Saturday October 8,2011
By Garth Pearce

IN DOWNTON Abbey her character of Lady Sybil is so genteel that she has to be taught how to make a cup of tea. In her latest film however Jessica Brown Findlay is more likely to cause a bit of a storm in that teacup.

In a role that could scarcely be further removed from the one that has brought her fame and recognition on Sunday evenings she will be seen naked and also having sex with a man old enough to be her father in the new British-made film Albatross, which opens next week. At one point, when her character is asked to prove her age before she can buy cigarettes, she lifts up her T-shirt under which she’s wearing nothing else and asks: “Is that good enough?” It comes as something of a shock when all you’ve seen her in previously are ankle-length Edwardian frocks.

“I don’t mind giving everyone a shock – including myself,” says Brown Findlay, in the slightly plummy tones which have become familiar to millions of TV viewers. “In Downton, if Lady Sybil was exposed to having sex before marriage, she would be ruined.

“But in Albatross my character turns it in to an advantage. She knows every fact there is to know and loves to shock. I have to admit it gives me a thrill to be able to deliver someone who is such a contrast.”

Jessica, 22, has already seen one career crash as a ballerina thanks to an ankle injury and another blossom, as a painter of fine arts. She’s bypassed drama school to emerge as one of the names and faces to watch.

The prestigious British Academy of Film and Television Arts invited her as a guest at the Hollywood reception attended by Prince William and Kate Middleton straight after their marriage. Since both Jessica and Kate are Berkshire girls they might have had something to say to each other. “The abiding memory is being in a room, waiting with other actors, all of whom can’t believe they’re there,” she says.

“I know that acting is a mad way to earn a living and so it seems does everyone else. It is the same when filming Downton Abbey, with much laughter among the serious work.”

One of the funniest, apparently, is actor Jim Carter, who plays po-faced butler Carson. “He’s had such a good career and is so relaxed about work and life,” she says.

“He has that wonderful way of going in and out of character in a moment. At one point he can be telling a funny story and then he has to act a scene. He transforms himself in an instant.”

Dame Maggie Smith, as the formidable Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, evidently enjoys every moment meanwhile. “She is very dry, very witty and loves delivering her put-down lines,” says Jessica.

“What is reassuring for me is that all the very experienced cast like Hugh Bonneville, (Earl of Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley) and Elizabeth McGovern (Cora, Countess of Grantham) have so much energy and enthusiasm. What really comes across is a feeling of enjoyment in the script and the setting and the characters we get to play.”

Like the rest of the cast, Jessica is stunned by the scale of Downton’s success, with an audience which at one point hit 13 million. “It’s a total shock to us all, whatever anyone says,” she insists. “We thought it might do well. To be watched by so many and have a second series so eagerly awaited, is incredible.”

She also has her own theories of why the series is such a hit. “Key areas of life don’t change,” she says. “We gossip about the same thing as they gossiped about in those days – falling in love, jealousy, anger, scandalous events.
“The only difference is that most of us would probably have hated to live then as opposed to now. It is easy to look back at those days as wonderful, but they were very hard indeed for 95 per cent of the population.

“My own character would have had a very privileged life with every little thing taken care of. But how much fun would that really have been – shut away in a large country house, changing for dinner every night and never truly having independence?”

In Albatross, Jessica (who lives with her artist boyfriend, Thomas Campbell) plays a young woman who takes a job as a cleaner for her friend’s family, and soon catches the eye of the father, a best-selling author.

It seems a far cry from when Jessica was 18 and saw her hopes for the career she had originally set
her heart on dashed. That was when she was told her days as a ballerina were over. “It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do from the age of about three,” she says.

“Unfortunately I had an ankle problem and underwent three operations. The last one went wrong and I woke up after the operation with a doctor looking at me, giving me the news that it was messed up.”

She had left home to be a sixth form boarder at Tring Park School, Hertfordshire, which specialises in performing arts, in the hope of achieving her ambition.

“Work would start at seven in the morning and not finish until 6pm,” she says. “But I did not mind any of it because that is what I wanted to do with my life. When it was taken away from me in an instant I just felt numb.”

She was saved by a hospital visit by her art teacher.

“She said I should apply for an art course instead. I just didn’t want to know – my head was still reeling from the bad news. “But my teacher said: ‘You have talent. If you don’t apply, I will apply and forge your signature on the application form.’”

Soon after Jessica was accepted by one of the top colleges, Central St Martins, London to study fine arts painting.
She finished her art degree but surprised even herself by making a living as an actor. “It all started with a couple of meetings with the director Tim Burton, who was directing Alice In Wonderland, and was looking for Alice,” she says.

“I was down to the last three but did not make it. From that I got an agent and he started sending me scripts. It’s all in the early stages at the moment but after what went wrong for me I am willing to embrace anything and everything.”

Albatross opens at cinemas in the UK on Friday October 14.

Downton Abbey, ITV, tomorrow, 9pm.