Joanne Froggatt is trading in her maid’s uniform for a poisonous teapot. The actress, who captured hearts as kindly ladies’ maid Anna on Downton Abbey, is shedding her sweet image and going dark (and brunette) for her latest role. Froggatt takes on the life of Mary Ann Cotton, the true story of Britain’s first female serial killer, in the new Masterpiece series Dark Angel, premiering Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (it aired in Britain on ITV last fall).
Directed by Brian Percival (Downton Abbey) and written by Gwyneth Hughes (The Girls), the two-hour mini-series, based on a book by criminologist David Wilson, dramatizes the story of the notorious Victorian poisoner. Using arsenic and an unsuspecting teapot as her murder weapons of choice, Cotton killed somewhere between 13 and 21 people before her crimes were discovered, vastly outranking her more famous male counterpart Jack the Ripper.
Beginning with her first husband, Cotton collects life insurance on her intended victims and sinks further into a web of murder and lies as she strives to use her dark secret to build a better life for herself. EW spoke with Froggatt, who talked about switching gears to play a murderess, what attracts her to period pieces, and the psychology of female serial killers.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a huge departure for Downton fans who are used to seeing you as the kind-hearted Anna. Was that intentional when you were choosing to do it or something that particularly drew you to the role?
JOANNE FROGGATT: People kept saying to me when we were finishing off the last series of Downton, they just kept saying, “What do you want to do next?” And I kept jokingly saying, “Oh, I don’t know, something completely different like playing a murderer or something.” And then lo and behold, the script for Dark Angel just sort of landed on my door, and I was like, “Oh, well, here it is. Here’s what I’ve been saying I wanted to do and it’s here.” So I sort of had to put my money where my mouth was. I just thought Gwyneth Hughes had done such a fantastic job with it. It was such a page-turner. It’s quite a difficult feat to have a protagonist in a story that does such terrible things, and the trick is, “Why do do we want to watch her? And why do we want to know what happens to her?” … It threw up a lot of questions — whether she would’ve behaved that way if she was born in our times and she had the luxury of birth control and education and a career, or was she just a psychopath and would she have always done those terrible things?
Another way this was different for you from Downton was you got to play a character who was a real person. How, if at all, did that change your approach to and preparation for the role? And were there things you discovered that maybe weren’t foregrounded in the script but you wanted to be sure to include in your characterization?
I love true stories — that’s a real passion of mine. I really like playing real people — or just real, true stories because they’re often more unbelievable than fiction actually. I think if somebody had wrote Mary Ann’s story as a piece of fiction, we’d all go, “Really? No, I don’t think she would’ve done all that in such a short space of time.” But she did. In fact, there’s stuff we didn’t include in the show because we didn’t have enough time. … When you’re playing a real person, depending on who it is, it’s a different way to research. There’s often more research at hand. But you also have, depending on who the person is, you have some artistic license. If it’s somebody who is very famous, then obviously you have to do what people will be expecting, which is the characteristics and the accent and the voice of somebody that they know and love, which is a different sort of challenge. Somebody like Mary Ann — she’s not famous, not even in England. We know what area in England she was from, but we don’t know exactly how she spoke or how she seemed as a person. So it’s quite nice to have that freedom, but at the same time have a lot of research to go on as well. So I did a lot of research on her and then a lot of research on psychopaths in general and serial killers in general, like the differences between male and female serial killers, and just tried to build up a picture and a character that worked for our story.
What are some of the major differences you found between male and female serial killers?
There’s an overwhelmingly larger number of male serial killers than there are female serial killers. There are very few females in comparison. But the general differences are that male serial killers usually murder for sexual gratification, and they usually prefer very visceral methods of murder, very messy, very gory. Women usually kill for social or financial gain. They choose very neat and tidy methods like poisoning or overdoses or smothering, and that sort of was an interesting comparison that the women are tidier than the men even in serial killer world. Mary Ann very much fitted into that mold. She murdered for social and financial gain, and she chose neat and tidy methods. So, that was quite fascinating, why that would be in itself. And also, female serial killers don’t usually start murdering until they’re in their 30s whereas men start much younger. Mary Ann completely fits into that because she murdered her first husband when she was in her early 30s, I think she was 32 or 33. But she’d been married to him for 14 years, so she certainly didn’t marry him planning on murdering him in 14 years time. So it’s like, what happens at that age? It’s an interesting concept to wonder — why is that? Why do they wait? Is it brewing away all that time? It’s fascinating subject matter.
You have a nice little treat for Downton fans in here – you get to work with Thomas Howes (William Mason, the footman, on seasons 1 and 2) again. What was it like reconnecting with him on set and having the chance to work together again?
Oh, it was great. Thomas is so lovely. Brian Percival directed Dark Angel — he was our first director on Downton so he set up Downton. Brian called me and went, “What do you think about Thomas Howes? Do you think it’s going to be too Downton-y?” And I was like, “Oh my god, no, he’d be the perfect George.” He’s like, “That’s what I think too.” And it was brilliant, it was lovely to work with Thomas again. He’s just so much fun. And he’s brilliant in it as well. So, it was great, it was lovely. I’d worked with Jonas Armstrong before, who plays Mary Ann’s main love interest Joe, and I’d obviously worked with Thomas before, so it’s nice to have a few people that you’ve already got that relationship with. It means you have a shortcut when you get on set.
One thing that really stood out to me was that no matter how “evil” Mary Ann got, I always felt empathy for her in her situation. She’s horrible, but we see her motives and psychology throughout.
Good, that was what we were hoping for.
In your approach to her, did you feel you came to understand every time she did something?
