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Leading Lady: in conversation with Tuppence Middleton

With a dizzying array of major titles under her belt – most recently ITV’s Our House – Tuppence Middleton prepares to return to the big screen this week in Downton Abbey: A New Era. Ahead of the release on 29 April, we catch up with the Bristol-born actor to chat all things Branson, Bristol and beyond…

With The Imitation Game, War and Peace, Sense8, Mank and most recently Our House, Tuppence Middleton has gone from a rising star to a household name in a matter of years, barely drawing breath between each release. In three days’ time, the Bristol-born actor will be back on the big screen, re-joining a cast of national treasures and resuming her role as Lucy Smith in Downton Abbey: A New Era. Ahead of its release on 29 April, we caught up with Tuppence to chat all things Branson, Bristol and beyond…

“It was a bit nerve-racking to join the original cast at first,” says Tuppence, who made her Downton debut in 2019 when the Crawley family reunited for their first film since the series ended four years previously.

“Downton is such a long-established institution and the cast had been working together for such a long time before I joined them. I soon realised though that when you are working with actors that are not only at the top of their game but also just genuinely open and kind people, then none of that matters. I have made some lovely friends on this project, so returning for the second film was a no-brainer.”

Alongside the original cast – Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern and Allen Leech – the new film will welcome the likes of Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock, Nathalie Baye and Dominic West. Promising to take audiences on a thrilling ride, the Crawley family ventures on a grand journey to the south of France to uncover the mystery of the dowager countess’s newly inherited villa.

Above: Tuppence Middleton and Brian J. Smith in Sense8 | Image credit: Segolene Lagny / Netflix

Lucy Smith is the maid (and secret illegitimate daughter) of Maud Bagshaw, the Queen’s lady-in-waiting played by none other than Imelda Staunton. When King George and Queen Mary visit Downton Abbey in 1927 during their tour of Yorkshire, Lucy and Lady Bagshaw accompany them, as expected. Here, Lucy meets Tom Branson, the former chauffeur and the current estate manager of Downton Abbey. He became part of the Crawley family when he married the late Lady Sybil Branson – the youngest daughter of Robert and Cora (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern). The Bransons had one child together before Lady Sybil died shortly after giving birth – which, by the way, was totally devastating to all watching.

“The thing that I was drawn to about Lucy in the first film was that she was struggling with her identity and it was unclear where she belonged,” Tuppence tells us. “She is the daughter of a Lady but raised as a lady’s maid with her identity kept a secret from others. We met her at a point when she was figuring out who she wanted to be in life. Her romance with Branson totally made sense to me given a shared search for their place in this world, floating between the upstairs and downstairs, not entirely comfortable in either but sort of belonging to both. It was also a big pull knowing that Imelda Staunton would be playing my mother as she’s such a fantastic actress and someone whose career I have admired for years.”

As for the new film, we ask what the creators have in store for the young maid. “Lucy finds herself truly accepted into the family,” Tuppence reveals. “Embarking on a new life with Branson, we see them representing a new generation of young people pursuing their independence and realising the importance of equality, as well as challenging some of the old traditions. The trip to the south of France with the family gives Lucy a chance to get to know everyone better and have a taste of what could be coming in her future, exposing her to a life which she has never known before and which she and Branson have to decide whether they want to be a part of or not.”

With a CV growing at the speed of light, we couldn’t help but wonder where it all started for the 35-year-old actor. While a student at Bristol Grammar School, Tuppence tells us that she couldn’t imagine any other path in life; acting was her passion from the outset.

“I first fell in love with acting through watching period dramas at home with my family, and old musicals with my grandparents. I couldn’t really sing or dance but I was so transported by films like Oliver and Annie when I was little that I joined my local theatre group in Clevedon and performed in pantomimes every year, just as a hobby at first. I loved it so much that I started to do more of it outside of school. I joined a group called StageCoach as well as The Bristol Old Vic Youth Theatre and began to participate more in school plays too. From there it just grew and grew and I became much more interested in film, trying to educate myself as much as possible.

“By the time it came to picking subjects to study in Sixth Form at the age of 17, there was really nothing else I wanted to do. My careers adviser didn’t really think it was a very wise idea to pursue acting without a solid backup plan but I was so determined that I wanted to study at drama school that I applied in my final year and, thankfully, after several rounds of auditions, I got a place at ArtsEducational on the three-year acting course in London. I am not sure what I would have ended up doing if it wasn’t for acting. I just couldn’t see any other path in life that I wanted to take.”

