Joanne Froggatt won a Golden Globe for her role as Anna Bates on "Downton Abbey" at the 72nd annual ceremony Sunday night. She dedicated the award to survivors who had reached out to her following the disturbing episode in which her character was raped. "I'd just like to say, 'I heard you,'" she said, recognizing the "great responsibility" she carried in handling that storyline.
When it first aired in the U.K., many viewers were shocked that Julian Fellowes' typically prim and proper period piece would include such a violent representation of sexual assault. In the States, Anna's arc received criticism for focusing on male perspectives (i.e. the eternally brooding Mr. Bates) rather than grappling with her healing process in the months that followed.
Now in its fifth season, Anna's rape is far from forgotten. During the most recent episode aired for American viewers, a police officer visited the estate to speak with Bates (presumably about the mysterious death of Anna's attacker, Mr. Green). Following her win, HuffPost Entertainment spoke with Froggatt to discuss how she handled Anna's rape storyline throughout the initial attack and its aftermath, which has yet to reach anything resembling a conclusion.
How did you feel about this storyline when it was first presented?
I felt a big responsibility to do my best work, to do the best job I possibly can and make it as believable as I possibly can. I’ve played a number of characters going through sensitive subject matter in my career. I know there are people watching at home, and I bear the responsibility of sharing this moment with them.
What was performing the initial attack like for you? It seemed like the type of thing that couldn’t be rehearsed over and over again -- or, at least, would be emotionally exhausting to rehearse over and over again.
I think there are times when a scene just has to be reactive, emotional and spontaneous. There’s so much to rehearse. For certain scenes, you really need to do that. But occasionally, these scenes come along that just have to be raw. In my mind, anyway, that’s how I approached it. As opposed to in the aftermath of Anna dealing with it, she’s not thinking anything through in that moment [of her attack]. She’s just reacting. And if I decide a scene is a raw, emotional scene, it is nerve-racking doing those. For me, I just sort of go for it on the take. I try to prepare myself mentally and emotionally, but I don’t like to rehearse those scenes too much.
Were you able to capture it in just a few takes then?
We did a few takes, just for Julian to get the shot. To be honest, “Downton” is usually on a tight schedule. We don’t usually do a lot of takes. I think we probably did two or three for that scene.
In handling the aftermath, what kind of research did you do in regard to how a woman of Anna’s status might have coped with rape?
Speaking to our historical advisor Alastair Bruce was incredible for me. We obviously did a lot of research into rape and rape victims and women’s reactions after having such an experience. Having to put it into context in the 1920s is the part I found difficult to search out. Alastair Bruce reminded me that basically for a woman, at that time, all the working class woman had was her reputation.
How did that awareness inform your role?
If she lost her reputation, she would lose everything: her job, her family -- which, in Anna’s case, would be Mr. Bates. If society would have found out what happened to her, unfortunately, her reputation would have been tarnished. Western society is completely different now, but that is why Anna shuts down completely after what happened to her, and actually was tries to cope with it on her own. That’s what really stuck with me, that lack of choice that is only 100 years old.
Much of the way the show handled the aftermath was through male perspectives. Why do you think those focal points were used in place of Anna’s point of view?
For women in service, that's how it happens. And it happened a great deal for women in these positions at the hands of men from all walks of life. After this story line, a friend of mine told me that his grandmother had this kind of thing happen to her when she was in service. She just kind of touched on the fact that it happened to her. It was her and a man in a room, and she never told anybody. All of those things I found incredibly sad. For Anna, she wants to be able to ask Bates to help her, but she feels she can't. These women didn't have a voice. We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go as well.
The heartbreaking scene where Mrs. Hughes comes in and finds Anna after the attack was one of the few scenes on the show where you have two characters really breaking past the intense social constraints of the time. What was that like?
There have only been two scenes in the whole series of "Downton" like that. One is when Bates is sentenced to death for the murder of his wife, where I had a moment in court and just let out a scream. And then obviously Anna's rape and that scene afterwards. Those are the only two things in my story that have included those raw, reactive scenes. There's so much that you're not allowed to say. Everything is sort of skirted around, but those two moments break out of all that. They are just moments of emotion.
In every other scene, when you do have to work within those constraints, how do you work to process the nuance and subtlety required for Anna to express herself?
It's actually been a really wonderful experience. I think of it as: what you're saying is never what you're actually saying [laughs]. I mean, Mary and Anna are pretty candid with each other, they have honest conversations. And, of course, Mr. Bates and Anna. But from the start, with their relationship forming, neither of them were ever saying what they were really feeling. You know, Anna brings him food when he is first leaving the estate, and what she's really saying is, "I care about you. Are you okay? I wish you weren't going." It's actually really nice. It gives you a different sort of artistic input as an actor. There are scenes that are straightforward, but often it's all underneath the line. It's really fun to play those.
You and Brendan Coyle [Mr. Bates] have worked together from the start. Is it easier to handle that subtlety within the context of your relationship now that you've both been through so much torture at the hands of Julian Fellowes?
Yes, absolutely! Brendan and I really have a shorthand now. It was such an easy working relationship from the start. We'd never met each other before. We had a chat through our scenes, and as soon as we started talking, we were totally on the same page. We had the same ideas of what we wanted the relationship to be. We had the same references for how we wanted the relationship to move forward. "Will they or won't they?" is a very difficult thing to get together, and we just had so much fun working through it. He's a fantastic actor and he's so supportive.
This interview has been edited and condensed.