When Jessica Brown Findlay was a little girl she dreamt of being a famous ballerina and for a time her dreams looked like they were going to come true. From the moment she saw her nursery classmate in a leotard and ballet pumps she was desperate to be part of that world and ever determined, at the tender age of eight, she sat her parents down and told them she would be a professional ballerina one day. After years of training with the National Youth Ballet and the Associates of the Royal Ballet, she was asked at the age of 15 to dance with the Kirov at the Royal Opera House in London for a summer season. “Dancing with the Kirov was incredible and at the end of year 11, I was accepted to a couple of ballet schools but chose to go to the Arts Education School because it did A-levels and you were well looked after. It was like Hogwarts for ballet! So I trained there for two years but in my final year I had three operations on my ankles and the last one went wrong. When I woke up I was told that I couldn’t dance anymore. It was heartbreaking, because I had done all that training and my body was saying no I’m not going to let you.”
Jessica’s determination and spirit could not be dampened for long though and she was soon looking around for new challenges to embrace. “I was quite angry for a long while after that but my art teacher thought I was talented and encouraged me to apply to do Fine Art at St Martin’s which I did,” she explains. Once there, Jessica happened upon acting and then began attending classes herself. What happened after that surprises Jessica more than anyone. Having been seen by a couple of casting agents she landed the lead role as Emelia in the soon to be released film Albatross directed by Niall MacCormick opposite Hollywood actress Julia Ormond. Her second television role is playing Lady Sybil Crawley, youngest daughter of Lord Grantham played by Hugh Bonneville and grand-daughter of Violet, Dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith. Not only that but she has been tipped in Screen International as ‘the new Keira Knightley’ and named in Vanity Fair as “a new talent to watch”.
“The casting process was ridiculously short for me,” she explains. “I read it and called my agent right away and said, ‘please can I read for this, I absolutely adore it. I came out of the reading really happy, which is a good sign and I got a phone call about a week later offering me the part.” The read-through for any show can be a daunting process as it is often the first time the cast meet each other and get a real sense of the script. But when you are sharing a table with Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter and Hugh Bonneville, for a young actress, that process is even more daunting. “It was fun in the end but I had the most incredible butterflies. It took a while to relax into it but it was great to meet everyone before we got to set.”
Downton Abbey is set in 1912-1914 and women aren’t yet allowed to have the vote. The gender differences were obvious and women were expected to take a back seat when it came to politics and voicing their opinions.
Lady Sybil, Jessica explains is “very forward thinking, she’s at that age where she’s learning who she is and consequently she’s discovering this at a time when women were becoming more vocal and less subservient”.
The Downton Abbey estate is at the heart of the community where the Crawley family preside over their world and the servants are there to make sure everything runs smoothly. Lady Sybil sees a kindred spirit in housemaid Gwen (played by Rose Leslie), and realising that Gwen wants to break free of a life in service Sybil makes it her business to help her find a job outside of the estate. This leads to all sorts of trouble and danger for Sybil with more on the way when a new socialist chauffeur joins the staff in episode four. “She hears through the grapevine that Gwen has aspirations to better herself and break out of service,” says Jessica. “Sybil jumps through hoops to make sure Gwen gets to her job interviews – there’s a real closeness between these two characters and when Branson the chauffeur joins the staff later on in the series, we see even more class barriers begin to break down.”
With a core cast of 18 actors it is inevitable that there would be a lot of laughter on set and seemingly often at the heart of that laughter is Maggie Smith. “Maggie’s sense of humour is so dry and quick – she’ll just pass by you and out pops a quip that makes you cry with laughter – she is so much fun. If I’ve learnt one thing on this job it is to laugh and not take myself too seriously.”