An Ever-Enduring Spirit: Interview with Mr. Selfridge's Aisling Loftus

By , Contributor

John Rogers/ITV Studios for MASTERPIECE

It was a day just like any other in the early 1900s, when the pretty and soft-spoken Agnes Towler arrived at the stuffy London department store where she worked as a salesgirl. As she tended to her counter, an American, Mr. Harry Gordon Selfridge, turned up and asked to see a pair of gloves. It was an innocent and simple enough request, but Agnes had no idea that it would end up getting her fired and changing her life forever.

As one proverbial door closed, another opened for her as well as for actress Aisling Loftus, who was thrilled to find out that she had booked the role of Agnes in the popular British TV drama series Mr. Selfridge.

“The audition process for the character was actually a fairly short one,” recalls Loftus. “The casting director, Kate Rhodes James, who had cast me in a previous project, sent me just a few scenes from Mr. Selfridge because they weren’t initially releasing that much about it. All we had to go on was that it was going to be a big production by ITV here in the UK and Andrew Davies was the head writer [and one of the show’s executive producers]. That immediately signaled good things, and I’m a big fan of Andrew Davies, which made it even more enticing.

“So I went in to read for the Agnes role and met with producer Chrissy Skins as well as the casting director and the director [Jon Jones] of the first two episodes. We spoke a little bit about the character, including my take on her, and I read the few scenes I’d been given. Honestly, I thought I had completely messed things up and I was really upset about it afterwards because this was something I felt very strongly about and a role I’d love to play. A couple of weeks later, though, I received a phone call offering me the part. Here I was, having pretty much assumed when I left the audition room that that was the last thing I would hear about it. I guess, though, I fitted what they wanted in Agnes, so it was a delightful surprise for me.”

Currently airing Sunday nights as part of Masterpiece Classic on PBS, Mr. Selfridge tells the story of the gregarious, somewhat larger-than-life and visionary entrepreneur Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven). After transforming Chicago’s Marshall Fields into a modern department store, Harry comes to London intent not only to build the world’s biggest and best department store, but also revolutionize the way that customers, especially women, shop. Having booked the part of Agnes, what sticks out most in Loftus’ mind about her first day on set.

“The fact that is was very cold,” she says with a laugh. “We shot all the scenes that took place in Agnes’s flat, the set for which is in the dingiest corner of the studio. Although it was absolutely freezing, I had this nervous energy and was totally oblivious to the cold, to the point that I didn’t even realize that my feet had gone numb until I was taking off my shoes at the end of the day.

“It was all such an adrenaline rush on that first day of meeting the rest of the cast and seeing how beautiful the sets and costumes were. It was just an awful lot bigger than I think I originally imagined it was going to be, and we all couldn’t wait to start telling this story.”

Harry Selfridge’s exuberance and unconventional ideas of what the shopping experience should be is what led to Agnes to being fired. When she found out that he was planning to open his own store, Agnes went to his London home to inquire about a job. Harry immediately saw the potential in her and hired Agnes as part of his sale staff at Selfridges. That was the start of a big transformation for Agnes, and Loftus was looking forward to tagging along for the ride.

“I’m a huge fan of [the American TV series] Mad Men, and I especially adore Peggy Olson [Elizabeth Moss], and someone has since described in a news piece about Mr. Selfridge that Agnes is, perhaps, Peggy Olson’s great grandma,” notes the actress. “I thought that was the best thing I’d ever heard, and I suppose the reason I’m making the comparison is that initially Peggy is quite trodden upon and meek. She doesn’t know what she wants, or at least doesn’t know the right way to go about getting it. Peggy gets thrown into this world that she’s not equipped to deal with and consequently makes some bad judgments.

“Her bad judgments are probably very different in the 1950s from those that Agnes can make in 1910, but I love that Agnes begins her story in much the same way as Peggy. My character doesn’t have a very clear sense of herself or at least what she could be, and where Peggy obviously ends up, and where I feel to some extent Agnes ends up by the end of the [first] season is similar. She develops a real sense of her identity as well as a real sense of ambition and a dignity in that ambition.

“Within the context of 1910 London, a working class girl like Agnes needed to survive,” continues Loftus. “She needed to make money and do it in a respectable fashion, but she couldn’t expect much more out of life. Back then, the ordinary person's sense of ambition wasn’t like it is today, where there’s more of a ‘me’ culture. It’s like you deserve to get to the top of your tree, and you deserve the best and you owe it to yourself, whereas in Agnes’s time it was more a matter of you needed to survive.

“So I liked that Agnes was under Mr. Selfridge’s guidance and kind of influence. Because of that, she starts to carve out a bit of a different path for herself than she could have ever expected to follow otherwise. Again, Agnes starts off with quite low expectations of herself, her life and, I think, of men, actually. However, as the episodes go on, her world becomes a much bigger place, and the world at large becomes a much bigger place, too. No longer is she going to just sit back and take the pain and be beaten down. Instead, Agnes can now take from her experiences and learn and grow from them.

