Jessica Brown Findlay talks about landing her first leading lady role in British coming-of-age drama Albatross and how she shook off the disappointment of not being able to dance, following injury, and threw herself into acting. She also discusses auditioning for and almost getting the lead role in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and her joy at the success of Downton Abbey.
I gather you had to audition hard for Albatross?
Jessica Brown Findlay: Understandably so, I had no credentials to enforce anyone, and especially financiers, to take a risk. But our wonderful producer, Adrian Sturges, who I think is a brave but brilliant man in that he’s not afraid of those sorts of things, and [director] Niall MacCormick are both mad! They both agreed that I should do it and then once they had the other names could confirm to me that I had got it. Obviously, I had no power to green-light a movie. But I will always be eternally grateful that they gave me that chance because it’s that catch-22… you need experience to get a job but you need a job to get experience. So, they gave me that breakthrough and I’ll never forget that.
And what appealed to you about playing Emelie?
Jessica Brown Findlay: Oh, on the surface she doesn’t care and I thought that would be so wonderful to play because I’m so… my mind ticks over all the time for possibilities or consequences and I find it quite hard to sort of throw my cares to the wind, whereas she does. But then also underneath it, she really does care and she really wants a family and love and to be protected. But then she has this self-destruct button of the minute she gets that closeness, she can’t deal with it and pushes it away. She’s so diverse and she has depths to her that even she doesn’t really understand and that is so in tune with being a 17-year-old girl. It’s only through trials and tribulations that you start to understand yourself a little bit more. And then you get a bit older and you realise that no one knows what they’re doing, no one’s perfect and it’s fine. But that journey to see in that flawed moment, before everything starts to go along a more smoother past, was exciting and I just thought: “What a wonderful section of someone’s life to follow through.” I just adored it and really wanted to play her.
Was it relatable on one level – the idea of having an albatross hanging around her neck? I mean, she has her writing background, and you had a dancing background that injury meant you had to break away from…
Jessica Brown Findlay: Yeah, I very much was very focused on one thing and Emelia is absolutely adamant that she will be a writer and she believes she can be because of the ilk that she believes she’s from. The two of us in a weird way come to a head and meet something that is unexpected. I feel that Emelie doesn’t ever really feel she’ll be called on something; she feels quite immortal and unstoppable. Of course, she’s not because no one is. And I had a similar feeling at that young age. I thought this is all going great, it must be fine… and it’s a good thing to always know that no one is unstoppable and everyone is susceptible to things happening. It’s important to always take that into consideration. So it was a nice element to her character that came through, which was oddly therapeutic for me [laughs].
Do you take something away from every audition, even the unsuccessful ones? I read you were quite close to landing the role of Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland…
Jessica Brown Findlay: Yeah, I mean that was how I ended up getting my agent. That whole experience was really wonderful. What I really learned from it is that it’s important to have your own person in a role because you can’t play a character unless there are elements of human behaviour that you yourself understand. I was really struck by how Tim Burton would like to sit and chat about you… or question things which then you had never thought about. It is a good thing to always step back a bit with things like that. But I try my damned hardest to learn something from everything I do. But I really enjoy auditions anyway because I think that even if you come out of them, and you go in once and it never goes anywhere, there is something that you bring out of it or a note that will come back to your agent and that’s the way you learn. But that’s like anything… at school, if you put your hand up and get the answer wrong, you’ll remember getting it wrong far more and therefore recall the right answer. Whereas all the stuff I knew at school, I’ve now completely forgotten about [laughs]! But that’s fun as well… I like the unpredictable nature of it and that’s exciting.
Was there anything that you found unpredictable about stepping up into a leading role for Albatross?
Jessica Brown Findlay: Oh my God, almost everything! I mean, it ended up being a blessing in a way because in retrospect if I’d done Downton, maybe, and then Albatross I think I would have been more fearful of that type of character because Lady Sybil is so much more straight. But at that point, whilst I didn’t know what the right thing to do was technically or anything like that, I also didn’t know what was wrong, so I just figured if it’s awful or if it’s not going well, or if I’m not doing it right, or I’m looking into the lens, someone would tell me and that’s how I’d learn. But if not, I should trust my instincts and go with the character that I found in the audition. Niall, our director, really encouraged me to keep that simplicity of how I attacked it originally and not to over-analyse it and be natural with it. But that was great because he stopped me from scribbling away for hours and hours and hours and actually turning the character into something different.
Does it also help being around people like Felicity Jones?
Jessica Brown Findlay: Absolutely! She’s a brilliant woman. She played her part so beautifully that I couldn’t help but just stare at her in scenes. I think I forgot quite a lot of my lines because I was just like: “Wow!” But it was so wonderful because Emelie is so extrovert and Beth is so introvert and so it was so much quieter and it made for a lovely contrast… and they sort of swap elements in the end of themselves. I mean, how can you not even just one tip when Felicity is doing her thing? And she’s so supportive as well, which was really nice.
How has the success of Downton changed your life?
Jessica Brown Findlay: Oh, it’s just… in some ways nothing radical has changed. But the way it has changed is just that little thing of where you meet people and they like a show you’re in, it sometimes sort of feels as though you’re not a part of it; that it’s not really happening to you. But it is wonderful to do a job that so many people have enjoyed. It’s a responsibility to keep the standard up and keep working hard at it. But it’s also a lovely thing now to be able to go into an audition and have something on my CV like Downton.