By Emily Cronin | Posted: Fri 14 Oct 2011
The star of Downton Abbey tells us about her new film project, and what it’s like to wear those costumes…
As Lady Sybil, the youngest Grantham daughter on Downton Abbey, Jessica Brown Findlay has to contend with scheming older sisters, strict class divisions, a draughty stately home—and corsets.
‘I might wear one if they weren’t so uncomfortable,’ she laughs. ‘Sometimes I catch a look onscreen and think, “Ooh, my waist looks small there,” forgetting that I was wearing a corset and that I could hardly breathe.’
Lately, Brown Findlay has turned her attention from Edwardian etiquette and underpinnings to Albatross, the new film. She plays Emelia, an impulsive 18-year-old whose friendship upends strait-laced Beth’s family life. Despite the century between the two characters, Brown Findlay says she detects certain sympathies between Sybil and Emelia.
‘They’re both so headstrong and such determined young women,’ she says. ‘Sybil certainly thinks things through—a lot more than Emelia does. Emelia only really realises things in retrospect.’
Brown Findlay, 22, insists that she had no time for teenage rebellion beyond ‘being told off at school for snogging’. Instead, she spent her teenagehood focussing on professional-calibre ballet training, even joining the Kirov for a summer season at the Royal Opera House before ankle injuries drew her dance career to a close. That calamity led her to look to acting—the leading role in Albatross soon followed, and it wasn’t long before Downton producers came calling.
Acting on the show has raised Brown Findlay’s profile in the UK film and TV industry to such a degree that organisers invited her to the Brits to Watch Gala in Los Angeles earlier this year. She calls attending the dinner alongside hosts Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge ‘a huge privilege.’
And of course, there’s the matter of the Downton costumes: gloves, shirtwaists, cloche hats, jewels and jet-beaded dinner gowns galore. The often original garments define aspects of her character.
‘Costume is so instant. In a single moment you can start to put over a character because you visually associate certain things with certain characteristics,’ she says. The level of consideration invested in the show’s wardrobe choices extends to heel height—all of Sybil’s shoes are flatter than the other girls’, as she’s the more practical, less fashionably minded sister. ‘To have those elements involved in the costume means that the way you’re thinking about your character does also change, and it’s so useful.’
Her favourite outfit has been the nurse’s uniform (‘so comfortable’), but the ‘trouser moment’ from season one also proved memorable. ‘I’m not even sure she likes them that much because we’ve never seen them again, but she was trying to make a statement, and there it was.’
Up next is a deeper dive into the past—to 1209. Brown Findlay is currently filming the adaptation of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, in which she plays medieval heroine Dame Alais.
But back to the boy-snogging ballet student of yore: what would she be doing now if she wasn’t part of the UK’s hottest TV series and the new British coming-of-age film?
‘I would probably be trying to get onto Downton,’ she said. ‘I reckon if I hadn’t done that job, I would be doing everything in my power to get myself on.’