comes, she’ll somehow find the courage to take the leap.
Labyrinth starts on Saturday 30 at 9:00pm on Channel 4