Country Girl: Interview with Downton Abbey's Cara Theobold

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Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Ltd. 2013 for MASTERPIECE

Actress Cara Theobold as Ivy Stuart in Downton Abbey

In the worldwide British TV phenomenon known as Downton Abbey, its characters both upstairs and downstairs spend their days in decidedly different ways. Those living above stairs enjoy a lavish lifestyle that is made possible by a hard-working staff of men and women in their employ. Among those earning a living below stairs is kitchen maid Ivy Stuart. Not only is she responsible for helping prepare three square meals a day for Lord and Lady Grantham and their family, but also for any and all guests in addition to carrying out her other daily duties. While such a job might seem beneath many of today’s young women, for someone like Ivy in the early 20th century who was looking to make her way in the world, it was quite the opposite.

“When I joined Downton Abbey in season three, it was Ivy’s first big job,” says actress Cara Theobold, who plays Ivy, "and, of course, in those days for a working class girl from a small family in the country, to work in service, especially in such a well-respected household, was a big deal. For me, the biggest acting challenge was getting my head around how that would be, because it’s so different being a modern woman and playing a woman in the 1900s back when the opportunities available were almost zero. You either got married or you worked in service.

“So there was that, and then also Ivy is quite young. When I started the show, she was about 16, so she’s rather naïve, wide-eyed, settling in and getting used to the way that the house works. It’s very much like a micro-society, the hierarchy of the downstairs staff, and Ivy is finding her place in that. Moving on to [the current] season four, she starts to grow up a little bit more. It’s been quite fun for me as an actress to play someone who we see through those years and that time of her life. It’s when you’re trying to work out who you are as well as decide the kind of person you want to be and the types of decisions you want to make. Part of that process is making mistakes where you might one day look back and think, ‘Oh, why did I do that,’ but you did it anyway.”

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Like her character getting a job at Downton, booking the Ivy role was a dream come true for Theobold. “I was actually in my final year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London,” she recalls. “Some people from the industry had come to see me in one of our final year shows, and without being signed by an agent or anything like that, I very, very luckily landed the audition for Downton Abbey. It was my first audition ever, so I went into the whole thing not expecting anything and it was really exciting. The first two seasons had already aired in the UK, so I was very much aware of how popular the show was and I had watched it myself. Again, though, being my first audition I just thought, ‘It’ll be a wonderful experience. I’ll just do my best and whatever happens happens.’

“A month later by some magical powers I got the part, so I graduated from drama school and began shooting series three. I’ll never forget my first day of work; I was in every scene of the day. I’d previously done one set visit where I met Jeremy Webb, who was directing the first episode that I was going to be in. So I had seen Ealing Studios and the kitchen set as well as all the other downstairs rooms, but other than that I had no filming experience except for a few lessons at drama school. I had to then basically pretty much wing it, and not only concentrate on playing my role of Ivy but also finding my feet as part of the cast and working with the rest of the cast. There was no time to think. I just had to act like I knew what I was doing, and I think I pulled it off. At least I hope so.”

Stepping into her new position at Downton Abbey, Ivy takes over for Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera), who is promoted to assistant cook. Both young women work under the tough but caring and careful eye of Downton’s head cook, Mrs. Beryl Patmore (Lesley Nicol). Like the ingredients in a good recipe, it takes a bit of time for Ivy, Daisy and Mrs. Patmore to thoroughly “blend” together and work as a real team. Of course, Ivy unknowingly complicates matters for herself when she catches the eye of the first footman, James “Jimmy” Kent (Ed Speleers) and second footman Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne), the latter of whom Daisy secretly longs to be with.

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“When Ivy joins the staff, there’s a lot of tension, mainly on Daisy’s part, because Ivy is new and receiving a lot of attention, especially from the boys,” explains Theobold. “She’s openly enjoying that attention, which seems to irritate Daisy. Initially, however, Ivy is almost unaware of the negativity coming from her. She wouldn’t understand why someone else wouldn’t like her. In Ivy’s eyes, she’s just having a good time. As season three unfolds, she and Daisy come to a truce of sorts. There’s work to be done, so they find this professional relationship where they can just get on with the work. As season four then moves on, we get to see how those tensions might once more start to arise and play out, because, again, they’re two very different women.

“With Mrs. Patmore, she’s obviously Ivy’s boss as well as her mentor and someone who my character looks up to. There are times, especially in season four, where they become a bit closer than they’d been in the past. Essentially Ivy is the general dogsbody who has to do all the menial tasks and Daisy is the one who gets to have more of a relationship with Mrs. Patmore. She and Daisy have this very close relationship and then Ivy joins in, almost like an add-on. It’s as if Daisy and Ivy are the two siblings and Mrs. Patmore is the mother figure who has to sort out their troubles.

