I had the chance to chat with Jessica Brown Findlay today minutes before she left for the theater to play Ophelia in the current critically acclaimed production of Hamlet at London’s Almeida Theater. That production stars the wonderful Juliet Stevenson as Gertrude and, as the Danish prince, Andrew Scott, who is also Findlay’s co-star in Simon Aboud’s film This Beautiful Fantastic. The film is a true starring vehicle for the actress, best known in this country as the beautiful, kind, and headstrong Lady Sybil on Downton Abbey. In This Beautiful Fantastic, Findlay plays a reclusive woman named Bella Brown, who suffers from the need to have total order in her life. She lives next to a cantankerous widower and horticulturist named Alfie (Tom Wilkinson) who is appalled at how Bella has let her own garden go, and his hapless servant Vernon (Scott) who ultimately goes to work for Brown as she begins to come out of her shell. Along the way, Bella meets Billy (Jeremy Irving), someone who appreciates her very unusual way of looking at the world.
Danny Miller: Thank you for talking to me when you’re about to go on stage in such a demanding role.
Jessica Brown Findlay: Yes, I’m about to get on my bus to head to the theater!
I so enjoyed your chemistry with Andrew Scott in this film. Is it just a coincidence that you two are reunited as Hamlet and Ophelia right now?
Yes, I guess I would call it a happy coincidence. I think Andrew saw my performance in our director Robert Icke’s previous play Oresteia, and I think that helped, too. But it’s wonderful to be working with him again.
When I talked to Simon Aboud about this movie last week, I admitted that I was a little fearful going in, knowing that the film was being described as “whimsical” and “like a fairy tale.” But none of my fears were realized thanks to your performance that didn’t have a trace of “preciousness” about it. Was that a concern you had going into that project as well?
Yes, definitely. I think when something stops being honest and goes too much into a certain kind of fantasy, you run the risk of becoming quite saccharine. But Bella struck me as someone who is a kind of no-nonsense type of person. She doesn’t really have time for any silliness. She’s quite aware that her real life is not anything like a fairy tale and yet that awareness frees her to express that kind of fantasy in her own writing. I was so interested in the balance that she displayed with that.
I so appreciated the way Bella channelled her OCD in a way that works for her while still recognizing her own fears and issues.
We wanted that to be very much a part of how she is, but not who she is, we didn’t want it to be her sole defining element. There are parts of how she lives that will always be with her, and yet, by slowly letting people in, she was able to relinquish certain parts of those fears and that need for total control. If I think of Bella going forward, it’s the connecting to people and the gardening that will help her from staying too much inside of herself.
The outward expression of her OCD in the way she set up her house was fascinating. Were there any parts of that incredible set that were your favorites?
I love the toothbrushes thing, I thought that was brilliant! And I found her kitchen absolutely amazing. The color of all those tins, the different types of tinned fruits lined up in the cupboard, it looked so beautiful. I wanted to have that in my own home, but I guess you’d have to commit to a whole cupboard full of tinned fruit and I’m not sure I’m ready for that! (Laughs.)
The costumes, too, said so much about her identity and were gorgeous.
All of the clothes were made for the film which was amazing. We wanted it to represent another way that she coped with her life. She’s sort of grown up in institutions so we decided that there would be comfort in a kind of uniform for Bella, that speaks to her. So we went with pieces that I think were beautiful but that had that element to it. It was all good fun, I especially loved the hats.
Did you get to keep any of those clothes since they were made especially for you?
Oh, I so wanted to keep the coat, it was amazing. Alas, no!
As a moviegoer I always find myself resonating with certain characters based on my own life experience and what I project into them. If you had to draw threads from your own life to Bella, and for that matter, Ophelia, would that be easy for you to do?
Oh, absolutely, I can certainly relate to both! It’s interesting, for me, I’ve always had to find parts of myself that make sense for the characters I’m playing. Then, when I’m performing, it can sometimes feel more honest than I feel in my regular life. I always have to find a way to connect to the characters — it never feels like an “escape,” it’s more like a “tuning in.”
Which always makes me wonder about the physical toll certain roles must have on actors. Your body doesn’t know the difference when you’re playing an intense scene, does it? It doesn’t know you’re “only acting.”
Right! It takes me a while to settle down when I come off stage, especially as Ophelia. It’s true that my body doesn’t know the difference, it feels quite real in the moment. The idea of just waking into that and then walking off and feeling absolutely fine, that just doesn’t happen, at least not for me.
It was a joy to see you opposite Tom Wilkinson in this film, he’s such a great actor. Had you ever worked with him before?
No, I had never worked with him, I’ve just always admired him from afar and thought, “You are brilliant!” I loved his character in this. He seems very cynical but it’s such an interesting performance because you can’t really be a cynic and grow a garden since that automatically means that you believe in life. Things have happened to his character to make him more closed off than he used to be, but in other ways he’s an open book even though he doesn’t know it. I so enjoyed working with him.
I also told Simon, a bit guiltily, that this was the film that finally killed off Lady Sybil for me once and for all! Is it strange to be so identified with a role you did years ago when you were so young? Or do you think we Americans are more obsessed with your past on Downton Abbey than people over there?
I do, actually, I think it really touched the imagination in America. Of course I totally appreciate what that character meant to so many people. It’s funny — the other day a woman was waiting by the theater to ask me to sign something and it it was a picture of me as Sybil. I looked at it and thought, “Oh God, who is this young girl?” It was a photo from the first series and I looked so terribly young and earnest!
I think a lot of us projected a lot of our own stuff into Lady Sybil’s death, there was some real grief there about it. To the point where even now as I talk to you there’s a certain relief to just realize that you’re alive after all! It’s kind of crazy.
I can understand that. She was so kind and so good, and she helped bring together people who really didn’t get along. I realize that she really had a strong effect of people.
I promise that if I ever interview you again, I won’t bring up Sybil Branson!
(Laughs.) That’s quite all right!
But speaking of great television roles, I’m very excited about what I’ve heard about your new series, Harlots. That’s coming here very soon, right?
Yes, the 29th of March. It’s fantastic, I’m so proud of it! It’s a brilliant feminist piece, and to work with all those women and to be able to go to work every day and do that job, it was just amazing, that’s what it’s all about for me, to be able to do stuff like that.
I can’t wait to see it. And if you ever get the chance to bring this production of Hamlet to the States, I would love to see it!
That would be so amazing!