Emmys 2014

How Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt Navigated Anna’s Controversial Rape Arc

Emmy nominee Joanne Froggatt tells the stories behind shooting Anna’s controversial, emotional rape storyline on Downton Abbey.

Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE

Season 4, Episode 3

While the entire house is enjoying a musical performance upstairs, Anna is raped by a visiting servant, Mr. Green. Traumatized, she hides out in Mrs. Hughes’ office, begging her to keep the assault a secret and to help her clean up before her husband, Mr. Bates, finds out.

Anna had this huge journey in Season 4, and the scene that sticks out to start that journey is the scene directly after she’s raped, when she’s in Mrs. Hughes’ office. She’s hidden in there, not knowing what to do. She’s trying to hide what she’s been through and is trying to find somebody to help her. For me, filming that scene was very affecting. The characters in Downton and in that time period are often quite reserved and their emotions are repressed. They say things and mean something different from what they’re saying. This was a moment totally opposite of that. This was just raw emotion. It was beyond any of those constraints, because of the trauma that she’s been through. I also knew that the scene with Anna’s first reaction was so important, because if that doesn’t sit truthfully the rest of the journey would have no meaning.

There’s a huge responsibility and the storyline is so sensitive. I’ve said many times that I feel responsibility to people who watch at home who maybe have gone through similar experiences in life. That’s what weighs on my mind. From an acting point of view, this is the crux of the whole story and the whole point of people caring about what happens to this character after this point. So the audience has to believe how traumatized she is and has to really feel affected by that, and therefore I have to be affected by that in order to do that. Instinctively, that’s the only way you can play these scenes, I think. It’s the instinct of the emotion. It’s not something you can plan too much, but that’s what makes you nervous. Other scenes, you may rehearse lots of times in order to figure out how you want to play it, but those things you can’t really rehearse because it’s raw emotion.

Season 4, Episode 3

Directly after her emotional scene with Mrs. Hughes, Anna encounters Mr. Bates in the hallway. When he expresses concern over her bruised and disheveled appearance, she lies and tells him that she fainted.

In this scene, Anna’s in a totally different emotional place, but in such a short space of time. Going into this scene, I had in my head that this is the first time that she’s looked her husband in his eyes and lied to him. So that’s a pretty poignant moment. And it’s not even out of self-preservation. It’s out of wanting to protect her husband, really, and also not being able to express what happened to her. There’s a shift in emotion between those two scenes and she becomes cold, in a way, because that’s the only way that she can control herself. She has to look her husband in the eye, the one person she cares about more than anything in the world, and has to lie to him. That takes something else away from her. It strips another layer from her. It’s another abuse, in a way, to be forced to be put in that position.

You can’t help but be personally affected by a storyline like that. I was trying to put myself in the place of this girl in this time period having this terrible experience, and also thinking about why she can’t talk about it. Even though I’ve had letters from women who still feel the same in a modern environment, that they feel like they haven’t been able to talk about it and when they have it wasn’t believed, for me it was about getting into the headspace of the times and socially how people thought about women. How socially what happened to her could’ve been acceptable, even though she’s a woman. It’s terrifying to think that this was only 100 years ago. You can’t help but feel really sad, but also really fortunate for living in the times you do. You can’t help but think about all of those things, because you have to.

Season 4, Episode 4

Feeling ashamed to the point that she recoils at Mr. Bates’ touch, Anna asks Mrs. Hughes if she can move back into the house, and out of the cottage she shares with her husband.

This moves Anna’s emotional journey another stage. She realizes she can’t be around Mr. Bates. She’s so closed off from him now that she can’t be near him. Physically and emotionally, she can’t do it, because she feels like she’ll break. She needs to get space. She wants to be alone—she can’t do anything else apart from being alone. She can’t get away from what’s happened to her. Again, we’ve never seen that side of her before. She’s really desperate when she goes to see Mrs. Hughes to ask to move back into the house. I feel like a part of her is gone at that point. Her heart has been really damaged.

Season 4, Episode 5

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After overhearing Mrs. Hughes urge Anna to tell Mr. Bates her secret, Mr. Bates confronts Mrs. Hughes and gets her to tell him what happened. Mr. Bates then tells Anna that he knows, and she breaks down in his arms.

This scene is all about the relief of her being able to tell the one person she needs support from. Mrs. Hughes has done her best to support her, but the one person who really can is Mr. Bates and that’s the one she couldn’t tell. Again, she has to lie to him in this scene, to protect him in her eyes. But the total relief she gets from the acceptance he gives her about what she’s been through is key. She’s been having all of these mixed emotions of guilt and feeling like she’s not good enough for him now because she’s soiled. His acceptance of her is, I think, true love and really romantic. In those times, especially, it makes these two characters all the more special as a couple. Even though he doesn’t know all the details and she’s hiding who the attacker was from him, they still get this moment of relief, of being able to talk to each other again. She can release her pain.

Season 4, Episode 5

Anna and Mr. Bates plan a date night to forget about all the sadness and rekindle a bit of romance, but the night ends up being uncomfortable for both parties.

Anna suggests going out for dinner because she wants to make new memories and try to start that process of rebuilding things. It’s a really lovely moment between them. She’s faltering, and even though he’s going through his personal hell with the effect everything has had on him, he reaches out to her and is there for her. It’s a really short scene, but I think it’s such a touching scene.

Then the actually dinner is quite poignant. They’re trying so hard to put this thing behind them, but then they have to admit at the end of the meal that it’s not going to be put behind them. It’s something that’s going to have to be there. Hopefully they’ll be able to move forward, but there’s the sad realization that it’s going to stay there forever.

Season 4, “Christmas Special"

Set a year after the rest of the season, the staff takes an outing to the seaside. For a fleeting moment, it appears, Anna and Mr. Bates are happy.

This is the final scene you see between Anna and Bates in the whole season. It’s set a year after the rest of the season, so we do see a moment of real happiness between Anna and Mr. Bates. It’s a moment of relief, and you feel hopeful ending that season. Having moved forward a year, they found a moment of joy again. They’re starting to move forward. She feels like the Anna we know and love is back in that scene. It’s nice to end it a note of freedom and love. And a smile! It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what I wanted that scene to show, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for her and Mr. Bates.