Her role in Downton has reserved her a place in heaven, but Joanne Froggatt is still keen to make it in Hollywood
There are perks to starring in Downton Abbey: you are comfortable with silver service, the nuances of the 1918 influenza epidemic, and quite a lot of funerals, when your co-stars hop off to other projects. But most importantly for Joanne Froggatt, it can buy you brownie points at your wedding.
“Just beforehand, the vicar who was marrying us sent me an email about details for our wedding, with all the information we needed for the big day. Then right at the bottom, he’d added, ‘If Jo could fix it for me and my wife to go to the Downton set, she’ll go straight to heaven’.” She laughs heartily. “That’s the best bargain I’ve ever had.”
Even before striking celestial deals, Froggatt was having a good year. Besides marriage, she has made three movies and this autumn sees her in the fourth series of the TV hit.
Downton Abbey is the most successful period drama since Brideshead Revisited in 1981, and the first series bested the BBC’s revival of Upstairs Downstairs, which quietly retired from the battle of Edwardians after two rounds. “I was a bit shocked because none of us thought that Downton was going to be that big,” says Froggatt. “Upstairs Downstairs was so well known and well loved and the BBC were famous for their period dramas, while there was a bit of snobbery about ITV doing one at first.”
As chief housemaid Anna, Froggatt is the most likeable character: principled, quietly loyal to her husband Bates during his murder trial and generally the epitome of porcelain-skinned womanly perfection. “They airbrush me,” she explains. “I’m not joking, they use this make-up that lasts all day and makes me a bit paler than I really am.”
Following in the footsteps of fellow American star Shirley MacLaine, Paul Giamatti joins the cast this year. This was announced just before we met, but Froggatt admits she had known about the arrival of the Sideways actor for weeks. “I was sworn to secrecy, and it’s in our interest and the audience’s to keep things secret. Our scripts are all embossed with our names, so if anything gets left anywhere, they know who to blame.” Do American actors find it odd fitting into such an English period drama, where even the table settings are scrutinised for country pile authenticity. “Well Shirley MacLaine fitted in and seemed to have a great time. She was very forthright,” she says. “But we have our lovely Dame Maggie Smith already, so we’re used to doing that. The first time we had the two of them on set, you could hear a pin drop. At moments like that, I remember that I’m so lucky to have this job”
Froggatt always wanted to act. Aged 11 she found a copy of The Stage newspaper and became determined to go to drama school. It took her 18 months to audition and secure funding for a boarding-school place in Maidenhead. Then, she hated it. “I phoned my dad in tears,” she says. “I felt so different because of my Northern accent. Dad said he could pick me up that night if I wanted.” She said she’d try to stick it out for two weeks – “and by then, I loved it.” Even the Yorkshire accent, which she still has, worked in her favour. “The other students made me repeat certain words because, 400 miles away, they thought I was fascinating.”
At 16 she got her first break on TV. Until then her only television work had been playing a teenage hooker in The Bill, and when she auditioned for Coronation Street, she was only supposed to be in Weatherfield for a few months as single mother Zoe Tattersall. However, her character proved so popular that her role was built into an 18-month storyline in which she sold her daughter to the childless Gary and Judy Mallett, then snatched her back, only to lose her to meningitis.
While Zoe’s tale was tragic, Froggatt’s own life has been charmed since leaving the show in 1999, working almost constantly: “I thought I’d never find another job, but eventually the job offers started again.” She went on to appear in Spooks, Robin Hood, Dinner Ladies and Bad Girls, and played Joanne Lees in the one-off drama Murder In The Outback, and Myra Hindley’s sister in See No Evil: The Moors Murders.
By the time she joined Downton, she was a familiar face, but since the drama has been sold to over 100 countries, she’s had to deal with a new level of celebrity. “People recognise me when I’m holiday on the beach,” she says. “But it’s not as bad as it was for Brendan [Coyle, who plays Bates]. He got recognised in Marrakech and chased down the street. And Jim Carter was on his bike cycling through Cambodia in his lycra shorts, and a busload of Chinese tourists overtook him and they all called out ‘Carson’.”
What Froggatt really wants to do now is fit more movies around Downton. This autumn, she’s in the film of Irvine Welsh’s Filth as a bereaved widow who attracts James McAvoy’s sympathy. Froggatt spent months working on her Scottish accent, testing it out on McAvoy before takes. “He’s a fantastic actor to work with and I can’t wait for Filth to come out,” she says.
More imminently there’s uwantme2killhim?, a psychological thriller based on a true story of two teenage boys (played by Jamie Blackley and Toby Regbo) who form a lethal online friendship. Froggatt is the police chief who investigates an attempted murder by one of them and tries to unpick what has happened.
As her husband James owns an IT company, I imagine Froggatt is internet-savvy, but I’m soon contradicted. “Maybe it’s because I don’t have to use computers at work, and because I left school just before IT became this huge thing, but I’m not as embedded as younger people. I’m not big on social media.” Froggatt doesn’t Tweet at all. “I do Facebook, but I only have my friends and family on it and they always laugh at me for how little I post. I don’t know how to upload photos so I never add pictures.”
The bigger pictures may be adding Froggatt to their roster soon. Froggatt’s Downton co-stars Jessica Brown-Findlay and Dan Stevens have already left to chase Hollywood careers, and Froggatt has been out to Los Angeles several times for awards ceremonies, promotional tours and meetings. On her last trip she acquired a US manager who is now sifting through scripts for her: “I still want to live in Britain, but it would be nice to work over there too,” she says a little wistfully. “I want the chance to play very different characters, and I’ve always wanted to do more films.”
uwantme2killhim? is in select cinemas from Friday. Filth is on general release from 4 October