By Hannah Nathanson
Jessica Brown-Findlay is enjoying a rare day off from cramped corsets and aristocratic airs. For the past six months she’s been filming the second series of Downton Abbey, in which she plays the free-spirited Lady Sybil, youngest and most bohemian of the Crawley sisters, complete with avant-garde silk pantaloons. Lady Sybil was a plum first television role for the 21-year-old actress from Berkshire who had longed to be a prima ballerina. Up until three years ago, she was training as a ballet dancer at the Arts Educational School in Chiswick, or ‘Hogwarts for ballet’ as she puts it, having appeared with the Kirov at the Royal Opera House aged 15. But an ankle injury in her final year shattered her dreams and she enrolled instead at Central Saint Martins to study fine art. While there she joined the acting classes and spent most of her time watching Sofia Coppola films. ‘The thing I missed most about ballet was the performance and becoming a different character. I couldn’t live without that,’ she says in a clipped voice that would be very Lady Sybil were it not for a viscous, husky finish.
As an unknown, Jessica auditioned for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. She made it to the final two, narrowly missing out to Mia Wasikowska: ‘But I have no regrets because it meant that I found an agent and got to read the script for Albatross.’ Director Niall MacCormick’s big-screen debut (his television work includes the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Long Walk to Finchley, Albatross is a coming-of-age Brit flick set in a coastal town in Sussex. Niall knew exactly the sort of personality he wanted for the central character, Emelia, a 17-year-old wild child who ends up having an affair with her best friend’s father. ‘I was looking for a girl who could tell someone to f*** off and die and for the audience to still feel they were actually quite charming,’ he explains.
Jessica fitted the bill. ‘I adored the part from day one and thought, “No one else can have it.” I decided to be Emelia both inside and outside the audition room.’ It came as a shock to Niall when the cast began filming in 2009 that Jessica is actually nothing like her character, who rips around the small town in thigh-skimming skirts and pink sparkly platforms, swigging from a bottle of wine: ‘I was so shy when I was 17, I didn’t smoke or drink. I was completely focused and I loved school’ – there’s a flash in her eyes – ‘but, gosh, I wish someone had shaken me a little and told me that mistakes are cool, too. Even now I sometimes think, “What would Emelia do?” She’s brave, brash and exciting.’
I suggest that Emelia is not that different from Lady Sybil, give or take a hundred years. ‘They’re both going to grow into strong women. They’re finding out who they are and what they’re going to be,’ says Jessica. The second series of Downton Abbey will hit our screens next month and opens two years into the First World War. An idealist, Sybil spurns romance for the Red Cross, which she joins as a nurse: ‘There are so many other things on her mind, like the fighting abroad and the war effort at home. That is where her focus lies and that’s what carries her through the war years.’
Her friendship with her on-screen sisters, Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael, helps Jessica through the long days of filming: ‘We have so much fun together. We’ve recently been dancing around like fools to Beyoncé, which is not my kind of music but it’s so good you can’t turn it off.’ Outside the acting world most of her friends are artists from North London where she lives, including her boyfriend who’s an oil painter.
Another close friend is her Albatross co-star Felicity Jones. They first met at auditions. ‘We supported each other. For Jess it was a big responsibility as it was her first role but she pulled it off with such ease,’ says Felicity, exhausted at the end of her critically acclaimed run as the lead in the Donmar’s Luise Miller. ‘It’s slowly killing me but we’re in our last week now,’ she sighs.
Since graduating from Oxford with a 2:1 in English and appearing alongside Carey Mulligan in ITV’s Northanger Abbey, Felicity has been in constant demand. She was cast by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant in last year’s film Cemetery Junction and made her Hollywood debut as Ed Westwick’s love interest in Chalet Girl earlier this year. She turned down the title role in the blockbuster remake of Snow White (starring Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen) in order to stay in London for Luise Miller. ‘You have to take parts you care about,’ she explains.
Before she made it on screen, Felicity was a household voice, playing teenage terror Emma Carter (later Grundy) in The Archers. She tries to recreate the rural accent on demand but gives up, giggling: ‘I’ve got too many other characters in my head. I think I’ve let her go.’ She sometimes still listens to The Archers at home in Worcestershire with her mother, who worked in advertising and brought her and her brother up single-handed after splitting with their father when Felicity was three. I ask whether it was her mother who put her forward for her first television role, aged 11, in The Treasure Seekers, an E Nesbit adaptation, but she insists it was all her own doing: ‘I was deeply passionate about acting from a young age. I loved dressing up and inventing characters. As an actor I guess I haven’t really grown up.’
In Albatross, she plays 17-year-old Beth, bookish and introverted compared to the rampaging Emelia. ‘I should probably say I was very different to her aged 17. I would sound a lot cooler. But I like the way Beth is an observer.’ At 27, Felicity makes a very convincing teenager and it is this youthful quality that has been the key to her success. As David Hare, who directed Felicity in his upcoming spy thriller Page Eight, alongside Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, puts it: ‘She has a little nimbus around her when she acts. I’ve never seen it in anyone before where youth is such a magical quality.’
She has also just shot Burberry’s autumn/winter campaign with Mario Testino. ‘He was sublime, telling us lots of anecdotes about Kate Moss, who has been such an amazing figure in my and my girlfriends’ lives. I think modelling can be quite similar to acting; it allows you to show a different side to yourself.’
After she’s slept off the role of Luise Miller, Felicity will be heading to America where she’s already created a storm with her performance in Drake Doremus’s romantic drama Like Crazy, which won her a Special Jury Prize for best actress at the Sundance Film Festival. She’ll be spending a month in New York this autumn making another Drake Doremus film, so will miss her boyfriend, Ed Fornieles, an artist who’s just graduated from the Royal College of Art, and her East London flat, which she’s decorated with window boxes. ‘I’ve become very domesticated,’ she says.
As the two actresses totter off to the helipad for the photo shoot, they lark about in their designer gear. ‘You look like a little girl in her mum’s clothes,’ quips Felicity. ‘Totes,’ agrees Jessica. ‘I’m just going to hang on my helipad.’
Albatross will be in cinemas from 14 October