Jessica Brown Findlay on Playing Harlots’ Top Courtesan and Why the Media Won’t Let Her Escape Lady Sybil Crawley

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“1763. London is booming,” reads the opening title card of Hulu’s newest series, Harlots. “And one in five women makes a living selling sex.” That’s the basic premise of this pastel-infused romp of a “whore’s eye view” drama, which follows the scathing battle between two brothel owners — both serving different social classes and clientele — as they attempt to scheme their way to the top of London’s very in-demand brothel business. But besides the central madame-on-madame drama, arguably the heart of the series is Jessica Brown Findlay’s complex portrayal of Charlotte, the daughter of one of the owners, who manages to climb up the social ranks to a more comfortable life as a popular upper-class courtesan. Life at the top, though, isn’t as glamorous as it may appear to be. Speaking from a London bus en route to her theater production of Hamlet (she’s currently starring as Ophelia) Findlay spoke to Vulture about her “alienated” role, what it’s like to shoot sex scenes, and why the media can’t seem to move past her time on Downton Abbey.

Right off the bat, I was immediately impressed that the show’s entire creative team was comprised of women. Did this make you want to do Harlots more, or do you think you would’ve done it anyway if it was more creatively male-skewing?
It’s hard to answer that, I suppose, because I feel it would’ve been a very different beast and a very different thing if it involved men. The more I read it, the more I got to know the people involved, the more I loved it. Going forward, as I was doing the job, the atmosphere and the empowering energy was something I’ve never experienced before. It’s deemed high-risk when there’s a primarily female-dominated and produced piece. I have no idea how I would’ve thought if it had been different because I honestly do feel it would’ve been an entirely different show. It definitely made the whole experience really special.

When you first got the script, was there any reluctance on your end regarding the subject matter?
I suppose some kind of caution should always be placed to make sure what the subject is and what direction a show is going in. You wouldn’t be telling the story efficiently for Harlots if you didn’t tell the more difficult sides of that subject — the sex, the grimmer aspects, you name it. As it goes forward, it really delves into that. To be honest, I actually spoke with the show’s director and the showrunner, sat down with both of them, and had a big, long chat. I asked them a lot of questions. Because I did love the script, but I wanted to make sure and know what they were wanting from it. The conversation just meant that I felt really safe, really quickly. You’re giving your own choices.

And the entire series is shot from a female gaze, which I imagine was a major selling point.
Definitely. In the way certain things are done, and how things are referenced. When you see what women on the show are doing, you’re just like, yeah, I get that. [Laughs.]

When I was talking with a colleague who also watched the show, we both agreed that Harlots is like a hypersexual version of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in terms of its tone and style. I was wondering how you viewed the show’s overall aesthetic.
I love that comparison, I agree. It’s playful; it’s allowed to be bright and colorful because these women, and what they wanted to give out, was appealing because they were somehow classified as “other.” They weren’t in the world of their parents, being wives and making children. These women are for having fun with. It doesn’t always mean it’s fun, though. I thought it was really energetic and there was a lot of energy about it. There was a huge economic boom happening in London at the time, and so many different materials and buildings were cropping up everywhere. A whole city was growing. We wanted to capture that energy and the sense of “this is the new.” A lot of these people their age were like, yeah, this is changing, and we’re part of that. It was a lot of fun to wear massive powdered wigs. Here’s a fun fact: Everyone in that era knew they were wigs, so they didn’t have to make it look like it was real hair. You could have three different wigs a day, because everyone wore them. It was very playful; the natural look wasn’t very in.

Oh god, how much hairspray did your wigs require?
It took a lot of maintenance. [Laughs.] I tended to forget that when the wigs were on, I was a foot and a half taller than my normal height. So getting in and out of doorways was quite funny.

Your character, who’s described as “the queen of pretend,” was born into pretty grim circumstances before climbing up the social ladder to become a highly sought-after courtesan. The other women in her mother’s brothel, though, aren’t so lucky. How do you think Charlotte was able to boost herself into a more comfortable life?
Well, she starting working when she was 12 and got sold to someone very high up. So her level of clientele has always been very high. I think her mom took a big risk with her, and that was a success. And then she was kept in good favor with certain people for a long time in a certain world. But it also alienated her from her roots as well. She doesn’t really belong anywhere now. She doesn’t belong in the world she’s currently staying in, and then when she goes home, she looks so out of place. She struggles with the fact that there’s no real home for her.

