Joanne Froggatt

“She actually killed more people than Jack the Ripper,” says Joanne Froggatt, from a table at the Breslin in Manhattan. She’s speaking of her latest character, Mary Ann Cotton, who was Britain’s first-known female serial killer between the 1860s and 1870s, responsible for close to 20 murders.

To hear such words come out of Froggatt’s mouth is a mild shock for any “Downton Abbey” viewer, who will be accustomed to seeing the 36-year-old English actress as the gentle, loveable Anna on the hit show.

Froggatt is back to period British cinema as of Sunday, in the Masterpiece movie “Dark Angel.”

“Nobody’s ever heard of her,” Froggatt says. “Jack the Ripper is very visceral, dark — like an urban myth kind of legend. Whereas people didn’t want to believe, at the time, that Mary Ann Cotton had done these terrible things, I think, because people didn’t want to believe that a woman is capable of that.”

Here, Froggatt talks more about the character — and serial killers.

WWD: What made “Dark Angel,” the right project to follow up “Downton” with?

Joanne Froggatt: After doing “Downton,” people kept saying to me, “Oh, what do you want to do next?” and I jokingly kept saying, “I want to play, I don’t know, something completely different — like a murderer.” And then the script came for “Dark Angel,” and I was like, “Oh wow, well there it is.”

It was just such a fascinating character and psyche to try and understand and get into because, you know, she’s Britain’s first female serial killer, in the 1800s, and the difficulty is that when your protagonist is somebody who is doing terrible things, how do you make an audience want to watch it, you know?

We meet her at the age of 25 having lost four children through natural causes, and she’s almost driven mad with grief, in a way. But it’s that age-old question, “Is it nature or nurture?” Like, she’s a woman living in the mid-1800s who has no prospects, and there’s no way to change her life. Had she been living in this day and age with birth control and all the things that are available to us now, would she have ended up murdering people? I don’t know. That’s the question you are left with.

WWD: How did you go about bringing humanity to a serial killer character?
J.F.: You feel incredibly sorry for her still because she suffered a real tragedy, you know? She didn’t commit any crimes that are known of until she’s into her thirties, and apparently that’s quite a normal trait of female serial killers. There aren’t many female serial killers anyway.

WWD: What are the other traits of female serial killers she possessed?
The few female serial killers that have been studied, they usually don’t start killing until they’re in their thirties. Nobody knows why. And men usually kill for visceral, sexual gratification, whereas with women it’s usually always for financial and social gain. And men choose very different methods; men will choose visceral, messy [murders]. And an overwhelming amount of the few female serial killers choose very neat and tidy ways to do it, so poisoning, or smothering, or an overdose, or things like that.

WWD: Do you think people will be shocked to see you play someone so dark?
J.F.: I’m a very cheery soul in real life, but yeah I’m very much into these kind of stories. I’m very interested in why people do things, and how people, like, cope with horrific events, or why people do terrible things. It’s interesting to play somebody who is not very nice, who is not a good person. It was fun to be able to just do something completely different; “Dark Angel” was the first job I filmed after finishing “Downton.” I loved playing Anna for six years. She’s a lovely character to hang out with, but it was great fun to just like rip the plaster off and go, “Oh, right, now I’m doing something completely different.”

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