Downton Abbey actress Kate Phillips is really good in a corset.
Since making her onscreen debut in the BBC’s 2015 miniseries Wolf Hall (alongside Damian Lewis and Claire Foy) while still in drama school, the English actress has enjoyed roles in some of the most prestigious period dramas out there: War and Peace, The Crown. Landing the role of Princess Mary in the upcoming Downton Abbey movie is no exception. Luckily, Phillips has gotten used to acting in restricting costumes.
From its third season until present time, Phillips has also played the role of Linda Shelby on the BBC’s massively-popular crime drama Peaky Blinders. With the show’s fifth season (premieres Oct. 4) set to take her character in new directions and two more series on deck, the period-pro actress is most certainly one to watch. Ahead of the release of the Downton Abbey feature film (Sept. 20), EW chatted with Phillips about learning from the best in the business, joining the Peaky Blinders family, and watching, in awe, costar Maggie Smith.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s crazy that your first television or film role was on such a huge project like Wolf Hall. How did that come about?
KATE PHILLIPS: Wolf Hall was my first-ever audition. I was completely green to the whole experience and I remember reaching out to the one person in my year group who had ever done an audition and he gave me some tips as to how to attack the whole situation. It’s amazing to think how naive we were to the whole industry when we were at drama school. I met with Robert Sterne [casting director] and about a month or two later he called me in again to meet with the director Peter Kosminsky. To this day, I am so grateful to Peter and to Robert for casting me; it was a great first job and the most amazing experience, but also I know that it changed everything for me. My journey into this industry would be very different had I not had that job. I really feel like Peter really took a chance on me and I’m really grateful to him for that.
Was it daunting walking on to that set with such established actors like Claire Foy and Damain Lewis?
It was totally daunting. It was a huge ensemble cast. There was another guy in my year that was cast in it too, so we kind of held each other’s hand and there was lots of young actors in it too so I felt like from the off it was a really warm and welcoming company. I was really excited and overwhelmed… Everyone was really encouraging of each other. I certainly think that you learn a lot off your first job; you learn how you want to be as an actor from the people that you’re working with, so there were some wonderful role models on the job.
You joined Peaky Blinders in 2016 in its third season — was that a similar feeling coming onto an established show?
I was nervous to walk into a world that was already well established, on a show that I was a massive fan of beforehand. By the time you see Linda in season 3, she’s already built a relationship with Arthur (Paul Anderson), so it’s not like she’s just met him and you see that relationship develop on screen. There’s already been two years worth of context, none of which we really had time to discuss and work out. You kind of have to jump straight in and assume that whole world that’s gone before. I remember my first day on set we were doing night shoots and I was brought in to get hair and makeup and clothes and sit tentatively in my trailer. Then I was brought on set in the evening to meet Cillian [Murphy] and Paul and it was dark. It was kind of a crazy, surreal experience. I was introduced to Paul and we shook hands and it was like, Cool, you’re playing my husband. The director was like, Great, let’s see what happens, and walked away. But it was lovely and both actors were just so generous and kind, very open.
Can you tease anything about what’s to come for Linda on season 5?
Not everyone’s that fond of Linda. I wonder how they’ll receive her journey this season. She’s on a bit of a different path — that’s all I can really say.
Okay, let’s talk about Downton Abbey. Were you a fan of the TV show before you were cast?
Yes, absolutely. I watched it at home with my family and then when I was away at university with friends. I kind of enjoyed it through my growing-up ages and at different stages of my life. I loved it.
What did you love about your character Princess Mary? And was there a sense of responsibility there since you’re playing a real person?
I felt really drawn towards Mary. I felt really connected to her from the offset. She’s a very kind, but quite detached figure. She’s quite shy. People talk about her in the film as quite a sad person; she’s married to a man that, besides horses, she has very little in common with, and like the royal family today, she’s very duty bound. The royal family of that day really understood their responsibility to king and country and that affected everything they did. It was amazing to play this part because you have a sense of, this is a real person and you’ve got to honor her presence. It was really great because there’s a guy called Alastair Bruce who’s the historical advisor on Downton — he’s been on the show from the offset, I imagine — and he sort of knows the royal family and how they would’ve behaved and what would’ve been expected of them. He sat me down and said, “This is how they would’ve sat, this is how they stand and move.” I was really struck by how the physical aspects of Mary really affected how I approached her. I suddenly discovered this cool and rehearsed exterior with this world of quiet suffering underneath it all. It was amazing to start from the outside and work in.
The scene with Allen Leech on the bench was a nice window into her character. How was that to shoot?
I think that was the first scene that I shot. It was really an epic moment because that morning I walked towards the gorgeous Highclere Castle — which is such an imposing image — and I had a real shivery experience of walking alone towards the building to shoot my scene and I couldn’t believe that I was doing Downton. It was crazy! Also, the view from that bench is breathtakingly beautiful, so the whole experience of sitting on that bench was very memorable. Allen’s gorgeous and just very lovely to work with, but what’s lovely about that scene is that it’s through this encounter with Allen Leech’s character that you get to see something of this woman: she’s got a great inner strength, she’s got a twinkle and strength and charisma. It’s a really cleverly-devised scene in order to get to see something of this royal that you wouldn’t otherwise have seen.
Okay, we have to talk about Dame Maggie Smith. Was it everything and more?
She is just such a hero. It was amazing to watch her work. She just exudes charisma and she’s just effortless with her work. Just watching her do her thing was amazing. It was really kind of really beautiful to sit there and be a part of a show they’ve all been part of for so many years. It’s just so heartwarming. I think it really hits the spot.
What do you have coming up next?
Currently, I’m working on a project called Miss Scarlet and The Duke which is an A&E production that’s going to air in the states on PBS. It’s one of the most exciting projects. It’s a Victorian drama about a female detective trying to make it in London in a man’s world. It’s got so much charm and humor and we’ve just had the most fun time. We’re wrapping it up in a week and I think I’ll be really happy to take some time off. It’s been really full-on but it’s been amazing.