Big time beckons for Joanne

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ANNA the head housemaid in Downton Abbey is back in work. Sue Wilkinson talks to Scarborough actress Joanne Froggatt about the second series.

Although Joanne has worked almost continually since her stint on Coronation Street and with standout roles in Life on Mars and Paradise Heights – it’s never quite happened.

“It’s definitely been up and down for me,” she said, “It’s felt like big-break time and I’ve thought, ‘This is it!’ several times. And then it hasn’t been.”

But, it just may be this time it is in the stars, or the fact that she is superb as Suzy in the gritty In Our Name – her first big screen outing – and that her role in Downton Abbey won her as much attention as any other actor in the drama.

There is no doubt the actress, born in Scarborough and brought up in Littlebeck, near Whitby, is on a high – tempered with a down-to- earth attitude. “This is the best time of my career,” said Joanne. “It’s a really exciting time and I’m enjoying it.”

She picked up the Best Newcomer trophy at the British Independent Film Awards for In Our Name – the story of a soldier returning from a tour in Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder – she won great reviews for two new plays at the Bush Theatre earlier this year and appeared in the Royle Family Christmas special. She played Anthony’s pregnant girlfriend in the seasonal special of Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash’s hit comedy, which aired on Christmas Day on BBC One.

“It really does feel like a family. Because I’m the girlfriend, I’m like the new member of the family. But by the end of the two weeks, they all said ‘You’re one of us now’. I did feel like I’d joined this mad family and I’m very pleased to be accepted into it, it was a lot of fun.”

The 30-year-old actress played Suzy in In Our Name and tracks the soldier’s relationship with her young daughter and her squaddie husband when she returns from a tour of duty in a war zone. Suzy’s is a protracted, galling breakdown. The irony that she has won Best Newcomer even though she has been an actress for 14 years is not lost on Joanne. But she is nonetheless joyous at the win. “It means so much to me, but so much to our film as well. We were on such a micro-budget and everybody worked so hard and became really passionate about the subject matter.

“I’ve been a professional actress for 14 years but this my first role in a film and it’s also my first award for my acting. So to have the two together is an absolute dream come true. With the success of Downton Abbey the time of my career has just been phenomenal.

“It will not last for ever – so I will enjoy every second. I really do appreciate this time.”

She hopes In Our Name will open doors to more films. “I would love to crack America and do more films – but whatever will be, will be, it’s up to the gods. I want to be accepted in all areas like Dame Judi Dench and Julie Walters – they do films and amazing television. That’s a difficult thing to achieve.”

From the age of three, Joanne wanted to be an actress. She started stage school in Scarborough at 11 before heading to Redroofs theatre school in Maidenhead, Berkshire. Her first TV role came at 15 when she played an underage prostitute in The Bill. Joanne worked in WH Smith in Scarborough before landing the role of troubled teenage mum Zoe Tattersall in Coronation Street. During her 18-month stint as Zoe, she sold her baby for £2,000, stole her back again, lived for a while with Ashley Peacock and eventually ran off to join a cult.

From there it seemed Joanne’s acting fate was sealed. When casting directors wanted troubled, tough, fragile, fraught or murderous they called Joanne. She played Joanne Lees in Murder in the Outback, a criminal in Bad Girls, tomboy Kate in Robin Hood, and the lead role in Danielle Cable: Eyewitness, earning a Royal Television Society best actress nomination. She’s also been in See No Evil: the Moors Murders, Dinnerladies, Spooks and Frost.

“I definitely like to do different things, I want variation, it keeps things interesting,” said Joanne.

For someone whose stock-in-trade has been serious characters, in real life Joanne is refreshingly warm, cheerful and grounded. We chat about X-Factor, the stress of instant fame, Coronation Street’s 50th anniversary and the influence of her friends and her parents, Ann and Keith, who still live in Littlebeck. Joanne visits when she can. “My parents taught me to work hard and would not let me get ideas above my station. I also have friends that tell me the truth.” .

Joanne lives near High Wycombe with her boyfriend of two years James Cannon, 34, who works in IT. “He likes theatre and films, which is nice.”

Joanne is now filming the second series of Downton Abbey which at its height was watched by 10 million. It has now picked up two television awards. “It’s great for me to know I will be working until July,” said Joanne who will once again be tied into the corsets as head housemaid Anna. “We all really enjoyed the job and genuinely got on well together. But none of us dared imagine it would go down so well.”