I’m curious if you think Charlotte harbors any resentment toward her mother for pushing her into a career of prostitution. Because in some scenes, Charlotte is clearly thriving in and enjoying her upper-class life, but in others, she’s slapping her mother and making her feel guilty for the circumstances.
Charlotte has gotten herself into a situation where she can sign a contract and be “safe” for the rest of her life with a wealthy man with status, and she won’t sign it away. She loves the freedom that she used to have, and now she doesn’t really have her mother for guidance. Her mom guided her into what Charlotte feels is a corner, and now she’s beginning to grow skeptical of it. If she signs herself away, that means she’s as locked down as a married woman would be. If she goes out or talks to someone or looks at someone in the wrong way, her life could be in jeopardy. That’s what she’s angry about. I think she looks at Lucy, and sees how protective her mom is of Lucy, and wishes someone had done that for her a little bit more.

But at the same time, if you go to hug Charlotte, she will bite you. She’s so down that road of self-protection. Those walls that she’s built around her are quite impenetrable and has allowed her to do what she does. It’s more complicated than being jealous or being annoyed or resentful of her mom or sister. She knows in a way that she’s got it good, but she also feels trapped in her life. There isn’t anything else she can really do, or she feels like there isn’t, anyway, because of how notorious she is. If she stopped doing what she’s doing, everyone would know. If she married someone, everyone would know. Not that marriage is what she wants at all, though. She just feels that she’s been born into this career and there’s no changing it now.

I think it’s fair to say that when people hear a series is about prostitution or sex work, they have a preconceived notion into what type of narrative to expect. With that in mind, what do you think the biggest misconception of Harlots is?
I think people sometimes don’t realize how much depth there is with the companionship of women and how diverse it can be — they can be on fire one minute, they can be really angry with each other or betrayed, and then make up in no time. These relationships run really deep and are very complicated, and that’s all buzzing underneath the water of what on the surface might look very pretty or look fun. Underneath it there’s so much more going on. Maybe people think it’s more lighthearted than it is.

The other unique thing I noticed is that sex scenes aren’t particularly lewd, and sometimes, they’re even humorous. There’s nothing gratuitous about them.
Yeah, I thought that was awesome.

And you have quite a few sex scenes peppered throughout the series. Do you have a trick to make those scenes easier or more fun?
Communication with each other is most important, as is working with directors who make you feel safe and valued. Making sure that you have breaks when you need and want to. At the same time, the way that the sex is portrayed is … you don’t need to laugh through it all the time. Some of those scenes go to very dark places, and with that it’s more about feeling safe and having communication, which is why it not being gratuitous was so important. There are many, many forms of situations in which sex happens, so I think it’s important to make sure it’s not glossed over or make it seem lighter than they are. The whole way through, all of us actresses spoke to each other all the time and when people had a sex scene, we would be like, good luck! They’re never sexy to shoot but they can be made to be quite funny. As long as you feel safe, that’s the biggest thing.

A few years ago, you were pretty vocal about feeling “owned” by Downton Abbey despite a few years passing since you exited the series. Do you still feel that way now?
I think it boils down to the way social media and the media references people, not just myself but with other actors, too. I find it’s far more common with women. With men, the media will often have their name, and in a bracket next to their name there will be one or two things that they might be best known as. But with women, they really like to pick something and decide that’s the way in which they’re going to be referenced. So for me, it’s always “Downton Abbey, Jessica Brown Findlay.” It’s always followed me. I’ve always felt, what a strange way to reference a human being in 2017. [Laughs.] Perhaps it’s more to do with achievement and being in something that’s associated as one of many things that you’ve accomplished in your career. But really, they want to tie you down to something and define you by one role. And they never really let you grow beyond that. People shouldn’t be tied down to one role based on their gender or their sexuality. It’s like they want to put you into a little box that you fit into, which they want you to fit into, and keep you there. I think a world without boxes is a far better place. You can explore and keep your own identity. I love what I do, and I’m also just myself. I feel quite strongly about it.

That’s a really interesting perspective.
It is interesting. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe you have to do ten years more work before you get your name back. [Laughs.] We’ll see.

Jessica Brown Findlay on Harlots and Lady Sybil Crawley