If you spent last Sunday watching the opening episode for BBC1’s 1950s drama The Outcast, then you might have noticed it’s a fairly grim affair. Full of domestic abuse, emotional trauma, self-harm and repression it’s a difficult watch – and according to star Jessica Brown Findlay, some of the darker themes were even trickier to shake off as a member of the cast.
“It’s never…it’s not a particularly happy story. You have to find the light at work,” she says. “When you go home and you meet a friend for a drink they say – ‘you seem a bit off’. And you’re like ‘No honestly I’m fine! I’m just trying to remember that didn’t really happen today.’”
“It can be quite emotionally draining, and sometimes after you’ve finally finished a scene you want to go over to the other person and say ‘I didn’t mean it, I think you’re lovely!’”
Some more of those darker moments can be seen in tonight’s concluding episode, including a drunken row at a garden party and a fairly explicit scene involving Brown Findlay which is bound to surprise anyone used to her as Downton Abbey’s Lady Sybil – but totally in keeping with her role as The Outcast’s unhappy housewife Alice.
“She is a very lonely person,” the actress says of her character, who married widower Gilbert (Greg Wise) in last week’s episode after the drowning of his first wife. “It’s all in the unsaid, as opposed to what you’re saying.”
“Everyone knows that feeling of why you feel as if you have to say one thing but really there’s something underneath. She’s so looked down upon by other people in the village, they don’t think she’s very clever, and that she’s too young to marry Gilbert, that she’s not a good mother – those kind of things.”
Still, despite acknowledging that many such prejudices and challenges in The Outcast are very much rooted in its 1950s setting (she describes the expectation on women to be homemakers at the time as “terrifying”), Brown Findlay is keen to emphasise that the mental health strands to the plot to be just as pertinent today.
“It’s funny because what it wakes you up to was that you think this is a modern issue but it’s not!” she says, referring to lead character Lewis’ (George MacKay) breakdown after the death of his mother.
“It always has been an issue. People have always been that way, struggled. It’s not a new concept. It’s just newly spoken about, and accepted. There are places you can go for real, brilliant help, rather than being told to shut up and deny it – go to prison for it.”
Greg Wise and Jessica Brown Findlay in episode 2 of The Outcast
It’s dark stuff, definitely – has she plans to find something a bit less intense for future roles?
“My work tends to be quite bleak,” she concurs.“I would adore to do a comedy, that’s what I adore to watch – it’s the hardest thing you can do. It would be wonderful to go to work where if you accidentally trip up it can be included in the film!”
But surely an internationally-recognised Downton Abbey star could get a comedy part without too much difficulty? What’s holding her back?
“Well, my career has changed from when I couldn’t get a job at all,” she agrees, “but the bar is raised. If you go up into the new level of the world it’s: ‘oh my god, everyone here is brilliant.’ It’s constantly a small fish in a bigger pond.”
“But that’s where the challenge is, and it’s all about great writing and wanting to learn and grow – and as long as I’m thinking and learning and enjoying what I’m doing in terms of work, then that’s good.”