Into the Labyrinth on the grail trail; As she takes on a lead role in the TV adaptation of Kate Mosse's novel Labyrinth, Jessica Brown Findlay talks to Sophie Herdman about leaving Downton Abbey.
DOWNTON Abbey's Lady Sybil Crawley was far too well brought up to allow herself to be seen without her clothes on. But they had no such hang-ups in medieval times - as Jessica Brown Findlay found out.
The actress had no problem with her nude scene in her new TV show, Labyrinth, though.
"It's a fleeting moment and that's it," she says of her first scene, in which she arises unclothed from her marital bed. "She's a married woman, it's medieval times and this scene is much more about an introduction to a couple."
But even with her body so exposed she didn't feel the need to work out for this role, or any other as it happens, because Jessica, 23, is a fan of imperfections - be they in a character or the actor.
"Seeing on-screen perfection that can only be achieved by having a dietician and working out all the time; I don't understand what kind of message that gives out, especially to young women. Perfection is unachievable."
In fact, it is imperfections that she looks for when deciding whether to go for a role, saying: "They make characters jump out and are much more exciting to play."
Which brings us to Alais, her character in Labyrinth: a strong, bold but naive woman on the search for the Holy Grail. The two-part series is based on the book of the same name by Kate Mosse, and parallels Alais's search with that of Alice, a modern-day woman in France.
"Alais's life starts to crumble and then she's handed this responsibility; it becomes the making of her. Although she's afraid, she keeps heading towards danger, even though she feels she's probably not going to make it through."
The character's determination not to be held back by fear is reminiscent of Jessica herself, who made the bold decision to leave Downton for a challenge. "Facing the abyss of the unknown is so exciting. What scares me more is staying comfortable," she says.
Taking on Labyrinth was no easy task.The book was a bestseller in 2006 and translation rights have been sold in 38 languages. Did she feel a lot of pressure? "I suppose there was a certain aspect of that, but it's more in retrospect having done the job," she says. Having Mosse on set (the author came to visit during filming) was a positive, she adds.
Jessica particularly enjoyed the physicality and goriness involved with her role. "Being able to get muddy and messy rather than having someone coming and fixing just one hair was fun."
It's unlikely that Jessica will catch much of Labyrinth herself, as she doesn't own a TV. In fact, she only ever saw five episodes of Downton.
"One of my friends asked me what all my furniture points at, but I just love having the radio on and listening to music," she says.
"Don't get me wrong, I go to iPlayer and find things I want to watch, and I have guilty pleasures like Made In Chelsea, I'm not a TV snob at all. But once, when I had a day off, I found myself flicking through channels and then suddenly realised I hadn't got up for six hours. I just thought I'm completely wasting my life."
Of the Downton episodes she did see, her favourite was the one after her character, Lady Sybil, had died in childbirth. "It just felt more honest and raw. I liked seeing the characters responding in ways that felt true to them," she says.
But she's got plenty to keep her busy after Jessica Brown Lady Sybil, right, Alais, above Downton. Next she's starring in a film adaptation of the Mark Helprin's novel Winter's Tale, alongside Russell Crowe and Will Smith.
Working with Russell was intimidating, she says, "but that was good because I was meant to be scared of him as he was killing me".
She didn't get to meet Will though, much to her disappointment. "I wanted to sing Fresh Prince with him, so maybe it's a good thing we didn't meet."
In the film, she plays Beverley Penn, a dying but powerful woman, and the actress seems to have a knack for picking strong female roles.
"It's not necessarily what I look for, but it is exciting to play women who stand their ground and don't apologise for being a woman," she explains.
So far fame hasn't affected Jessica's life. She doesn't get recognised on the streets and puts that down to the difference between the flawless period drama version of herself and her everyday look. "But really," she says, "I just don't think people expect to see me in Tesco looking for loo rolls."
? Labyrinth, Channel 4, Saturday, March 30 and Sunday, March 31.
Jessica Brown Findlay as Lady Sybil, right, and Alais, above