'I'm not going to be a better actress if I'm a size smaller'
Jessica Brown Findlay was 17 and training with the Royal Ballet when two botched ankle operations put the kibosh on her hopes of becoming the next Darcey Bussell. Having danced since the age of two, she was devastated – although she admits the experience taught her something useful. ‘I suppose I learned that putting all your eggs in one basket can be dangerous,’ she says.
This lesson seems to have been applied to Brown Findlay’s career Plan B: acting. She won a major role as Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey, only to walk away at the show’s peak of season three, choosing instead to tackle an almost wilfully eclectic selection of projects. These included Charlie Brooker’s tech drama Black Mirror, the movies Lullaby (where she played a New York lawyer) and Winter’s Tale, a gritty, rain-soaked adaptation of Jamaica Inn for the BBC, as well as critically acclaimed theatre roles in Uncle Vanya and The Oresteia.
We meet at lunchtime in the cafe of Islington’s Almeida Theatre, days away from her opening night as Ophelia in Robert Icke’s production of Hamlet. She’s wearing a red optic-print wrap dress she just bought on a spin around Topshop between long rehearsals. Her thick brown hair is chopped just under her chin and bleached bright blonde. She gives me a friendly hug. ‘I think I’ve killed the hair,’ she says in that distinctively husky, morning-after voice.
After Hamlet, Brown Findlay is going back to her old ITV stomping ground to star in Harlots, a new costume drama about two competing brothels in Georgian London. It’s exclusively directed, produced and written by women, who have promised to show equal levels of male and female nudity, and there’s a definite echo of Sofia Coppola’s 2006 movie Marie Antoinette in the thrumming modern soundtrack and all that decadent, rustling satin. Brown Findlay plays upwardly mobile London courtesan and ‘It’ girl Charlotte Wells, alongside Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville. Not long ago, she vowed she’d never wear a corset again…
So why was Harlots worth breaking the no-corset rule?
‘In the past, period dramas have been all about restraint, but this is so far away from any of that. My character [Charlotte] is free, flawed, annoying, ridiculous, impulsive and intelligent. Male leads are frequently allowed to have all of those elements, but for women it’s rarer.’
Did you have any major reservations about playing a sex worker?
‘If I did, they were immediately extinguished when I had a meeting with [producer] Moira Buffini and [director] Coky Giedroyc. The more I explored the world around the subject matter, the more I thought, “Fucking hell, how has it taken to 2017 to have this frank conversation about the world’s oldest profession?”’
In the show, the prostitutes are penalised rather than the punters. In the UK that’s still the case. Does this need to change?
‘I think it’s less about punishing punters and more about protecting and giving rights to the people who are providing a service. In the same way, making abortion illegal isn’t going to put a stop to it – it’s just going to make it unsafe. One of the really shocking things I’ve found with doing the show is discovering that we haven’t come as far as we think.’
It’s been five years since you left Downton. Have people stopped coming up to you in the street and shouting, ‘Lady Sybil!’ now?
‘I tend to avoid places where people might do that [laughs], but I’m also spending so much time in the theatre right now. I try to respect what that time [being on Downton] was, and I’m grateful for it. And yet there’s so much more that I want to do…’
Are you a bit of a non-conformist?
‘Early on in my career I had this feeling of people willing me to go down a certain route, [but] I didn’t want to wake up one day and say, “What am I doing and why am I here?” Life will try to make you do that anyway.’
After having private photos leaked from your phone [Jessica Brown Findlay was one of the celebrities involved in the 2014 phone-hacking scandal that also targeted Jennifer Lawrence], you said there should be greater policing of online behaviour. Has that improved?
‘There was a hotline set up two years ago for victims of revenge porn, which I believe has addressed issues in a wider way [but has sadly now closed due to cuts to funding]. It’s just nuts. When things go over a certain level, it’s about taking what happens online just as seriously as if it was happening face-to-face, as I really don’t know how much difference there is. I can tell you that it feels the same. I was so quiet about everything, because I felt such a colossal amount of shame and I had no idea if I could even say it out loud. I didn’t know where I could go or who I could talk to. Eventually, I realised I wanted to look at this properly, find other people who have gone through similar things and talk about it openly.’
Do you think there’s also been a change in the amount of pressure placed on actresses to look a certain way?
‘Women in film, TV and theatre are being given more space to have a voice, which is exciting. Personally, I have struggled with an eating disorder since I was 14, and it got dangerous at a couple of points in my life. Food is not the issue; it’s the way that you feel and think about yourself – how you value yourself – and that’s something I’m learning to do. I’m not interested in continuing this idea of “success looks like that”, or “happiness looks this size”. I’m not going to be a better actor if I’m one size smaller in a dress.’
You seem like the sort of person who only does red carpet when it’s absolutely essential…
‘[Laughs] Yes! They’re like, “Please, Jess, you do actually have to do this, it’s your face on the poster.” Although now that I’m older and in a much better place in my head, I feel able to go and enjoy those things. But no, it doesn’t come very naturally to me.’
Are you quite good at going incognito when you’re not working?
‘Life can be extraordinary, but one of the [best] things about it is just going for a potter down the road to buy milk with your partner, and I just absolutely flat out refuse to not do those [normal things]. Someone might see you on the bus and say, “Oh… is that?…” And that’s fine, because I’ve done exactly the same thing!’
Harlots is on ITV Encore now