The Daily Telegraph

Jessica Brown Findlay

‘I felt so alone, I couldn’t talk to anyone’


The last time you saw Jessica Brown Findlay in a corset and gown, she was sitting primly in the drawing room of Downton Abbey, taking tea with her mother, grandmothe­r and sister, and most probably arguing about her plans to run off with Irish chauffeur Tom Branson. Fans may remember that one of Lady Sybil Crawley’s more provocativ­e moments was when she pranced into dinner wearing ( gasp) a pair of trousers. That was about as racy as Downton got, and nine million viewers a week loved it for its prudishnes­s.

If you were one of those, Findlay’s new period drama might come as a bit of a shock. Harlots promises a “whore’s-eye view” of the lives of prostitute­s in Georgian London, and is more than a little risqué, featuring overspilli­ng corsets and lingering shots of men being shown a “good time”.

In the first episode, Findlay’s character, Charlotte, one of the capital’s most desired courtesans, is shown wearing a pale pink bodice and tearing the clothes off a wealthy aristocrat. But Harlots is more than a bit of bawdy titillatio­n, and Findlay’s character is no vulnerable young woman trapped by her circumstan­ces. Rather, she and her sisters, who ply their trade in the grubby streets of 1760s Soho, are portrayed as mistresses of their own fates. Prostituti­on at this time was one of the few ways of life that allowed women to exercise some autonomy and financial control.

For Findlay, the fact that the production is directed, produced and written by women was key to the telling of this thoroughly modern story. “It is so rare that a piece like this gets made,” she says. “It’s a feminist piece of work about sex in all its many forms. Just how volatile that world was for these women was something that felt really relevant.

“You put an old-fashioned dress on it and think, ‘Oh we’ve come so far’, but actually women are still fighting for rights over their own bodies, for equality, and for a world in which these transactio­ns – especially in the sex industry – can be safe.”

It is an issue about which Findlay has strong feelings. Two years ago, she was devastated when hackers broke into her Apple iCloud account and stole intimate photograph­s and videos, which were posted online. At the time, she issued a statement saying the crime had caused “extreme distress and embarrassm­ent”, and the memories are clearly still painful. “I refuse to be defined by it,” she says. “An illegal exploitati­on of your personal space and body is not OK. It’s not just actors who suffer – it happens to women all the time all over the world with revenge porn.’’ In taking on the role in Harlots, it’s as if Findlay, 27, is trying to right the wrong that was done to her. “[Hopefully] making work like Harlots might mean that instead of questionin­g whether or not a human being should be allowed to take a picture of themselves, we might have more discussion­s about why it’s OK that nothing is done about that.” She is far too polite to say so, but you get the sense that Findlay has for some time been trying to shake off her associatio­n with Lady Sybil, who died in childbirth almost five years ago. She admits, rather tellingly, that having pride in her work is something that, “oddly, has only really come to me recently. That’s certainly why I’ve been in a theatre for the better part of a year and a half now.” In that time she has starred in Uncle Vanya, Oresteia and now Hamlet, all at the Almeida.

Findlay – who grew up in Berkshire, the daughter of a financial advisor father and teaching assistant mother – comes across as a thoughtful, somehow melancholy soul. She has, she tells me, struggled with the pressure to conform to a stereotype of how a young actress should look. “I just think, I’m not going to be a better actor if I’m a dress size smaller.” Findlay has been slowly unfurling since the beginning of our interview, from being guarded, to being searingly honest. It’s almost as if she has been building up to revealing what tumbles out next. “I mean, I’m doing Hamlet at the moment, and it explores a lot about mental health,” she says. “And, I just… I just…” She looks straight at me and says: “I’ve had an eating disorder since I was 14. And I think that we can feed certain ideas of what beauty is and what success is and I just feel there has to come a time where those aren’t the rules anymore, and then we can have a mature conversati­on about what that is about, and about depression.”

I ask her why she feels able to talk about all this now. “If you are lucky enough to speak and be heard, it might be something that could be useful to others. The more we have brave discussion­s like that, the easier it is to talk about things, and the less alone we can feel,” she says, her voice cracking. “It’s certainly made me feel less alone.” Her revelation goes some way to explaining why in every interview I have read, she comes across as distant, as if she is holding back, protecting herself. Because she was. So when did things change? “[In] therapy, really looking at myself and deciding I was going to help myself feel safe and good and healthy, and talking about it.

“I felt so alone for so long, and I just hid. And then I started talking and held my head up and instead of saying sorry decided to tell myself that I matter.”

To have an actress in the early stages of her career risk their image to let people in on the raw, painful truth of life is rare. But then, as her director in Uncle Vanya said of her last year, she isn’t your average actress, but rather: “a real, proper person.” And, I suspect, she is one who is no longer prepared to keep a low profile when it comes to topics she cares about.

“I think for a while I really shied away from things and gave answers that seemed like they were the right answers to give,” she says. “It’s about learning to stand up and say: ‘This is me, and that’s OK’.”

Harlots begins on ITV Encore on Monday at 10pm

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 ??  ?? Brown Findlay is best known as Lady Sybil, below left, but plays a racier character in
Harlots, above right
Brown Findlay is best known as Lady Sybil, below left, but plays a racier character in Harlots, above right
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