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"I did receive letters from different women, some of whom spoke candidly about their experiences of sexual assault. And I am very humbled that they felt they could trust me enough to share their experiences with me." ~ Joanne Froggatt.

Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey actress

Nov 22, 2019 5:50 AM

WHOSE HEART DOESN’T break for Anna, the steely housemaid in the TV series Downton Abbey who’s endured more tumult and trauma than most characters on the show? After Season 4, in which she is violently assaulted by a visiting valet, Joanne Froggatt who plays Anna won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress. In her acceptance speech, Froggatt addressed real-life victims of sexual abuse and assault.

Fans of Froggatt and Downton Abbey have reasons to celebrate because the actress is here in Singapore for the Singapore International Film Festival premiere of Downton Abbey the film at Capitol Theatre on Nov 22. It’s been three years since the much-beloved TV series went off-air. Until now, fans have been able to do little besides replay six seasons of the drama involving the aristocratic Crawley family and their household staff.

Speaking on the phone from Los Angeles before the premiere, Froggatt talks about the challenges of playing Anna and other roles since Downton Abbey.

Does the movie mark the end of Downton Abbey, or might there be another spin-off?

The first movie has gone down so well (as of mid-Nov 2019, the movie has grossed US$184 million around the world), so there’s now talk of a second movie. It might take a while to get everybody together and it’s one of those logistical things that needs to happen, but yes, there is hope for it.

In terms of its narrative structure, the movie is somewhat different from the TV series. What did you like most about the movie? 

Well, structural questions are more for Julian Fellowes (the writer and producer). But yes, within the two-hour movie duration, there are plot threads that need to be tied more quickly than in the eight hours of a TV series per season. For me, the best part of the movie was going back to work with friends. I mean, these are friendships that have been built on a decade of working together. Having left the series three years ago and then coming back together as a family – well, that almost never happens. I got to revisit relationships within the show and it was just wonderful.

Why do you think Downton Abbey was such a hit globally, even though the concerns of the British aristocracy and its staff seem, at least on the surface, very different from those of people in the rest of the world?

If I knew what it was, I could be selling that for a bunch of money. But I do think the show has a mixture of all sorts of things, like love, fear, joy, grief and all those emotions that we live by. It has a universal theme because we’ve all experienced these emotions. And ultimately the show’s about relationships, isn't it? It’s a deep relationship drama. 

You had a very challenging task of playing someone who was sexually assaulted. That storyline went on for quite a while as it followed her through the aftermath of the assault. During the months when you were playing the role, if I may ask, was it hard for you? Was it something that seeped into your personal life? 

As much as I can, I try to leave work at work. But when you’re working with an especially sensitive storyline like this, you do a lot of research so you get it right. So I watched a lot of documentaries and movies, and the issues were in my head so much that I couldn’t help but take it home sometimes. I wouldn’t necessarily say that was a bad thing, and it didn't have a negative impact on my personal life, I think. It’s my job to immerse myself in it to the best of my abilities. So the answer is, well, yes and no.

In your Golden Globe award speech, you mentioned that women wrote to you after watching those episodes. Could you talk about some of the letters and email you received?

Oh no, I couldn't. It’s confidential and I couldn’t betray their trust. I did receive letters from different women, some of whom spoke candidly about their experiences. And I am very humbled that they felt they could trust me enough to share their experiences with me. So I can’t tell you about them. But what I did share in my speech on stage was that one woman wrote to me to say that she wasn't sure why she was writing but that somehow she just wanted to be heard. And so I said I hoped that by talking about her on the Golden Globe stage, she would feel she was being heard. 

Earlier this year, you took on the title role in the theatre production of Alys, Always at the Bridge Theatre in London. You were directed by the acclaimed Nicholas Hytner, former head of the National Theatre. How was that experience?

It was exciting because it was my first play in eight years, and Nicholas is a genius, as everyone knows. The process is very different. For TV and film, the camera can be so close to you that you just have to think of something for the camera to catch your expression. On stage, the audience can be so far away, so your entire physicality becomes part of your portrayal. Your voice, for instance, needs to fill the space, so you have to do vocal warm-ups before going on stage. That said, the process of finding your character and charting her emotional journey is the same – it’s just the technicalities of presenting it is different. Back to Nicholas, though, he’s an absolute treasure. He knows how to work with people and make them want to be better. You always know you’re in safe hands.

You’ve done a lot challenging drama. Your recent TV show, Liar, dealt with sexual consent. Your upcoming show, The Commons, is about climate change and the refugee crisis. Do you think you’d ever be drawn to comedy? 

Oh yes! I haven't done much of it, but I think it’s fun to do something different. I’m definitely up for it, if the material is right.

Like a fun, crazy, slapstick comedy? Or a nuanced, intelligent comedy?

(Laughs) Definitely the latter.

Downton Abbey the film opens in Singapore cinemas on Nov 28, 2019.