Be careful what you joke about... Joanne Froggatt laughingly said she'd like to play a murderer after Downton, then the role of a real life Victorian serial killer came up

Joanne Froggatt is known to millions of people all over the world as Downton Abbey’s kind-hearted maid Anna Bates, but she’s starring as a murderous Victorian black widow in ITV’s new two-part period drama Dark Angel…

This isn’t the kind of series we’re used to seeing Joanne Froggatt in. How was it portraying a murderess?
“It’s challenging and exciting to play a character that is so different from Anna Bates. It’s what keeps me interested trying to do different things. I was jokingly saying last year when people asked me what do you want to do after playing Anna. I kept saying, ‘oh I don’t know, a murderer or something completely different.’ Then the script for Dark Angel came through and I was like, well, it’s what I’ve been saying I want to do.

“It’s such a fantastic script and such a fascinating character, so I’m enjoying it.”

Were they waiting for you to finish Downton Abbey?
“They wanted to do it straight afterwards.”

Is it liberating playing a character where you know where she’s going? I don’t know how much you knew about your character in Downton’s storyline or if you were kept in the dark…
“Julian didn’t know himself from series to series what would pan out so it was a surprise every series what would happen. I enjoy doing full stories like this and it’s something I enjoyed doing before Downton.

“I think it’s great for something that’s such an emotional and emotive story to know your whole journey, so you can plan out the changes in her personality because obviously when we are filming it is completely out of sequence. So that helps when it’s such an in-depth psychological character that you know where you’ve got to get to at what point, and at what stages throughout you should be making those shifts.”

More about Downton later, but tell us about Dark Angel. There’s not a lot known about Mary Ann Cotton. Did that affect your preparation?
“I think in the North East where she’s from and the areas around Sunderland it’s a known story, but I’m from Whitby originally, which is not that far away, and I hadn’t heard of her either. It’s a fascinating story in that respect because from what we know she is the first recorded female serial killer in Britain that we know of, so it’s interesting that no one has really heard of her and it makes it an interesting story to tell.”

She had a fascinating life…
“She did have a fascinating life and journey and we meet her at the age of 25. She’s just a normal working-class girl of that period, and she’s suffered great tragedy and through the events that happen to her in her life and the sort of person she is, we see how she sort of becomes what she becomes and how she starts to lose her empathy bit by bit through the tragedy she has been through herself.”

Does playing the lead bring pressure with it?
“Yes it’s a big responsibility, but I have played the lead in things before so I enjoy the responsibility of it, and it makes you work that bit harder. It’s nice to have that mix. I enjoyed being part of that ensemble. It was lovely to have this group that we all experience this great thing together and we’re all equally in it. I’d quite happily do a supporting role if the role was right as well.

“I like to mix it up. I never say I’m only doing this now. But it is nice to have that change and the challenge of leading something. It’s nice to have that time to relay the character as well, in so many different scenes, rather than having to put so much into four scenes.”

Tell us about your look…
“This is a wig. We wanted to work on creating something different from Anna. Being a period drama we wanted something different, but also totally natural. When she starts off she’s a young girl by the sea in the 1860s. She’s used to being outside and being quite wild with elements. And then as we progress through the story she becomes this middle-class lady for quite a large section of the story and her look totally changes with that, and that’s what she’s been inspiring to.”

 

She was quite the actress herself, playing the grieving widow…
“I’ve done quite a lot of research into the psychology behind it in trying to make sense of this person. Was she a psychopath? We’ve tried to make it as though we’re not playing her like that. She definitely is wired in a different way to other people, but as an actress, you have to think of it as though she isn’t aware of that. She’s just her. She’s not totally self-aware of how she is different, and she’s sometimes quite confused by people because they are different to her, but she just does what she does.”

But yet she’s also very charming…
“She does become quite selfish obviously, and she’s charming. But actually, after doing research, I found serial killers are a different kettle fish to other murderers because they are often extremely charming and that’s how they gain people’s trust and connect with people, although emotionally they don’t connect in the same way.”

She was just a bit before Jack the Ripper, so she could actually be Britain’s first serial killer, not just the first female serial killer…
“I think that’s the theory in the book, which Gwyneth then used as inspiration for the series. I’m sure there’s lots of debate about it.”

But the main difference is we know who she is, unlike Jack the Ripper…
“That and also Jack the Ripper was in London in the main city, and Mary Ann poisoned people. Again this is something I’ve learnt, generally female serial killers tend to poison or overdose or smother… clean and tidy ways. And the men like to make a mess! For men serial killing can be more of a sexually driven crime and for women it’s more to move up in social or financial status, that is often the reason behind it. Jack the Ripper killings were visceral, gory and dark, and it was in London. Mary Anne was a woman in Sunderland and people didn’t want to believe a woman was capable of this.

“When she was imprisoned there were many high profile people whom she wrote to that wrote letters on her behalf, trying to save her life.”

And also killing kids, that’s quite a tricky thing. How was it filming those scenes?
“We’ve been quite careful about what the children have been exposed to on set. There’s nothing too gratuitous or gory, we never got too far with that. All the children have been fantastic. They breed them clever up here! They’re bright as buttons. We’ve had many babies, three, eight and 11 year-olds. It’s only the eight and 11 year olds who are aware of the story and have proper lines and scenes to play.”

What’s next for Joanne Froggatt? Hollywood?
“You just sort of go where the work is and, yes, I’d love to work in the States, so if something came up and I couldn’t say no, I’ll just go where the work is.”

After Downton you wanted to play a murderer, now you’ve done that. What now?
“Comedy maybe, maybe a modern comedy, or an adventure thing.”

Something very different?
“Yes because that’s what keeps me interested. The challenge of playing someone totally different to the last person you’ve played is what keeps me interested and keeps it fun.”

What are your memories of the night Downton won at the Golden Globes?
“It was incredible, the biggest shock of my life. It was like a fairytale, like an evening that felt not quite real. I always used to watch the awards shows as a child and imagine being there so it was the dream come true.”

Were you starstruck by any of the Hollywood stars at the ceremony?
“A little bit yes. Not so much starstruck, but I was lucky enough to meet Kathy Bates, of whom I’m a huge fan, and people who you really admire their work and have been influential on me. You know, just coming across her outside the ladies loo… and she was lovely. Moments like that are very special.”

Did you meet anyone who loves Downton?
“Lots of people watch it and we’ve been lucky enough to have lots of well-known reviewers. It’s been a wonderful experience and we have a lovely time out there. They’re so welcoming to us in the States.”

Was it the right time for Downton to end?
“I feel it was the right time. It’s been wonderful and I never would have guessed in a million years that we would have had six seasons. We all expected it to finish at five, so we felt we got a bonus one with six. I think we left it in a good place. Julian has written some incredible stories that people have loved and taken into their hearts. I think it naturally came at the right time, and you don’t want something to carry on till people are sick to the back teeth of it or till it gets tired. We wanted to finish at a standard that you’re still incredibly proud of and that’s a really nice feeling.”

Joanne Froggatt stars as Mary Ann Cotton in Dark Angel, which premieres at 9pm on Monday, October 31 on ITV