Interview: DOWNTON ABBEY'S Siobhan Finneran and Joanne Froggett

Interview: DOWNTON ABBEY'S Siobhan Finneran and Joanne Froggett

The Great War is over and a long-awaited engagement is on, but all is not tranquil at DOWNTON ABBEY as wrenching social changes, romantic intrigues, and personal crises grip the majestic English country estate for a third thrilling season.

With the return of its all-star cast plus guest star Academy Award®-winner Shirley MacLaine, DOWNTON ABBEY, Season 3 airs over seven Sundays on PBS beginning on January 6, 2013. BWW brings you a series of interviews with the award-winning cast of this popular PBS series. Next up, actors Siobhan Finneran and Joanne Froggett.


According to Siobhan Finneran, Sarah O’Brien, the scheming lady’s maid we all love to hate, has been grievously misunderstood.

“I love her. She is funny and witty, also I think a lot of the time what gets misconstrued as being rude or unhelpful in a lot of ways is her making sure jobs are done properly. Yes she is cruel and all of those things but also a lot of things she will does are for the good of the house, and for the good of the whole of the staff. I love her because she is not backwards at coming forwards about saying something. I admire that quality in a lot of people in real life”

O’Brien begins series three seeing an opportunity for her nephew to get a job.

“She manages to plant that little seed with Cora - as she always does - and hence Alfred, her nephew, gets the position. She is just trying to help Alfred the best way she can. She wants him to do well in the house.”

But what begins as a generous impulse soon turns sour.

“She tries to enlist the help of her best friend Thomas. But he is really not up for helping Alfred – he doesn’t want someone getting in the way of his career - and so Thomas and O’Brien become sparring partners. It starts as a bit of a battle of wits, just game play to see who falls first really. But actually it gets quite nasty when it kicks off.”

Nasty on screen maybe, but never off camera – ‘RJC’ and ‘Shiv’, as they call each other, are some of the closest friends on the cast.

“I love working with Rob. All my favourite scenes are with him. We get on brilliantly on set and off. And the fact that we are now spatting instead of plotting is fantastic.”

Rob James-Collier suggests that we may see a softer side of Thomas this series. But will O’Brien, the queen bee below stairs, ever mellow?

“I had a great line in the first series which was, ‘Sarah O’Brien, this is not you.’ And that is telling - she comes from a damaged place doesn’t she, otherwise she wouldn’t behave the way she does. Basically she has given her whole life over to the house, to somebody else and so to then change that path would be impossible. What could she possibly do? Where could she go and what could she do? So she has to remain brilliant at her job and fight to keep it.”

Finneran, one of Downton Abbey’s breakout stars, says that in spite of all the plaudits and awards she doesn’t feel any pressure on returning to make another series.

“If I suddenly thought about how many people watched it I would go insane - so I don’t do that. I’m glad millions and millions of people watch it and really enjoy it but I think if you get that in your head you’re in trouble.”

Unlike some of the Downton Abbey cast Finneran doesn’t look at all like her character out of costume. This can be a bonus.

“I get away with people not really recognising me much. I look different – just a bit. For a start I don’t have those sideburns! I mean people genuinely come up and say they really enjoy the show but I’ve not been bombarded. And if there is any nasty fan mail I don’t see it. I’d hate to see that because it’s not me, it’s a character I’m playing so that would be very strange! It’s all good feedback – in fact people love her being the baddy. They love to loathe her, that’s the great thing.”

Anyway, in another time, O’Brien’s manipulative skills would be seen as brilliance, not mischief. A 2012 O’Brien might be an admired business woman...

“Yes she would. She’d be a great lawyer or something. She absolutely would. The thing is she sees everything before everybody else does. If Downton went on for another fifty years she would be running the country.”


Should Julian Fellowes ever decide to write a spin-off series from Downton Abbey, Joanne Froggatt already has one idea.

Anna Bates Investigates! Anna absolutely knows that Bates wouldn't have done something like kill his wife, and she sees it as her duty to make sure the truth comes out.”

At the beginning of the new series, Anna’s career is on the up, but her main concern is still dealing with the emotional anguish of having her husband in prison.

“We start off with her coming to terms with the fact that Mr Bates is incarcerated. She’s trying to just carry on with her own job, trying to be strong, but she’s also trying to find out more information and see if she can gather any evidence to prove his innocence.”

Not for a minute, says Froggatt, has Anna questioned her husband’s blamelessness. That makes her all the more determined to prove it to the rest of the world.

“Obviously she believes in him 100% which is the nice bit about it. So she sees it as her duty to make sure that the truth comes out.”

But standing up for her husband in the face of both hostility and indifference takes its toll.

“You see her become a bit more of a woman, because things get tough. You see her really struggle with the fact that Mr Bates is not around. And you see her almost lose her positivity a bit - which we’ve never seen before. I think it’s nice to see her really strained, actually - because that's how you'd be. That kind of positivity is difficult to keep up in the face of everything. She has to battle.”

Anna’s time in London, at the prison and on the trail of the truth has at least meant that Froggatt, who in her real life is a fashion fanatic, finally gets to wear something other than the same old pinny.

“It's nice to have a change, certainly. I do get to go out in my civvies, which is nice. Then again it’s still a lot of long skirts, a nice blouse, possibly a brown coat and often a hat – so not exactly pushing the boundaries! But at one point I do get to wear one of Lady Mary’s dresses for a special occasion.”

It’s the fashions that Froggatt would most like to teleport from the 1920s to modern life.

“Some of the clothes are really beautiful, I think. Not necessarily for below stairs characters, but I love the period for fashion, I think it's absolutely gorgeous. Fashion does seem to have a 20s comeback every few seasons, and I completely see why. It's a very feminine look, the fabrics and the shapes are very pretty and distinctive. It’s just a shame we girls below stairs don’t get to wear them more often!”

Froggatt has been to the US four times in the last year, so she’s had ample chance to sample the Downton Abbey effect as it has grown.

“I went over in February 2011 for some meetings and back then people in the industry had heard of it, although the first series was just being aired at that time. Even then there was a definite buzz about it. But about six months later I went out again and met people, and everybody seemed to have seen it. And then Michelle [Dockery] and I went out for the Emmys - and it was incredible. At all the pre-Emmy parties everybody was saying, ‘We love your show.’ I just wasn't expecting that. I was expecting people to go, ‘Oh, who are they, and what are they doing here?’ or just to feel like I was on The Edge of things looking in. But we felt really accepted, and what’s more, accepted amongst our peers, which was really amazing.”

But of course Froggatt looked a little different at the awards ceremonies compared to her dowdy Downton Abbey look.

“People don't recognise me. When Michelle and I were out for the Emmys, people would come up and go, ‘Lady Mary!’ straight away. Then they'd look at me and go, ‘Oh, oh, you're... Anna?’ Mind you, if they’re saying that I look so different I suppose that’s a good thing.”

Filming Downton Abbey takes up a sizeable chunk of its stars’ year – series three took seven months. Even so, Froggatt has managed to squeeze in three film roles that could hardly be further from the 1920s or Anna Bates.

“One's called UWantMe2KillHim, a British feature film, one’s called Filth with James McAvoy and Jamie Bell, and then I'm doing another one at the moment with Eddie Marsan called Still Life. What I will tell you is that only one of them involves me doing any investigating!” 

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