To say that Anna Bates has had a tumultuous six-season arc on Downton Abbey would be an understatement. Between her brutal rape by a visiting valet, the trials of her husband for two murders he didn’t commit, and her many misadventures with Lady Mary, you would think the universe would finally grant her a sliver of prolonged happiness. But alas — in Sunday night’s episode, it’s revealed that Anna is trying to start a family with Mr. Bates, but a series of miscarriages have so far rendered that dream impossible. With the support of Mary they visit a doctor in London to address the problem, but like most story lines involving Anna — played with wonderful simplicity by Joanne Froggatt — there are sure to be many twists in the road ahead. Before the Golden Globe awards on Sunday, Vulture chatted with Froggatt about Anna’s strength, the show’s upstairs/downstairs relationship dynamic, and the surprising original description of Anna.
In the latest episode, Lady Mary says, “No woman living has been put through more of an emotional wringer than you.” With everything that’s happened to Anna in the past few seasons, I couldn’t agree more.
Oh, yeah. She’s had a pretty hard road, really, hasn’t she? But she always tries to be the best and tries to see the best in people, even though she has moments of darkness herself. I think that’s why I like her so much. She has overcome so many obstacles and has a kindness and class about her. She’s always trying to do the best despite some horrible circumstances.
With all of the complex story lines Anna has gone through — Bates’s murder trials, her rape, and now her quest to have a child — was there a certain plot point that proved to be particularly challenging for you as an actress?
Certainly the rape was incredibly challenging. I had to really prepare myself for that story line. I wanted it to be the best work; I wanted to give my best performance possible. I couldn’t bear the thought of somebody watching at home that had been through something like that and not believing what I was doing onscreen. That was going through my head — it could be a young teenager, an older woman, anyone who was watching. I felt it was my duty to them to do good work. It’s important to tackle those themes in drama that can be difficult, because it opens the door for communication and discussion. In general, I’ve never shied away from those sorts of roles. Obviously when we began the show, I didn’t know which direction my character would be going in; it developed beautifully.
Despite these horrible life events, Anna always manages to remain relatively compassionate and resilient. Where do you think this strength comes from?
Well, I saw her as such an inherently good person when I first read the first script. I saw her as quite angelic, in a way, but she had this amazingly strong side to her, and that’s obviously true as the show progresses. She has such a strong moral code and a strong ethical code. No matter what, she just knows how she feels — although the rest of the world may be wrong in what they’re doing or what they’re thinking, and she may have terrible things happen to her. But she has this amazing confidence in her moral code, and that’s where she gets her strength and character from.
Even though she’s a lady’s maid, Anna has forged a relationship with the Crawley family that many would see as a strong, two-way friendship. How would you define her relationship with them?
It’s still an employer-employee relationship, but Anna and Lady Mary’s relationship has developed into such a great relationship. Anna and Mary have spent hours and hours and hours together every single day. This is such a cliché example, but a hairdresser knows so much about their clients private lives, because you talk! It’s like Anna and Mary, because Anna gets her dresses, does her hair, gets her ready for the day — Mary probably spends more time with Anna than any other person in her life, possibly even more time than her husband. So, it’s not a wrong thing to say that they really have a strong friendship and bond. They have a respect for each other. Anna sees a side to Mary that Mary doesn’t show anybody else; Anna’s her confidant and vice-versa. It’s quite a sisterly relationship, really. They’re on each other’s sides and try to support one another.
Will Anna get a happy ending?
You’ll have to wait and see! [Laughs.] There are definitely ups and downs that come up along the way. It’s never plain sailing with Anna and Bates, is it? I hope people will be happy with how all of the characters are left. I think the final episode is a great final episode. And I’ll say no more than that.
Do you see any of Anna in yourself?
I hope so. I try to be a good person, certainly, but I’d probably like to have more fun than Anna does. I think I’d like to be a bit more open-minded like her. I’m honest, I’m a very loyal person, and I try to be the best person I can be, and be decent and polite. So I hope we have that in common.
What have you found yourself missing the most about the show?
The people that I work with. We’ve all become very close. We’ve all gotten to know each other so well — going from job to job, it was nice to have that Downton family.
Has your portrayal of Anna been rewarding in any ways you didn’t expect?
Oh, that’s a good question. I think it’s with the letters I’ve received from viewers about how certain story lines have affected them and touched them. The fact that people have genuinely loved and gotten real enjoyment out of the the show — and having watched shows where I felt those same feelings, I really do know how it feels — and putting those emotions into my character over the years. To be a part of something like that gives you a great sense of pride. It’s nice to feel that you brought enjoyment to people and also punched an emotional chord for somebody. It’s a beautiful thing to think about.
Were there particular letters from fans that stood out?
I got a lot of correspondences from Anna’s rape story line. That was a very moving experience. People telling me about their experiences, and teaching me things as well, some things I didn’t know. I felt very humbled by those letters and that was perhaps the most incredibly moving experience of the whole Downton experience for me. It’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Looking back, do you recall how your auditions for Anna went?
Yeah, the audition process for Downton for me was actually really simple! I went in for Anna, it was always Anna, never another character. I did one audition with Brian [Percival] and our casting director, which went really well. I really wanted it, I worked very hard on it. They knew Brendan Coyle was going to play Mr. Bates — Julian [Fellowes] had actually written the character with Brendan in mind. At one point, they wanted the character of Anna to be older, because they didn’t want so much of an age gap between them. And then I auditioned, and it took about two weeks for them to find out if I got the role or not because they couldn’t decide about the age gap. The way the characters, Mr. Bates and Anna, got together originally was much quicker; there was much more physical attraction to start with. Luckily for me, they did cast me and they changed the writing slightly. So their love story was more of a slow-burn that came about, more of them connecting on an emotional level and friendship, and all of the special things they saw in each other. I think they made it a more romantic relationship based on emotions and friendship and respect. They saw something that they thought would work and they went with it. And I love working with Brendan. Really good fun.