This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
After working as an actress for 18 years — her first role was as a teen prostitute in a 1996 episode of the long-running U.K. series The Bill — British-born Joanne Froggatt jokingly refers to herself as an overnight success. But nothing prepared her for the explosive attention she generated when her beloved Downton Abbey character, Anna Bates, was brutally raped by the evil valet Green, played by Nigel Harman, early in the show’s fourth season. Evidently, there are no lingering hard feelings, as it recently was announced that Froggatt will be starring in the U.K. premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning David Lindsay-Abaire play Rabbit Hole — directed by Harman — in London’s West End beginning in September.
How does it feel to have been at the center of Downton‘s darkest plot point ever?
An unusual distinction to have, but I’m quite honored, actually. I thought [creator] Julian Fellowes wrote the emotional journey of the character extremely well, and as an actress it was great to do something challenging in the fourth season of a show. Aside from that, I thought it was an important issue to tackle, really. And of course, it was quite a shocking thing to have happen to Anna.
How did you prepare for shooting such a traumatic story arc?
I did a lot of research on victims of sexual assault. One of the most fascinating things I found was what this might cause for a person of Anna’s social standing in the early 20th century. Much of the reaction was, “Oh, I really want Anna to tell someone; I want her to tell Mr. Bates [Brendan Coyle] so he can help her.” But you have to remember in that day and time, a woman didn’t have many rights. A working-class woman of Anna’s social background would be totally dependent on her reputation. And society would have seen it as a mark on her. It would have ruined her whole life. It would have been seen as, “Well, he’s a man; he can’t help himself.” All of these things that thank goodness in our Western society we’ve moved on from. It was only a hundred years ago, but so far away from modern thinking.
The ramifications of the rape appeared to fall more on Bates than on Anna.
Well, it was interesting to see the different reactions on the U.K. side and stateside. The reaction in the U.K. was mostly in the press, not from viewers whom I spoke to personally. Press-wise, it was about how we shouldn’t have tackled the storyline; it was too shocking and too violent, even though we didn’t show any of the actual attack. So I think the U.K. was mostly shocked by the story itself. It was interesting to see the different reaction in the States, which veered more to why we were focusing on Bates’ reaction to this as opposed to Anna’s. I think the important thing about the storyline is that it raised the question. If a drama can’t do that, it’s a sad day. I’m proud that I’ve been a small part of something that at least got people talking about a sensitive, powerful subject matter.
Fellowes has said his impetus in writing the episode the way he did was to show a sexual assault victim who would be seen as being entirely not at fault when viewed through 2014 eyes.
Right. But I heard a story from a friend whose grandmother never was able to speak about an incident until she was on her deathbed. She didn’t really give any details but said something happened when she was in service, there was alcohol involved and a man in a room. She’d never spoken of it but always felt ashamed. Those were all the details she gave. It’s so difficult for victims of sexual attacks to come forward even now. It just makes you wonder how many women suffered this sort of ordeal and were never able to speak of it.
Did you get personal feedback from viewers on the rape storyline?
I got a letter from a woman who was raped when she was young but never came forward. She felt nobody would believe her. She thanked Julian for writing the storyline and me for the way I played it. She felt for the first time that she wasn’t alone after watching Anna’s story. If one person felt like that, then I totally stand behind what we did.
How far are you now into shooting season five?
Just about halfway. We finish filming at the end of August. I haven’t seen all of the scripts yet, but nearly all. Some things from season four carry over into season five. It’s not just resolved and they move forward with their lives. They’re still struggling to deal with what’s happened to Anna. It doesn’t simply resolve and disappear.
And it’s safe to say that Bates is now guilty of murdering the rapist?
(Laughs.) Well, I couldn’t possibly comment on that! But time will tell.