Above: Tuppence Middleton in Our House. Image courtesy of ITV

Often returning to the West Country to visit her family, who still live in Clevedon, Tuppence has fond memories of growing up in and around the city. “It was so nice to have the mix of coastal village life in Clevedon and then city life in Bristol whilst I was at school. Bristol is such an artistic city and there is always something going on, whether that’s new live music or art exhibitions. It’s so alive and has such an original energy and identity. It’s also very walkable and such a pretty city, so for me, it’s just nice to roam the streets and see what’s changed since I last visited. Whenever I am back in Clevedon I really just like to hang out with my family and walk next to the sea, especially when the weather is stormy.”

With a dizzying array of major roles under her belt, Tuppence has proved herself to be a versatile actor. Having starred opposite Hollywood greats, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman, we wonder which part has been a particular highlight in her career so far – seemingly an agonisingly difficult question for any actor. When pushed, though, she admits there are those that feel precious. “I still have a huge soft spot for Helene in War and Peace. She was such a complicated, troubled and provocative woman. It was a real feat to try and pick her apart but also a lot of fun too.

“Working with David Fincher on Mank was a real highlight. One of my recent favourites was a series I shot in Prague called Shadowplay. I play a woman called Claire Franklin, who is the wife of an American diplomat living in Berlin in 1946. She is on a destructive path, using alcohol, sex and chaos to soothe her pain in a very broken post-war world. Another very complex woman pushing the boundaries of the cruel and restricted society she finds herself in. She was so beautifully written and such a pleasure to play. As an actor, all you can hope for is that each part is somehow different from the last and you get to play a range of different people from all walks of life. No-one wants to stagnate, so you have to keep pushing yourself to do something that scares you and forces you to explore a different way of life.”

Tuppence is very much a pro on both sides of the camera. In 2019, she co-wrote a short noir film with fellow actor John Hopkins, who is perhaps most well-known for his roles as Sgt. Dan Scott in Midsomer Murders and Sir Francis Basset in Poldark. Four follows four lives in four rooms, which can also be viewed in four parts. Filled with suspense and intrigue, the film takes place at a timeless hotel, featuring a hotel manager, a couple, a dowager and a hitman. The different plots are seemingly unconnected at first but come together at the end for one surprising and delightful finale. Asked whether she had plans to pursue a career in feature-length screenwriting, she replies, “I had been wanting to write for so long but I was always a bit of a chicken about doing it so I delayed for a long time. It takes a lot of courage to put your work out there and show people for the first time. It’s a very personal and exposing thing so it helps to have other creatives around you who can give you honest constructive criticism and who you can discuss your ideas with.

Above: Tuppence Middleton | Image credit: Joseph Sinclair

“I am actually working on a feature-length script now, which is based on a Finnish book that I fell in love with a few years ago,” she continues. “I also hope to direct in the future too. If the pandemic taught me anything about my line of work, it is that, as an actor, you rely so much upon other people to create work for you. It always feels like a waiting game and I realised that I want to be a part of that creative process to help shape a project as a whole and not only produce films that I would want to see but write the kind of parts that I would want to play too. The broader experience of filmmaking and having a say in that creative process from start to finish is much more appealing to me now.”

With what seems like hardly a moment to spare in her schedule these days, Tuppence lets us in on some of the projects she’s working on this year, all of which sound pretty exciting. “I have a film coming out later this year called Lord of Misrule. It’s a folk horror, which has always been one of my favourite genres and I play a minister whose daughter goes missing in mysterious circumstances at a village fete. It stars Ralph Ineson and Matt Stokoe and we had such fun filming it on location in a village just outside of London last Christmas. A lot of running through the forest crying and screaming,” she jokes.

After catching up with Tuppence this month, it’s clear that she’s never one to shy away from tough roles, always on the look-out for interesting new projects that promise to channel her creative energy and challenge her as an actor. “I have been really craving the idea of doing some theatre,” she adds. “Maybe it would be nice to get back on stage again.”

Downton Abbey: A New Era is in UK cinemas on 29 April.

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