Joanne Froggatt is no stranger to playing troubled characters. Her first paid acting role at 15 was as a teenage prostitute on The Bill, then she went on to be runaway young mum Zoe Tattersall on Coronation Street.
The actress has since played three murderers, including famous British serial killer Mary Ann Cotton, and a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder. At the moment, she’s making headlines in the UK in the TV series Liar, as a woman who may or may not be telling the truth about a vicious rape.
Even the character she’s best known for – the sweet maid Anna Bates in Downton Abbey – went through some harrowing times when she was sexually assaulted by a fellow servant.
While she relishes the chance to be involved in dramatic storylines, she’s very conscious of the responsibility that comes with such sensitive subject matters.
“Obviously there is a massive responsibility to get it right and by that I mean for me, as the actor, for my performance to be authentic. My worst fear, in terms of my work, would be somebody at home watching, having experienced a similar situation, would not believe my performance.”
She was heartened by messages she received from victims of sexual violence who thanked her for her portrayal of Anna, and shared their experiences with her.
“It’s a huge honour when someone you’ve never met feels able to write to you in such a candid and honest way, and trusts you with their personal story. It made that particular storyline very worthwhile to me.”
Joanne (36), who spent hours re-reading the letters before filming her scenes as teacher Laura Nielson in Liar, admits she did wonder whether tackling another storyline involving sexual assault was a good idea.
But she was impressed with the script and felt it was good to be a part of something that opened up discussion about an important issue.
“It is the sort of thing people need to talk about. I think that the only way to change things is by educating people on what consent is and what it means.”
The Downton rape storyline was hugely controversial, sparking hundreds of British viewers to lodge official complaints, saying it was sick and sensationalist, even though the episode didn’t show any explicit sexual violence.
Joanne believes Downton’s producers handled it well, but admits she was shocked when she found out what was in store for her character.
Worried about the fact nothing much seemed to be happening for Anna in the previous series, she had asked for a meeting with the producer, Gareth Neame. “I was thinking, I hope I’m not just going to be saying, ‘Here’s a tray.’ Gareth said, ‘You’ve got nothing to worry about.’”
When the script arrived a week later, she was stunned. “I never in a million years expected it to be that. And then my second reaction was, wow, this is a huge responsibility.”
The scene took a day to film and Joanne says everyone on set seemed affected by it. “All the crew came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Are you all right?’
“I always thought it would be controversial – how could it not be? But I didn’t expect it to be as controversial as it was.”
Joanne, who won a Golden Globe for her performance as Anna, says it was sad when the show came to an end, but it was time to move on. Still, if the Downton film ever becomes a reality, she’ll be happy to pull on Anna’s dowdy uniform again.
“We all want to do it, it’s just getting our schedules together,” she says. “I’d absolutely jump at the chance if I’m asked. I’ll squeeze it in.”
In the meantime, she’s loving stretching herself with challenging roles, such as Laura in Liars, which will screen on TVNZ 1.
“I like to play flawed people. We’re all flawed to a greater or lesser degree and I always want to do things that are different from what I’ve done.”
Acting is the only career Joanne has ever been interested in. She wanted to be an actress from the age of five, and at 11 successfully auditioned for the prestigious Redroofs Theatre School.
But her parents, who had a sheep farm in Yorkshire at the time, couldn’t afford the fees. So determined Joanne persuaded her local council to give her a grant of $5000 a year to attend.
“They don’t do it now and I don’t know whether they did it then, to be honest.”
It took two years to get the money, so she didn’t start at Redroofs until she was 13. She has supported herself through acting alone since that first role on The Bill two years later and taken on dozens of roles, but accepts that many people will always think of her as Anna.
“That’s okay,” she says. “Out of all the people I have played, Anna is most like me. I hope I have a kind heart and I’m a good person. I think I’ve got my feet on the ground.”
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