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Jessica Brown Findlay Fan

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Jessica Brown Findlay: What Downton’s Lady Sybil did next (paywall)
19 February 2014

Still most known for being part of TV’s favourite aristocratic family, Jessica Brown Findlay is busy expanding her range more than a year ago the nation watched in horror as the youngest daughter of the Earl of Grantham, DowntonAbbey’s Lady Sybil Crawley, suddenly died moments after giving birth to her daughter — and only midway through the series. It was harrowing stuff and no less so for the actress who played her, Jessica Brown Findlay, who quit the show at the peak of its success. “It was just this open abyss of unemployment ahead of me,” she says.

The abyss was short-lived. Brown Findlay is now a certifiable star on the rise. This year alone she has four projects lined up, including a role in the film version of Laura Wade’s play Posh, the lead in the new BBC adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn directed by Call the Midwife’s Philippa Lowthorpe and, opening in cinemas tomorrow, a starring role in the romance A New York Winter’s Tale.

The premiere for the latter was the night before we meet. Then she was dressed in Dior — today, a particularly rainy Valentine’s Day in a café on the Hackney Road, she is damp and bedraggled in an oversized jumper and jeans. She is still discernibly Lady Sybil, however, and I wonder if this bothers her. Will she be for ever haunted by “the Downton effect”? “I’m aware of it because people use that exact phrase with me quite a lot, but I just like to not think about it too much. I don’t know if it scares me.”

I ask what made her leave the successful show that made her name: “I felt it was just so soon, when I had [just] got my first few jobs. I thought if I get into my comfort zone too much now I’ll become far too afraid to do anything else and maybe I’ll never be brave enough to try. Becoming comfortable scared me more than not working.”

Her latest role, in A New York Winter’s Tale, must have rung alarm bells. Brown Findlay plays Beverly Penn, a consumptive heiress in 1916 New York, still managing to look radiant despite her impending death, in, yes, the same period costume in which she looked equally radiant in Downton. In fact her director, Akiva Goldsman, had never seen Julian Fellowes’s TV drama. “He especially wanted me to know that he had never seen Downton and that meant a lot. It helped with my confidence that I wasn’t there by default, that maybe I was there because I deserved it.”

I am not sure that she would want A New York Winter’s Tale to be her new calling card. It’s a bloated muddle of a film, a magic-realist odyssey spanning an entire century with the odd flying horse thrown in for good measure. Brown Findlay, however, is by far the best thing in it, no mean feat given that she’s in the company of Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, William Hurt and the veteran Hollywood star Eva Marie Saint: “A wonderful woman with amazing stories to tell,” Brown Findlay says.

“There were so many pinch-yourself moments when you’re just thinking ‘This is mad’,” she says of life on set, before waxing lyrical about her working relationship with Farrell, who plays her love interest. “Colin is a very funny guy but he just spent most of the time laughing at me, not because I’m particularly funny but because I’m very clumsy. Most of the time it would be ‘Aaaaaand cut! Jess has fallen over again.’” She was drawn to the “unashamedly magical” elements of the film. “There’s no edge in it all,” she says with a broad smile on her face. “But there was something about Beverly. She was almost otherworldly.”

Jumping ship from Downton wasn’t Brown Findlay’s first radical career change. It was no doubt inspired by an earlier shift. Classically trained as a ballerina with the National Youth Ballet and as an associate of the Royal Ballet School, she left her school in Maidenhead at 16 to focus on her training. “When I did ballet I really did block everything else out, nothing else was important. You know, subjects at school that maybe I could have been good at I was like, ‘Well that’s great but I’m not going to become a scientist, I’m not going to university,’ and I just walked around life with these blinkers on.”

Failed ankle surgery when she was 18 put a stop to her dreams of becoming a dancer. “When that all ended very quickly I suddenly quite reluctantly took those blinkers off and it was the first time I looked around and thought: ‘What else could I do, what else is out there?’”

What was waiting for her was a breakout role in Niall MacCormick’s 2011 indie film Albatross, released after the first series of Downton. It earned her a British Independent Film Awards nomination for most promising newcomer. Her next challenge is this year’s Lullaby, a contemporary film set in the US about a dying man’s dysfunctional family brought together in his final days. Findlay Brown stars alongside Amy Adams, playing a fast-talking New York lawyer who “doesn’t suffer fools”.

“It was brilliant to be playing something so different, so contemporary,” she says. “There’s a great pace to pieces like that.” She has squeezed back into a corset, however, to play Mary Yellan in Jamaica Inn, which will be broadcast later this year. Findlay volunteers her thoughts on the project before I can even ask, becoming visibly more animated in the process. “Jamaica Inn was the most fun I’ve had on set because for me, fun means the most challenging. It was really physical and that’s great because you know sometimes …” she pauses, “You know every job is different but I was just really eager to get to sink my teeth into something.”

Something she is absolutely not eager to talk about is nudity. This surprises me because, early last year, she spoke openly about her reservations with hindsight about baring all in both Albatross and last year’s Channel 4 adaptation of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth. Speaking to Radio Times she called her nude scenes “naivety” and stated, “It’s not something I would do again.” When I ask her about this I half expect her to crawl under the table. I can’t tell if she’s more embarrassed about the subject matter or the strange way that she now refuses to talk about it, offering instead the vague disclaimer that “with any job you have, the longer you do it, the more you start to understand the world you’re working in”.

Painfully aware of her sudden reticence, she throws me a bone and opens up about her body image: “If there is pressure to change myself I just completely ignore it because that is not my job. Being a dress size smaller is not going to make me a better actress.”

No one is going to get Brown Findlay to move to Hollywood either; home is East London, despite her shift towards big-budget fare. “Who would I know there?” she throws her arms into the air in a comical shrug, “I would be at a party and everyone would be like, ‘Oh my gaahd, whooo is she?’ I’d be begging to come home.” Home isn’t far from where we’re meeting — after we finish she’ll be heading out with some friends for a Valentine’s Day pint. She loves her low-key life: “I will not change it. I could be going to loads of award ceremonies and parties but I don’t because, really, you know what? I’m happy as I am. It is fun having things that you enjoy that don’t involve acting and aren’t for anyone else. It’s just for you.”

Would she mind if she was for ever known as Lady Sybil? “I think it would be exciting if the reference point was for something else but at the same time I can’t sit there and complain about it because it was such a wonderful thing to be part of and has done probably more than I know for me.”

If it all ended tomorrow she says she would open a sandwich shop and I imagine she would be perfectly content. As it is she’s about to embark upon another “abyss of unemployment” with no projects lined up after filming wraps on her current job, Paul McGuigan’s Frankenstein, in which she co-stars with James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe. What will she do? “I might paint a wall,” she says with a smile.