EXCLUSIVE: Jessica Brown Findlay Puts 'Downton Abbey' Behind Her With Seductive 'Harlots' Role

Photo: Hulu

While known for playing Lady Sybil Crawley on Downton Abbey, Jessica Brown Findlay has spent the five years since leaving the show in 2012 -- most notably with a role on an early episode of Black Mirror and the film Victor Frankenstein -- putting distance between her and upstairs-downstairs drama. And with Harlots, Hulu’s original family drama about life in a brothel in 18th century London, the actress has found a role that truly puts Sybil behind her.

“It just felt exciting,” Findlay tells ET by phone about coming across the role of Charlotte Wells on Harlots. Calling from London, the actress was preparing for the final weeks of a critically acclaimed production of Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre, in which she played Ophelia. “I just adored reading a character that you sort of loved but also feel really frustrated by and makes bad life decisions sometimes.”

A madam’s daughter, Charlotte followed her mother’s footsteps into the business while managing to climb her way up to a socially acceptable upper-class courtesan. She wears her wealth as armor, letting everyone know just how good she is at her job. But her lavish life isn’t as glamorous or as simple as it appears to be. She’s kept by a man, Sir George Howard (Hugh Skinner), who may have more interest in her clothes than her and is in constant strife with her mother, Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), who still presides over a low-class brothel.

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However, any of that vulnerability remains hidden from public eye. “No one can see what’s going on underneath that she doesn’t want to f**king show,” Findlay says. “You can’t get further away from the vulnerable, naked nature of what it is to be human when you’re wearing three layers of skirts, a great big, graying wig with pink streaks and a powdered face.”

However, as the series progresses, chinks in Charlotte’s diamond-covered armor begin to show. “[She] had all those edges that haven’t been curved off -- you know, sanded down to make her more palpable,” Findlay says, adding that she’s excited for fans to see the story continue to unfold in Harlot’s first season. She promises things get messy, loose ends aren’t tied up and, for Charlotte, things continue to get quite heavy as the character strives for acceptance. “A lot of my mates who’ve watched it have been really surprised and excited about the angle it’s taken and, you know, are really excited about what it’s saying, what it stands for. So they’re desperate to know more.”

While happy with the reaction to the series so far, at the end of the day, Findlay is just excited to play a strong, complex woman who will not be silenced or afraid to stand up to her abusers or persecutors. “That doesn’t happen very often, so when it does -- and you get to work with great directors and actors you’ve admired forever -- then you don’t say no to that,” she says.

New episodes of Harlots stream Wednesdays on Hulu.