“As far as Jimmy, Ivy more or less fancies the pants off him,” says the actress with a laugh. “He represents everything that’s daring, adventurous and fun. Jimmy is a distraction from all the hard work of the kitchen. With Alfred, he’s really sweet and kind. Perhaps if Jimmy wasn’t around, Alfred might then seem more appealing to Ivy, but, unfortunately, Jimmy is just too cool and overshadows all of Alfred’s lovely qualities. Out of all my character’s relationships on the show, I think the most interesting for Ivy are with Daisy as well as Jimmy. They’re the ones that she is the most invested in, especially with Jimmy. That’s the relationship that Ivy would like to develop the most. It’s the most exciting relationship to see where it would go, and for me as an actress, it would be a chance for Ivy to experience those things that she longs to experience.”

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While Ivy might fancy Jimmy, he might not exactly be the best influence on her. Early on in Downton Abbey’s fourth season, the young kitchen maid joins the footman for a drink or two one night at the local pub and ends up returning home a bit worse for wear.

“The drunk scene in the season four opener was fun to shoot,” enthuses Theobold. “First off, the palette of make-up they used on me was called, rather lovingly, ‘the death palette,’ which was quite amusing, and I actually got more make-up for that one scene than I normally do on the show. I really enjoyed working with [director] David Evans — who I’d previously worked with in season three — about exactly how drunk Ivy was, and also figuring out with David and Ed Speleers what exactly had gone on with Jimmy and Ivy at the pub.”

Most of the scenes involving the downstairs staff are shot inside at the aforementioned Ealing Studios, but there are times throughout the day when their duties require members of staff to venture above stairs as well as outside. Those scenes are filmed on location at Highclere Castle, which doubles as Downton Abbey onscreen. Theobold has had the chance to film at Highclere.

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“The outside scenes are done up at Highclere along with some of the scenes in the kitchen courtyard,” notes the actress. “I’ve been lucky enough to shoot scenes in the Great Hall when Ivy is stoking the fires. Obviously you don’t see all the times when Ivy would get up first thing in the morning and do the fires in all the bedrooms. I suppose it’s true to my character that the kitchen staff would spend most of their time at work in the kitchen, but it’s fun when we do the big group scenes, like the cricket match at the end of season three. Everyone upstairs as well as the downstairs staff were involved, so we all spent a week or so up at Highclere, which is a treat because everyone has a great time together and we all get on very well.”

Does the actress find the period surroundings, including wardrobe and props, help further motivate her when filming in front of the camera? “Definitely,” she says. “The design and production values on Downton Abbey are incredible. Everyone we work with, including the people in wardrobe, make-up and the art department, are so wonderfully talented and at the top of their game. There are times when you can be in the kitchen and if you’re turned away from all the crew as well as the camera, you can completely lose yourself in your imagination that you’re there.

“Everything works in the kitchen and the food has been prepared by the chefs, so we just have to look like we’re garnishing or doing a bit of chopping. There’s so much work that goes into all that detail, and I think that’s one of the things that makes the series so appealing. It’s so beautiful to watch and it helps as an actor because you can immerse yourself in the world of the story.”

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During the hiatus between seasons three and four of Downton Abbey, the actress appeared onstage in London’s West End in a production of London Wall. Theobold also has a lead role in the upcoming feature film Ibiza Undead. Born in Harrogate, Yorkshire in the north of England, she set off on the path to an acting career at a young age.

“As far as I remember I always wanted to be an actress,” says Theobold. “I joined the youth theatre when I was around eight years old and studied acting whenever I could while growing up before eventually going off to London and drama school. So it’s always been a focus. I love art, too, and that was another thing I pursued at school. I was very involved in the art department but when it came to vocational subjects and deciding on the one thing that I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I went with acting.

“You have to be aware that it’s a really tough industry and, again, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to land my first job on a show like Downton Abbey that is so popular around the world. I’m lucky as well to have family and friends who are wonderfully supportive. You also have to be sure that it [acting] is something you love so much that you’ll stick with it even when things get tough and you’re not working. That was the thing, though. I thought, ‘Yes, it’s worth it. This is what I want to do and I’ll do whatever I can to be able to do it forever,’ and hopefully that will be the case.”

Season four of Downton Abbey is currently airing Sunday nights on PBS' MASTERPIECE (check local listings for times). Please note, all photos copyright Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & TV Ltd. 2013 for MASTERPIECE.

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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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