Jessica Brown Findlay found fame in Downton at just 21, but off screen she was falling apart. She opens up to Francesca Babb about the personal struggles behind the glamour.
Jessica Brown Findlay, the actress best known as Downton Abbey’s Lady Sybil Crawley, is deep in organisation mode. When we speak it is four days before her wedding to her boyfriend of four and a half years, fellow actor Ziggy Heath, and even though 2020 has scuppered her initial plans for the big day, she is determined that the show must go on, albeit in a strict ‘30-only guest list, socially distanced’ kind of way. There’s the ceremony in a local London church, and then a red double-decker bus to take them to their reception nearby with 28 of their nearest and dearest. There will be fairy lights and dancing (her absolute favourite pastime) and a towering pink and green cake that looks a little like an homage to one of the fancy costumes from her drama Harlots. It might not sound like the huge-money, magazine-sponsored wedding of your average celebrity but, despite a career that kicked off in Downton, one of the cultural landmarks of the past decade, ‘celebrity’ isn’t something that interests 31-year-old Jessica.
She was just 21 when that series hit our screens, taking on the pivotal role of Lady Sybil while simultaneously studying Fine Art at Central Saint Martins in London. She had previously trained at the Royal Ballet, but an ankle injury at 18 put paid to her dreams of becoming a ballerina. She found herself falling into acting after becoming obsessed with the theatre. her role in the British coming-of-age film Albatross, alongside Felicity Jones, was followed almost immediately by being cast in Downton in 2010, which she starred in for two years, before quitting at its peak to try something new. She went on to appear in the first series of Black Mirror, then Winter’s Tale with Russell Crowe and Colin Farrell.
She’s played Ophelia opposite Andrew Scott’s Hamlet at London’s Almeida Theatre, starred in the film The Riot Club – reputedly based on Boris and co’s infamous Oxford University Bullingdon club – and most recently played 18th-century prostitute Charlotte Wells in the BBC’s Harlots.
It’s an eclectic array of characters, but the variety has helped her sidestep the ‘celebrity’ side of her industry by leaving shows before she becomes too ‘household’, too well-known to be able to keep life simple.
‘The thing about fame that really freaks me out is the idea of not being able to do normal things,’ says Jessica, settling down at the kitchen table in her East London home, in front of a wall painted in Farrow and Ball’s Sulking Room Pink – a choice, she says, that amuses Ziggy greatly as she herself is prone to a sulk. Next to that is an abstract mural winding its way up the staircase, which she painted herself, and looks really rather lovely thanks to her fine art training. She is dressed in a black t-shirt and yoga leggings, hair piled messily on top of her head – a lockdown look we can all relate to. ‘My ideal night is cooking a really good meal at home with friends, drinking lovely wine, then going to the pub for a few and going dancing. Not in a club, I don’t like clubs – I’m talking the basement of a pub, ideally with a smoke machine.’
We’re speaking in the build-up to Sky One’s Brave New World, a loose adaptation of the dystopian 1932 novel by Aldous Huxley, in which she plays Lenina, co-starring Demi Moore and Game of Thrones’ Harry Lloyd. I suppose you could argue that hanging out on set every day with Demi Moore is the antithesis of normal person daily life. ‘The first day you walk on to set, you’re in the make-up truck and it’s 5am and you see Demi Moore, and suddenly all these films come in to your head,’ she laughs. ‘But she was incredibly down to earth and cool, and when someone is like that it’s much easier to be like, “Oh…hey!”’
The role of Lenina is a big one for Jessica, both personally and professionally, coming off the back of a run of lost auditions which led to an attack of searing self-doubt. ‘I’d got down to the last two six times in a row,’ she says of her auditions prior to landing Brave New World. ‘It had been a very long time since I’d gone after something and actually got it, and that’s always scary, because you start to think, “Maybe this isn’t working and it’s time to think about doing something else.” When I started out, I was still at uni and acting was something I was doing, but I hadn’t planned for [as a career] – it wasn’t that I didn’t love it, but I wasn’t completely in love with it. Now, acting is my favourite thing in the whole world, so the idea of losing it is terrifying.’
She says she was drawn to Brave New World specifically because of Lenina’s character, a woman who refuses to numb her emotions in a world where humans are manufactured specifically for their lives to be perfect at all costs, where perceived happiness is paramount and there is no room for the murky grey areas of feelings.
‘There was something that really clicked for me with Lenina,’ she says. ‘I really loved her inability to just get on with whatever everyone else is saying she should be doing, especially given that in that world most people don’t even know the words for “sad”, “melancholic”, “jealous” – or anything other than “I am completely content.”’
The importance of facing up to feelings is a personal matter for Jessica, one she can relate to having battled depression since her teenage years. She recalls being around 14 when she first started to experience the darkness associated with the illness, and the turmoil she was experiencing then led to her developing an eating disorder, which she has described in the past as having reached ‘dangerous’ levels at times.
Her epiphany to seek help through therapy, she says, was spurred by ‘a horribly sticky run of four or five events’. One of those came in 2014 when the iCloud account on her phone was hacked by an anonymous criminal, who targeted numerous high-profile women, including actress Jennifer Lawrence, exposing intimate private photos and videos of their victims online. For someone already dealing with a crushing relationship with her body, and simultaneously battling depression, it was a traumatic time.