“At the start of the series, the closest men in Agnes’ life are her father, Reg Towler [Nick Moran], who’s very abusive, psychologically as well as physically, and her brother George [Callum Callaghan], for whom she’s very much a maternal figure. There aren’t a lot of male figures in her life that are anything more than I suppose in some ways parasitic, in terms of her dad, or in her brother’s case, dependent on Agnes. However, Harry Selfridge and Henri Leclair [Gregory Fitoussi] treat her as a valuable asset in terms of who she is, rather than just a woman who can be manipulated or abused to some extent.”

Although she was hired to work at Selfridges as a salesgirl in the accessories department, Agnes’s business sense along with her attentive and caring way with the customers and her imaginative spirit soon set her apart from her fellow workers. She is recruited by Henri Leclair, head of the store’s creative department, to help him develop a perfume for the ordinary woman. Agnes also provides the finishing touch for one of Henri’s store window displays. Meanwhile, Agnes catches the eye of Victor Colleano (Trystan Gravelle), a waiter in the store’s posh restaurant. All these positive relationships have a significant impact on the growth of Agnes as a character.

“Victor is very much someone who Agnes probably would have come across at some point in her life,” says Loftus. “I realize it might sound negative and it’s not meant to, but he is a very realistic prospect in terms of someone with whom she could have a happy life and children and that whole domestic set-up. Victor is from the same world as Agnes, and he has the same take on the world that she does. I suppose they’re kindred spirits in the sense that they both have ambition above what life has kind of led them to believe that they can achieve.

“So Victor and Agnes both have ambition but they’re also from the same stock and very much working class people, whereas Harry Selfridge and Henri Leclair are exotic ‘creatures’ that Agnes would never have met were it not for getting a job at Selridges. She would never have come across a bohemian spirit like Henri, or someone as vivacious and tenacious as Harry because he’s very much one of a kind. He’s sort of like a panther that has come to London and someone who no one has really seen before, at least not up close.

“Agnes is initially in awe of both of them, but as she gets to know Henri she starts to fall for him in less of an infatuation type of way and more of really deeply falling for him. As for Harry, her respect for him just grows and grows, and he’s very much a figure in her eyes to aspire to. He’s also quite paternal towards Agnes throughout the season. Harry sees how talented she could be and decides to take the risk and invest in that to try to get her to be all she can be.

“One of my favorite scenes from Mr. Selfridge is the first episode and between Agnes and Mr. Selfridge. My character is in a very desperate situation, but really tries to conduct herself as a lady when she goes to see Mr. Selfridge after learning that he’s setting up this big store and needs not just lots of new employees, but a certain kind of employee.

“At this point in the story Agnes is in a really bad way. She’s unemployed, and to be unemployed at that time in history and in London was a very bad thing. Despite this, she makes every effort to show herself in the best light to Mr. Selfridge. Harry sees Agnes masking her desperation and has the kindness as well as intelligence to realize that underneath this desperate situation is someone who is valuable and could be valuable to his business plan. I really like the dynamic of that scene as far as these two people sussing one another out, and I thoroughly enjoyed acting opposite Jeremy Piven in it,” enthuses the actress.

A familiar face to television audiences on both sides of the pond, Loftus has appeared in a number of made-for-TV movies as well as miniseries and guest starred on such series as Casualty, Doctors, The Bill, Case Histories, Public Enemies, Good Cop and Little Crackers. The actress was just nine years old when she made her small screen professional debut as Abby Moffat in "Electricity," an episode of the long-running Sunday night British series Peak Practice.

“I played a little girl whose mum had left her and her little sister to take care of themselves, and my character’s sister became very ill,” she says. “Back then, it just felt like I was playing make-believe in earnest and with grown-ups. I was pretending to be this little girl and everyone around me was willing to and wanted to believe in that as much as possible.

“I suppose my first acting job, in terms of when I truly began to feel that this was definitely what I wanted to do for a living, was a short film called Jade. I played the title character and the film won the Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival. All of a sudden I was being approached by different London agents. I subsequently signed with an agent and began auditioning and started working.

“When we were shooting Jade I never thought, ‘Right, this is going to be a game-changer for me career-wise.’ I was just totally committed to the work. In the film, my character finds out she’s pregnant and goes into survival mode. In her mind, the father could be one of two people — either her teenage boyfriend or a 40-year-old man who is also her employer. She decides that it needs to be the older man, and she seeks his comfort, but he ends up rejecting her. I’ve simplified the story, but it’s a very visual short and quite beautiful, too. I still feel very proud of the film.”

Having enjoyed acting from a young age, there was no other profession that Loftus ever wanted to pursue. Despite the unpredictability of the industry, she was still determined to take that creative leap. “I think from where I’m from anyway, if you said you wanted to be an actor, some people would wonder if you were ‘delusional’ and advise against it. They’d say to you, ‘Why not have a rethink. Perhaps you could go to university and then teach drama instead.’ Their concern would not be misplaced, considering that many actors aren’t able to support themselves on just the money they make from acting.

“I can’t remember the exact specifics, but there are a huge percentage of actors that are out of work, so it’s understandable that some people would be a little bit skeptical. I could never forgive myself, though, if I didn’t at least try, and try I have. Luckily I’ve worked pretty consistently, and not just consistently, but on projects I’ve been proud to do and proud of, like Mr. Selfridge. I feel so lucky to be apart of that cast and show."

Please note, all Mr. Selfridge photos copyright of ITV Studios.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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