Downton Abbey is back for Season 4 – currently airing on Sunday nights on ITV, and then premiering on PBS’ Masterpiece on January 5, 2014 – as the show’s beloved characters deal with the aftermath of last season’s shocking tragedy. Cast members Hugh Bonneville, Dame Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Brendan Coyle, Joanne Froggatt, Laura Carmichael, Sophie McShera, Rob James-Collier, Phyllis Logan, Jim Carter, Penelope Wilton, Lily James and a host of others, will be joined by Shirley MacLaine, Paul Giamatti this season, along with a handful of new faces.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actress Joanne Froggatt (“Anna Bates”) talked about how things pick up six months after last season’s death with Lady Mary (Dockery) still in deep mourning, that Anna and Bates (Coyle) are getting to enjoy a bit of happy married life, that a roller coaster of drama is ahead, how amazing the show’s success has been, the lengths they go to, to keep the scripts under wraps, what it’s like to have familiar faces leave and new faces join the show, and her most surprising storyline. She also talked about her experience on Filth and working with James McAvoy on the very out-there feature film, based on the Irvine Welsh novel. Check out what she had to say, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
JOANNE FROGGATT: What I can say is that we start Season 4 six months after Matthew’s death, so Mary is in deep mourning, still. She’s struggling to come out of her cage of mourning that she’s in. She’s very closed off from the world. So, Anna starts off very concerned about Mary, and how she’s not moving back into the present and interacting with her son properly. Anna feels that she needs to move forward, for the sake of George, her baby. But obviously, Anna is in a difficult position because she can’t really say too much to Lady Mary since she’s a servant. That’s where we start the first episode. And then, for Anna and Bates, they start Season for in a very happy place. Things are good. They’ve got their house. He’s free, and they’re free to be together. They’re enjoying being married and living in their cottage. As always, there’s a little bit of drama ahead, as there is for all the characters. So, there will be a few ups and downs for everyone, along the way.
How brief would you say the period of happiness is, and how dramatic do things get, once the drama starts?
FROGGATT: That’s a question I can’t answer. They have a nice time. And then, there’s a little roller coaster ahead for them. There are trying times, but there always is with Anna and Bates. There’s always something that crops up. There’s always something else, just around the corner. You need those levels there.
Is it fun to get to play the happy side of things, every so often?
FROGGATT: It was nice, yeah. Obviously, as an actress, you don’t want to do that for too long ‘cause it’s nice to play the drama, but we really enjoyed it, actually. It was really nice to play them just being in love and happy. It’s nice to bring the changes with everything you do. As an actor, that’s what you want to do, all the time. So, it’s fun to be able to do the happy bits, and then the drama, and then more happy bits. It’s good.
Do you ever wish that they could just stay happy?
FROGGATT: No, as an actor, you always want to do the juicy stuff. But, it’s important to get the levels right, which Julian [Fellowes] does amazingly well. It’s the same with all the characters. They’re all going to go through some kind of drama this series because we want to watch something that’s going to keep us occupied. But, I enjoy the drama.
After what Anna and Bates went through last season, has it changed her, at all?
FROGGATT: I don’t really think it’s changed Anna that much, at all. I don’t think she’s really found anything out that has shocked her about Mr. Bates. He didn’t kill his wife. She never thought that he did. I always imagine that they have a very strong, open, honest relationship, and they have huge faith in each other, so I don’t think they really have secrets from each other. Mr. Bates will have told her all about his past, whether it be checkered or not. And yes, he has this dark side. There are certainly things about prison that he probably hasn’t told her because he wouldn’t want to worry her. But what they have, at the beginning of Season 4, is a common interest to enjoy life and enjoy their time together because they’ve been apart for so long. I think they’re just relieved. I think she’s relieved to her have man back, and is loving having her man with her.
When you started on this show, could you have ever imagined that it would have the response that it’s had?
FROGGATT: No, and it’s been amazing! In this industry, you can never second-guess what’s gonna be a hit and what’s not gonna be a hit. You can have a great script and it can be a great show, but for whatever reason, it just doesn’t take the public’s interest. It felt like it was a gradual thing. It was a quick-moving development, with Downton becoming so big. It didn’t feel like it happened overnight, but it did happen very quickly. It’s just been a wonderful experience. It’s amazing that it’s so popular, all over the world. It’s incredible! I don’t know how Julian has done that, but he’s done something rather special.
Are you surprised about the strong male following the show has?
FROGGATT: A lot of guys watch it and enjoy it, which is great. I think it is a show that speaks to all ages, sexes and backgrounds. There’s a character in there for everyone to watch. There’s romance, there’s drama, there’s intrigue. There’s always something going on. Whatever your preferred genre is, there’s a little bit in Downton.
Were things always so secretive with this show, from day one, as they are now?
