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March 09, 2017

Fire and Vice

From Downton Abbey  to the mean streets of 18th-century London, Jessica Brown Findlay keeps things moving.

Steve Chawkins
  • Lucia O’Connor-McCarthy

When lifelong ballet student Jessica Brown Findlay was 18, her doctors told her she would never dance again.

She had trained with the Royal Ballet and had been asked to appear with the Kirov, but she had seriously injured her ankle and repeated surgeries couldn’t fix it.

“It was very abrupt,” she says. “I’d been training eight hours a day, six days a week and I’d been studying for 16 years. I knew that I couldn’t just go home and work in an office.”

She needn’t have worried. The versatile young woman, who has been cheekily described by British Vogue as “an English rose of preposterous prettiness,” would turn to acting and later rise to prominence as Lady Sybil Crawley on Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey.

Her newest project, premiering March 29, is Hulu’s Harlots, a series centered on prostitution in mid-18th-century London.

Taking time out from rehearsals for her role as Ophelia in a London production of Hamlet, Brown Findlay enthusiastically sketches out her character, a glamorous courtesan. “She’s famous,” she says of Charlotte Wells. “She’s a kind of celebrity in a certain London set.”

While the series is miles away from the cultured precincts of Downton Abbey, for Brown Findlay it’s familiar territory. In Downton, Lady Sybil aggravates her family by running off with the chauffeur; in Harlots, Charlotte rebels against parental expectations. “She doesn’t want to be owned, and her mother is going, ‘Oh, my God! What is wrong with you?’”

Savoring her own independence, Brown Findlay says she chose to leave Downton midway through its six seasons — writers killed her off in childbirth — out of fear of typecasting.

Downton was a very special thing,” she says, “a very big, mad thing…. I was afraid it would take me over.” With Harlots’s raunchy sex and explicit, if archaic, language — the kind that would force Carson, Downton’s butler, to cover his ears — Brown Findlay is indeed on to new ventures.

“Sometimes you take the harder road because, hopefully, it’s more fulfilling to listen to your gut,” she says. “I’m the kind of person who sees fire and walks straight into it just to see how warm it is.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2017

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