TV interview: Jessica comes back down to earth after Downton Abbey

Jessica Brown Findlay.
Jessica Brown Findlay.
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It’s a good job Jessica Brown Findlay can laugh at herself.

In her latest role, she plays headstrong heroine Mary Yellan, a young woman who finds herself living with a group of smugglers in 1820s Cornwall. During a break in filming of the gothic new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, the actress - best-known for her role as the principled Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey - found herself being quizzed as to whether she could afford to pay for her shopping.

With mud-splattered clothes, dirt beneath her fingernails and a rather more grungy appearance to that of Lady Sybil, it’s perhaps no wonder her rugged look took some by surprise.

“I had mud all over my face and a cut lip and they [the cashier] said, ‘Do you pay for your prescriptions?’” says the 24-year-old actress, laughing. “When I said I did, they asked, ‘Are you sure?’ Later I looked in the mirror and I understood why...”

An ex-ballerina, who turned to acting when an ankle injury halted her dancing career, Findlay Brown likes the fact that Jamaica Inn isn’t just “fluffy, girly, boring stuff”. And with an award-winning director, Philippa Lowthorpe, and writer Emma Frost at the helm, there was a strong female presence on set too.

“I feel very proud to be a part of it and also to be telling a story that isn’t what some people would call a ‘woman’s story’,” she says of the three-part series. The series isn’t only to be enjoyed by a woman, that’s not what it is at all.

“It proves you can tell these stories from a different point of view, but with the same result and the same action and tension; it’s a really exciting thing for me.”

For 20 minutes of one episode, the action takes place on the beach and in the sea, meaning Brown Findlay was forced to thrust herself into the icy Cornish waters for filming.

“It could be terrifying but you are safe, there are lifeguards,” she explains. “To be able to do those scenes in the sea is important. If you’d done it in the studio, it would have been completely different. You’re working with Mother Nature and it can just turn. It would rain and then stop raining, so it gave me a level of fear.

“I found myself liberated. It gives you the energy to go again and again and again.”

The comforts of Downton must have seemed a million miles away during moments like that, but Brown Findlay is only too happy to try something new and enjoys playing characters who “are not like me”. Since her infamous death in childbirth in the third series of Downton, the actress has been doing just that. 
Jamaica Inn starts on BBC One on Monday, April 21.

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