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5 September 2012

Downton Abbey: An interview with Siobhan Finneran (Sarah O’Brien)

Sarah O’Brien
(Siobhan Finneran)
© ITV
According to Siobhan Finneran, Sarah O’Brien, the scheming lady’s maid we all love to hate, has been grievously misunderstood.

“I love her. She is funny and witty, also I think a lot of the time what gets misconstrued as being rude or unhelpful in a lot of ways is her making sure jobs are done properly. Yes she is cruel and all of those things but also a lot of things she will does are for the good of the house, and for the good of the whole of the staff. I love her because she is not backwards at coming forwards about saying something. I admire that quality in a lot of people in real life”

O’Brien begins series three seeing an opportunity for her nephew to get a job.

“She manages to plant that little seed with Cora - as she always does - and hence Alfred, her nephew, gets the position. She is just trying to help Alfred the best way she can. She wants him to do well in the house.”

But what begins as a generous impulse soon turns sour.

“She tries to enlist the help of her best friend Thomas. But he is really not up for helping Alfred – he doesn’t want someone getting in the way of his career - and so Thomas and O’Brien become sparring partners. It starts as a bit of a battle of wits, just game play to see who falls first really. But actually it gets quite nasty when it kicks off.”

Nasty on screen maybe, but never off camera – ‘RJC’ and ‘Shiv’, as they call each other, are some of the closest friends on the cast.

“I love working with Rob. All my favourite scenes are with him. We get on brilliantly on set and off. And the fact that we are now spatting instead of plotting is fantastic.”

Rob James-Collier suggests that we may see a softer side of Thomas this series. But will O’Brien, the queen bee below stairs, ever mellow?

“I had a great line in the first series which was, ‘Sarah O’Brien, this is not you.’ And that is telling - she comes from a damaged place doesn’t she, otherwise she wouldn’t behave the way she does. Basically she has given her whole life over to the house, to somebody else and so to then change that path would be impossible. What could she possibly do? Where could she go and what could she do? So she has to remain brilliant at her job and fight to keep it.”

Finneran, one of Downton Abbey’s breakout stars, says that in spite of all the plaudits and awards she doesn’t feel any pressure on returning to make another series.

“If I suddenly thought about how many people watched it I would go insane - so I don’t do that. I’m glad millions and millions of people watch it and really enjoy it but I think if you get that in your head you’re in trouble.”

Unlike some of the Downton Abbey cast Finneran doesn’t look at all like her character out of costume. This can be a bonus.

“I get away with people not really recognising me much. I look different – just a bit. For a start I don’t have those sideburns! I mean people genuinely come up and say they really enjoy the show but I’ve not been bombarded. And if there is any nasty fan mail I don’t see it. I’d hate to see that because it’s not me, it’s a character I’m playing so that would be very strange! It’s all good feedback – in fact people love her being the baddy. They love to loathe her, that’s the great thing.”

Anyway, in another time, O’Brien’s manipulative skills would be seen as brilliance, not mischief. A 2012 O’Brien might be an admired business woman...

“Yes she would. She’d be a great lawyer or something. She absolutely would. The thing is she sees everything before everybody else does. If Downton went on for another fifty years she would be running the country.”

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