When Sunday Life catches up with Joanne on the set of the show, it’s the second-last day of a gruelling four-month schedule. Before our interview, we’re invited to watch her film a gripping scene set deep in a dark, abandoned parking lot. There is an ambulance with children trapped inside and a distraught father trying to free them. Two burly police officers are attempting to restrain the dad while Joanne’s character, neuropsychologist Eadie, is using her inner strength to take control of the situation. Running about in high cork heels and strappy sundress, she is a fraction of the size of the three men around her but, unsurprisingly, she is the one in charge.
By the time we sit down during a break in shooting, Joanne has changed into more comfortable jeans and a loose white T-shirt tied in a knot around her waist. Her blonde hair is pulled back in a bouncy ponytail and a playful fringe skims her expressive eyes.
“Eadie’s very forthright, has a really strong moral code and will stick up for what she believes in,” Joanne says of her character. “But she has a huge capacity for humanity and she cares about people and the environment. She makes mistakes and she gets too blinkered on things sometimes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
The way Joanne describes Eadie, it’s clear that she’s a character she admires and can possibly relate to. “There are elements of Eadie that are like me – I hope,” she says.
“I haven’t been to medical school,” she continues, laughing, “but I do have a strong moral belief system. Like her, I care about people and I like people. Eadie’s someone I’d like to have as a friend.”
The Commons is set just a few years into the future and many of the elements, especially those relating to climate change, feel not far from current reality. For one thing, in this new world, there is a daily two-hour “brown out” to conserve energy.
It also deals with the likelihood of people being displaced from their countries for environmental reasons. “How many climate refugees are going to try to get into certain countries and how will the world cope with that?” asks Joanne. “It really raises a lot of questions. As a world community, this is a situation we may find ourselves in. How do we share the responsibility of this?”
But Joanne is quick to add that at the heart of The Commons is a very human element. “It’s secrets and lives and loves,” she says.
Central to the storyline is her character’s preoccupation with becoming a mother, and her struggle with the dilemma of bringing a child into a world that is fraying at the edges. “Is it right? Is it selfish?” asks Joanne. “Overwhelmingly for Eadie, she feels a real physiological need to have this baby. It’s just something she cannot change in her.”
An overwhelming inner drive is definitely something the 39-year-old can relate to – indeed, without it she is unlikely to be where she is today.
Born in Yorkshire, in the north of England, Joanne dreamed of being an actor from the moment she discovered it was a legitimate career. “I used to stand in front of the TV and pretend I was on it when I was about three,” she recalls. “So when I realised you could do it for a job, I just thought, ‘Yes, that’s what I want to do.’ ”
”Growing up in rural England with a father who farmed sheep and a mother who made cheese
and yoghurt, a showbiz career wasn’t a conventional dream. So when 11-year-old Joanne told her parents she wanted to leave home to attend acting school, they went along with it, assuming it was just a phase.
“They thought that if they said no, it would make me want to do it more. So they said to me, ‘If that’s what you want to do, you have to work it out yourself.’ They thought that if they
let me carry on, I’d get bored and exhaust the idea.”
Joanne wrote to a wide variety of stage schools, got prospectuses for all of them, then picked the one she most liked the look of.
The next step was an audition. Her parents continued to call her bluff, driving Joanne six hours south to Maidenhead for the try-out. But as they turned up at the school, her mother got a reality check. As Joanne recalls, “She told me later that her heart sank as she thought, ‘Oh my god, they’re all like Jo. This is where she is supposed to be.’ She felt it.”
By the time Joanne had finished the process of being accepted into the stage school and received a grant to help cover the tuition costs, she was 13 – still incredibly young to be leaving home. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t an easy transition.
“The weekend before starting, my parents had driven me down and got me settled into a house with three other girls who went to the school and a woman who worked at the school, which was great,” she recalls.
“But on my first day, I remember people finding it hard to understand me, as my accent was really strong. Then, at the end of the day, everyone went on a bus to the theatre but I’d joined too late to be part of the show, so I had to walk home on my own for 20 minutes and let myself into this house on my own.
“I called my dad and I was beside myself – I couldn’t breathe I was crying so hard. I was on the stairs in the living room, and heaving. My dad was like, ‘It’s okay, you’ve tried it and you don’t like it. It’s fine. We’ll come and get you now. We’ll be there in six hours.’ But I decided that I couldn’t leave now and that I’d give it until the end of the half term, which was a month away. Then, if I still felt the same, I’d go home.”
It was the right call to make. Joanne not only stayed at the school, she hasn’t stopped working since she scored her first role at 16, playing a teenage mother in the long-running British soap opera Coronation Street.
“I’ve supported myself financially from that age through acting and I’ve managed to not have to do anything else,” she says without a hint of arrogance. “There have been times when it’s been very touch and go – definitely in my early 20s. There have been times when I’ve gone, ‘Wow, I have one more mortgage payment in the bank. What happens now? Will I have to get a different job?’ ”
It’s always been about the work. I love my job. I never wanted to be a celebrity, I wanted to be an actress.
Thankfully she hasn’t had to fall back on a non-existent plan B. But, as someone who has only ever worked within the notoriously superficial world of show business, it’s somewhat unexpected that Joanne comes across as incredibly grounded.
“It’s just who I am,” she says bluntly. “It’s always been about the work. I love my job, I love the creativity, I love being on a film set or TV set, and I love the stage. There’s something about the camaraderie and team spirit. I never wanted to be a celebrity, I wanted to be an actress.”
So how does someone who doesn’t care for being a star deal with the inevitable fame that comes with being a successful actor?
“It was a good learning curve when I was young,” she says. “I was very shy and all of a sudden I was recognisable in the street. I found that really difficult. It wasn’t something I felt comfortable about or enjoyed, but it was a lesson in how to deal with that.
“As I started to get more and more work and became known as an actress, as opposed to one character on one job, it became much easier. By the time the success of Downton came along, I was well equipped to deal with it. It came at a perfect time in my life.”
It’s this role, as Downton Abbey’s Anna, that launched Joanne to a global audience and theinevitable recognition whenever she steps out in public. However, fans aren’t always sure how they know her face.
“People go ‘Where do I know you from?’ ” she says, laughing. “I’ll usually just say ‘I’m an actress.’ ” She adds that most people are tipped off by her voice. “In Australia or the US, they’ll say, ‘You’re Anna! I didn’t recognise you until you spoke.’ If people are polite and kind, I’m always very happy to speak to them.”
However, it’s clear that Joanne values her privacy and does her best to retain it, especially since marrying her long-time boyfriend, James Cannon, an IT executive, in 2012.
“I’ve always been very careful,” she says. “I don’t do interviews that I get paid for. I don’t invite the press into my home, on holiday with me, or to my wedding. I try not to do anything that will end up in the tabloids.
“It’s actually not a hard balance,” she adds. “It’s easy to say: ‘This is my line.’ I have my private life and I try to keep it private. If I respect that, it gives me a leg to stand on if somebody else doesn’t.”
Which, in true Joanne Froggatt style, makes perfectly good sense.
Photography by Damian Bennett. Styling by Nadene Duncan. Hair by Gavin Anesbury. Make-up by Samantha P.
The Commons premieres on Christmas Day on Stan, with all episodes available at once.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale November 24.
Genevieve Quigley is Head of Parenting & Lifestyle at Fairfax Media.