‘Being hacked did not help things that were already very bad,’ she says, of her state of mind at the time that the crime took place. ‘I realised I was in a very unsafe place with myself and therapy was sort of essential. I thought, “OK, maybe I can use the advantages of being an actor; I’ve got a little bit of time, I’ve got some savings, let’s sort out my head.” Life is not one straight line, and it doesn’t always feel as easy as that, but it’s about getting to a space [with yourself] that’s honest, and that can be really uncomfortable. [With therapy] you’ve got to go right back and down and in, but it’s worth it 100 per cent.’
I ask whether talking about her experience publicly has helped in her recovery. Yes, she says, but for Jessica it is more than that: it’s about opening up the conversation and helping other people, particularly if they’re looking at celebrities and associating their ‘perfect’ image and success with happiness. ‘If anyone were to look towards how you look or how you’re doing [professionally], it’s important to include something like this in the conversation,’ she says of the decision to talk about her battles. ‘You might look at [pictures] from a few years ago, and think, “Wow, that person looks X, Y and Z”, but it’s important to acknowledge that that person was also suffering, and had to really grab on to therapy at that time. Otherwise you’re just perpetuating this lie – that if you’re seen as successful, then you must be really happy.
‘I was a dancer, and it is the only thing I know I was really, really good at – but being really good at something and getting scholarships and being asked to join dance companies didn’t do anything to help how I felt about myself.’
It was the role of Charlotte Wells in Harlots (currently on BBC iPlayer) that started to restore her confidence. Co-starring Lesley Manville and Samantha Morton, the show might not sound like the obvious choice to make her feel good about herself, given that it’s based on 18th-century sex workers and that sex scenes would be necessary. But, it turns out, exploring strong female characters and telling their stories was exactly what she needed. ‘Before I did Harlots, I felt very afraid of reclaiming my body,’ she says, of the legacy of the hacking. ‘I was so self-conscious that I didn’t think I could ever play someone who was so bold again. Yet I met the director, Coky Giedroyc, and I just knew instantly that the show was going to be incredibly empowering. There are parts that come to you at certain points in your life and light the way for you. That was what Charlotte was to me.’
In spite of the huge success of Harlots, both critically and in terms of her personal happiness (she met Ziggy on set), Jessica decided to leave the show before its third series conclusion. It harks back to her decision to quit Downton at its peak, when presumably staying on would have been a little safer, both financially and in terms of her career.
‘There have been certain points in my life where I’ve thought, “I’d probably be a little more comfortable right now if I hadn’t made those decisions,”’ she laughs. ‘Felicity Jones said once that every part you get to play is like living another life. That has resonated with me so much. I want to taste as much of life as possible, and that’s through work for me. I am quite afraid of being comfortable in work, which is not the case in other parts of my life at all. Maybe it all comes back to the fact that when I was a dancer, I so completely believed that [a career in ballet] was going to happen that when – right at the last minute – it didn’t, it instilled in me a sense of “don’t ever settle”.’
Jessica still keeps in touch with the Downton ‘family’, particularly Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael, who played her aristocratic sisters. ‘I often get very supportive and loving messages from Michelle and Laura,’ she says. ‘There is something in us having played those sisters – no one else will quite understand what that was. When I left the show, I had only just finished uni and I was so in that world still that Downton felt extraordinary, but also something that was happening while I was doing something completely different. That balance was really healthy for me. For a while after, I… distant is the wrong word, but I needed to go off and find a bit of my own identity.’
She’s all about a healthy life balance, which is probably why she took so well to being in lockdown – it was a welcome respite from an often intense filming schedule. ‘I’ve always put work at the forefront,’ she says. ‘Maybe not coming from that kind of creative family background [her mother is a teaching assistant and her father a financial adviser], and not having been to drama school, I felt like I had a lot to learn and prove, so I’ve always tried to work hard.
‘At the start of this year, my ambition was to work really hard, but to also dance every single weekend and to travel as much as I could. Instead, it’s been a lot of dancing at home.’ Has she enjoyed it? ‘The prospect of perhaps a full year of not working is really scary for anyone. On the plus side, I did two days of press recently, when it was so boiling that I had my feet in a bucket of cold water underneath the kitchen table, but because we hadn’t been allowed to travel to America to do the interviews, it meant that afterwards I got to go to my three-year-old neighbour’s birthday party.’
Preferring the carnage of a three-year-old’s party to a promotional tour of the US alongside Demi Moore? It’s things like this that make me believe Jessica when she says she’s really not in it for the fame.
The juice on Jessica…
Most used emoji: The potato.
Last thing you put on your credit card: A ring from Laura Lee Jewellery.
Song that always gets you on the dancefloor: Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’
Favourite tipple: Gibson dry martini.
Last great book you read: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – I’m rereading it and loving it even more.
What superpower would you have? Magic floo powder for transportation, from Harry Potter.
Love is… Unconditional.
Have you ever been starstruck? Yes. When a lift opened and Darcey Bussell walked in. I was 15.
Career plan B? I’m on C right now. The best things that happen are never the plan.
Brave New World is available now on Sky One and Now TV