When Julia Brown won the lead role of Lois Bennett, a factory worker and amateur jazz singer in the PBS Masterpiece wartime drama World on Fire, she threw herself into prep.
It wasn't just about perfecting a nasal Manchester accent — the Scottish actress became a student of era-appropriate song stylists, searching YouTube for clips of Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald.
Brown was confident in her own ability to carry a tune, but she'd never performed in front of a crowd, as Lois does early in the seven-part series, when she entertains troops for ENSA (the U.K.'s version of the USO).
So she reached out to her guitar-playing younger brother with an offer that was guaranteed to be a reputation-enhancer. "I sang with his band a couple of times at school concerts," Brown says.
Even that didn't prepare her for the experience of being backed by professional jazz musicians and belting out songs to a hall filled with 300 whistling, applauding soldier extras. "It was quite daunting, but amazing," she says. "I just went for it. I'd start to feel the music, and it brought Lois to life."
For this Edinburgh-born actress, life has been filled with big, magical-sounding breaks. She started modeling at 14 and within two years landed a lead role in the final season of M.I. High, a popular teen espionage series on CBBC, a children's TV network.
She had to commute between Glasgow and Manchester and live on her own at a fairly young age. "It was fun — and scary. I got infested by mice at one time," she says. "But I learned to be independent, and I got used to 13-hour days and getting up at five in the morning."
When the show ended in 2014, she moved to London and enrolled in drama school. Six months later, she was cast in the Scottish crime drama Shetland and hasn't stopped working since.
World on Fire debuted on PBS April 5 (viewers in the U.K. have already seen all seven episodes); in September, production begins on season two.
Brown is looking forward to showing a steelier side of Lois, who spends much of season one taking care of her father and brother and pining after her deployed British officer boyfriend, Harry (Jonah Hauer-King).
"I'm hoping you'll see the fight in her more," says Brown, who, after years of playing adolescent girls, loves playing a character who's her age. "And hopefully, I'll kind of grow up with her as well."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2020