I felt for her when I read the script, so Gwyneth definitely had that in her script, and then, it was my job to come and make more of that. Because I read the script, and I’m thinking, “God, why am I rooting for this woman that’s doing terrible things?” That’s what was interesting about it for me. As a viewer, there needs to be something in there that you are trying to understand or that you want to understand. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with the way a person’s behaving, but you have to want to know more about them to watch the show. It’s that tricky balance of, how do we elevate that for the screen and make her a watchable person? Brian and I did a week of rehearsal, and we did an intensive week of really getting to the bottom of who she was and who she is in our story and wanting her to be four-dimensional and not wanting her to be this “muahaha” evil character. The first half of the story, you do feel sorry for her because she’s doing nothing wrong and the world seems against her and life is against her and the time she’s living in is against her. And even when she murders her first husband, you almost feel sorry for her because you see how torn she is and the trauma of her doing it. You feel like it’s her only way out. After that, she sort of loses some of her humanity … And then she goes really down the rabbit hole. But now that we’re involved with her, we still want to know why she’s gone down the rabbit hole.
For all the things you have the opportunity to judge Mary Ann for, her unapologetic sexual appetite and desire isn’t one of them. Why do you think that’s so rarely portrayed in this way? And was that another aspect of this story that meant a lot to you and attracted you to the project?
After doing my research on psychopaths, that is another trait of psychopaths and serial killers. Psychopaths especially, they’re very promiscuous because they don’t have the same emotional connection with sex as some other people do. … Also, for her story, it was important. It’s how she uses everything in her power to get what she can out of life and one of her powers is being a woman and being seductive. That’s what she did — she seduced men for financial gain or to marry, and then insured their lives and then killed them off just to find a better life for herself. A lot of it was about wanting respect from society really. So, it’s an important part of her character, it’s an important part of who she was.
You talked a little bit about how much of the things she does stem from her desperation given women’s place and power in the world at the time that she’s living. Given where we currently are, why is that an important story to tell at this time?
Well, we have to remember where we’ve come from as a society to not repeat the things that we shouldn’t repeat and to improve the things that we should. Without getting into the specifics of politics of the world at the moment, there’s definitely a feeling among myself and people that I speak to, my friends and family, we feel a little bit like we’re possibly going backwards with our views in our society. The world seems to be stepping ever so slightly back in time and that’s a worrying prospect. We must always be vigilant about moving forward and not repeating mistakes of the past for all minority groups – whether it be women or racially or whether it be for the LGBT community or whatever those minority groups are. It’s important to keep moving forward and keep moving society forward. Hopefully stuff like Dark Angel is a reminder of how bad things were, and obviously, we’re living in different times now and how women had a life then compared to opportunities we have now in the Western world. Times have changed a great deal, thank goodness. But there are still parts of the world that women struggle to have those opportunities, and that’s something we can remember as well.
So as a Brit, I assume you probably do your fair share of tea drinking. And actually, much to my dismay, while I was watching this, I was having a cup of tea.
[Laughs] I know, that’s my new thing now. Everyone’s like, “I’m not getting you to make the tea.”
Some people say they watch Psycho and then they don’t take a shower for a little while. Did this put you off tea for any period of time?
It didn’t put me off tea because I love green tea. I completely drink green tea all the time. But when it aired in the U.K., I did have a lot of comments from people on social media saying, “I’m not getting the wife to make the tea now.” It seems to have stuck as the new mantra.
You’ve played a woman in the Edwardian era through the 1920s and now a Victorian lady. Do you prefer one time period to the other?
I did like the Victorian period actually. I liked playing the role in that time. I loved the costumes of the Victorian era. I liked the look of the Victorian era, it’s maybe just slightly got the edge on the Edwardian era for me.
Particularly for you in terms of what you were wearing…
Well, yeah, in Downton, I was in a maid’s outfit, so I guess you can’t really compare the two in terms of that. It was great to have all the costume changes on Dark Angel and have that real sort of rags to riches back to rags again. It was great because it was so important for her journey as well to show her different statuses through her social climbing and her social fall from grace.
Do you prefer period drama to contemporary? Or what is it that draws you to those type of projects?
I don’t think I prefer it. I love doing both. I’ve got a new project coming out in September called Liar, which is very contemporary, and it’s a six-part thriller mini-series with me and Ioan Gruffudd. It’s going to be on Sundance TV in the States and ITV in England in September. So, it just depends on the character and script really. It just all comes down to first, if it’s a great script, and I like a character with a real journey. I like to play roles that have this big journey to go on and that you can do something interesting with. That feel creative and challenging. So Dark Angel certainly had all of those things.
What was the most challenging or difficult aspect of Dark Angel?
It was, to start with, getting my head around how she thinks. Because I’m a person with a lot of empathy, I hope, which is probably why I do what I do. She doesn’t have that, and so I had to really change my thought process for Mary Ann. Because getting inside her head was the key to making sense of her and how she feels devastated at the loss of control in her life or if things don’t go her way. But the day-to-day things that healthy people get upset about or may feel empathy for others for, she doesn’t. She doesn’t really feel empathy for others. It’s all about her. And so that was the sort of key. When I caught onto that, I was like, “Okay, now I can find out who she is.” But it took me a little while to sort of go, “Why, why is she doing these things? And why is she behaving in this way?” Once I’d done some research and decided, okay, right, she’s just wired in a different way and I have to play that; for her, thought processes are different. Then it sort of all fell into place.
And the most enjoyable aspect of it?
I loved playing her manipulation. I just loved her being so manipulative. It was so fun. I enjoyed it way more than I expected to or probably than I should’ve done. But it was fun to play somebody who was really playing people, using their strengths and weaknesses to get her own way. That was fun.