FROGGATT: Yes, we’ve kept things under wraps since day one, but nobody was interested before it aired because nobody knew what it was. Obviously, Season 1 was easy because we were just filming this show. But from Season 2, we had to be very careful. All our scripts were embossed with our name, so if we leave them anywhere, they know who’s responsible. Thank goodness, I don’t think that’s happened. We are all terrified of letting a cat out of the bag.
FROGGATT: We go to work and we film, and you do the same as you do on any other job. You go and do the best job you can do. We get on set and we have a great time doing it. The stuff that goes on around it is not the stuff you think about on a day-to-day basis. You become more aware doing press days and things like that, and seeing people’s reaction and the excitement for the new series. That makes us really proud. But when we’re filming, we’re just doing our job.
Have there been any storylines in the past seasons that most surprised you?
FROGGATT: Mr. Bates being imprisoned was quite surprising, but it was great because we had great scenes to play. I really enjoyed doing those scenes. For me, that would be the most surprising. There are so many surprises. I’m surprised every time I read the script, really, but that’s what I love about it. I think that’s what everybody loves about it. And it happened with me when I opened the scripts for Season 4, as well. I was like, “Oh, so and so is doing this? Oh, my goodness, so and so is doing that? That’s going to happen?” It was great.
Did it feel weird when you showed up this season and realized that there were familiar faces that weren’t there anymore, along with new faces?
FROGGATT: Yeah, we missed our gang who are gone. It was weird in the servant’s hall without Siobhan [Finneran] because there was just this empty chair, and Siobhan was so much fun. It was like, “We’re a man down here. What’s going on?!” But ultimately, it is a good thing for the show ‘cause it brings in new people and new storylines. We’ve got fantastic new actors coming in, and everyone settles in so quickly. It’s so a warm environment to come into. I hope it is, anyway. People say it is. It’s a nice, friendly environment to work in. Everyone feels like part of the gang pretty quickly.
You already had Shirley MacLaine added last season, and now you have Paul Giamatti. What’s it like to have actors like that join the show?
FROGGATT: It’s cool! It’s amazing! Unfortunately, I didn’t even see Shirley this time ‘cause we work in completely different locations. And I wouldn’t have met Paul, if it weren’t for a cast and crew screening. I literally got to say hello, and that was it. It would be nice to have scenes with them, but unfortunately, I don’t. But, it’s fantastic! They’re both incredible actors. Obviously, Shirley MacLaine is almost royalty, with our Dame Maggie [Smith]. And Paul Giamatti is just the most amazing actor, so we were thrilled when we knew he was coming in to do the season finale. It was brilliant!
When you have a big cast like this and you have actors that you don’t get to have any interaction with, have you thought about someone you’d love to see Anna have a scene or storyline with?
FROGGATT: Well, I would love to have had a storyline with Paul and Shirley and Maggie. And I would love to do more with Penelope Wilton, as well. But, it’s gotta be in the context of the story, and our characters really wouldn’t have that much to do with each other. It’s just the way it goes.
What’s it been like to work with Brendan Coyle and develop the dynamic between your characters, over the seasons?
FROGGATT: Oh, it’s been brilliant! It’s been so good! We’re really good friends. He was at my real wedding. It’s been great. We just have a shorthand now. We don’t even need to finish a sentence now, of how to play a scene. We know how each other works, and we work really well together. We have a lot of fun working together. We have a real giggle together. It’s brilliant! I love working with Brendan.
Because you look so different from your character, in real life, do you get stopped by fans much?
FROGGATT: Not massively. Every now and again, someone will say, “Are you an actress?” Sometimes I’ll get, “Are you that girl on Downton?” But, it’s not particularly intrusive. It’s a little more than used to happen before in the U.K., but it’s not changed hugely for me. I’ve been working in the U.K. for 16 years, in TV and film, and it’s been a slight increase, but not massively.
FROGGATT: That’s very different from Downton. It was great! I’ve seen the film and I think it’s incredible. It’s not gonna be everybody’s cup of tea. It’s certainly gonna cause a reaction. James McAvoy’s performance is just incredible. It’s incredible! I’m really proud to be a part of it. I loved the script when I read it, and having seen the film, I just think Jon S. Baird, the writer and director, has done the most amazing job. I’m really looking forward to it coming out and seeing how it goes down.
Who do you play in the film?
FROGGATT: James is the lead, and the rest of us are supporting James. James’ character is a bigoted, sexist, racist, homophobic police officer in the ‘90s in Edinburgh. As the story unravels, he unravels, as well, and you see why he is the way he is. He’s a pretty nasty piece of work, this character. My character is somebody that he just comes across and helps in a situation of need, by chance. I keep popping up, throughout the film. My character is the only person that he shows any kind of humanity towards. They’re strangers, but every time they meet, they have this connection that strips away all the games and all the stuff that’s not important. They have a real connection. She’s a little bit like his guardian angel. It’s actually a sweet relationship. It’s good.
Downton Abbey returns for Season 4 on Sunday nights on ITV, and on PBS’ Masterpiece on January 5, 2014.