As one of just a handful of new faces in the Downton Abbey movie, Tuppence Middleton is stepping into a daunting world — one that's adored by millions of people around the world and that helped the film make a whopping $31 million debut at the box office on its opening weekend.
If she feels any pressure about introducing a whole new character — one who happens to be the love interest of the beloved Branson (Allen Leech) — to die-hard Downton fans, it doesn't show. Even over the phone, the 32-year-old radiates a glowing self-assurance, despite the long day of press she had prior to our conversation.
Middleton (who bears no relation to that other famous British Middleton) plays Lucy Smith, the lady's maid to the Queen's lady-in-waiting, Lady Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton). With a stacked cast that includes Michelle Dockery and Dame Maggie Smith, stealing scenes is quite a feat, but she does so with ease, and before long, you forget that this is her first time stepping onto the Abbey's hallowed grounds.
It's the same magnetism she has in the 2016 BBC iteration of War & Peace, and in Netflix's fan favorite Sense8, which was famously revived from cancellation via a finale special in 2018 after fan activism.
When she's not dominating both the period and sci-fi genres on the screen, she's turning her artful eye to her Instagram page (which is filled with beautifully composed black-and-white-photos) and taking pen to page to explore her talents as a writer. Middleton recently penned a four-part short film called Four, and has aspirations to continue writing.
Here, she talks to us about coming into the world of Downton, going back and forth between film and TV, and her always artful, sometimes provocative Instagrams.
How did you originally get into acting? Is that something that you had a precedent for?
I think it was actually just another hobby when I was younger. I always tried lots of different things, and then I got bored of them really quickly. Acting was really just another one of those things that I tried out, and I really fell in love with it. It was something that I never got bored of, and [it] helped me grow in confidence and meet new people.
What kind of preparation did you do to play a lady's maid?
In terms of the actual research for something like that, I didn't [do that]. I mean, we had someone on set who was teaching us about etiquette, and how to behave at that particular period, but I didn't really have to do a huge amount of that because everyone's so well versed in that on Downton, it's kind of part of it. Watching the show, you pick up a lot of stuff as well.
It was really more just building the characters, the relationships between Imelda's character and me, and also [my character] and Branson. That was the thing I suppose I focused on.
What was it like for you to enter this world that had been so established already?
Well, it's always really nice to go into something that you know is successful, and good quality, and popular. In that respect, it was easy for us to slip into it. But there's also a certain amount of, I suppose, expectation from you with new characters. You hope that the loyal fans of the show will respond well to what you're doing, and you hope that they accept these new faces.
I think, actually, Julian [Fellowes, the writer] has written our characters really well because they come in and they are affected by certain people living at Downton, but they also affect their lives too. And I think that the nice thing about Lucy and Branson is that they have a positive effect on each other, and they learn something from each other.
With Downton Abbey now and, of course, Sense8, you're now the subject of two really big fandoms. What has that experience been like for you?
It's nice and actually, interestingly, those two shows represent quite a lot of the things that I've done in my career. I've done quite a lot of period drama and a lot of sci-fi, so it's nice that there's a very loyal fan base for two of those shows that I've been a part of.
We know that in the U.K., period drama is something that we do really well. So it was really nice that this particular one happened to travel and to have an impact globally, which I don't think anyone expected initially when the series started. So that was a really lovely surprise. And then it's just grown and grown over the years, so the appetite for the movie was huge. I think that it's been a long time coming, so it's been very well thought through.
I think that choosing a storyline which can justify making a film out of the series was a tricky thing for Julian, but I think he's really pulled it off. I think it, hopefully, will really satisfy die-hard Downton fans. And I think it really is one of those things that you need to see on the big screen.
Fans really rallied around Sense8, and you and the rest of the cast are a huge part of that. Are you still in touch with your Sense8 family?
Yeah, I mean we all live in different countries across the world, and because of that, most of us haven't worked together again in a professional context. But we all travel a lot for various projects, so whenever we're in any of each other's towns or cities or countries, we try and touch base. Yeah, we're all still in touch and it's a really lovely group of people.
You've gone back and forth between TV and film so successfully, would you want to continue doing that? Are there benefits of one over the other?
I think as an actor, you just want to do as many different things as possible, whether that's TV, film, radio, audio book, or theater. You just constantly want to challenge yourself and do something new and do something which stretches you.
I mean my first love, I think, was always film, but I think now, television is appealing to a lot of actors, directors, and filmmakers because you have more scope to tell a story slowly and more intricately, and to really develop characters over a long period of time, which is massively appealing.
You recently wrote a short film called Four. Would you ever want to write something more feature-length?
Yeah, of course. I mean I suppose for me, that was a kind of an exercise in figuring out how to do it, and whether I liked doing it, and whether I had any sort of talent for it. So I think at the moment it's just a bit of an exploration. I've always been interested in writing, and never quite had thoughts to follow through on it, so it was a really nice opportunity to try it out.
I think in the future I'd maybe like to do another short or something feature length. But I'm still finding my feet with that, and it's quite nice to be able to experiment in a smaller way before you go out there into the big world — the big bad world of filmmaking.
Your Instagram is so cool, and you obviously have such an artistic eye. How much thought do you put into what you post?
I think I was unsure about whether to first join something like Instagram because I think in a sense, you are slightly compromising your privacy in a small way. But I wanted to make it about work and about things that I found interesting, and try not to have too much about my personal life.
I think it's just taking photographs of the things that I liked, or thought were interesting aesthetically. And then a bit of work thrown in there as well. But yeah, it sort of feels like such a part of our generation, Instagram, and there are some things I really love about it, but there's a balance. For me, Instagram's all about images, and I think if something interests me, then I'll post it.
I saw that you've done some work with the mental health charity Sane. How did you get involved with them?
I've always been interested in working with a mental health charity. I thought Sane was really great because it had some really interesting, original ideas about how to tackle mental health, especially in an age which is obsessed with social media. I thought they were a small charity who didn't necessarily have the voice that other bigger mental health charities had, or the support, or the same amount of ambassadors, so I thought that it would be great to collaborate with them on a few things.
What's one book that you could read over and over again?
Maybe The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. I really love reading that book. If I feel like I'm at a crisis point in my life, it has really good advice covering all areas of life, and that's one I could always dip into. And also The Book of Longing, the book of poetry by Leonard Cohen.
What is your favorite season of the year?
Winter. Hands down. I'm such a winter baby. I'm not really a fan of the heat, so every time autumn rolls around, I'm much happier.
Which role do people recognize you for most often?
I'd say either Riley from Sense8 or Helen from War and Peace.
How would you describe your personal style?
Kind of grungy gothic. Not always, but that's what I lean towards.
What did you last binge watch?
You know what I'm binge watching at the moment is Chef's Table. I'm obsessed with it. I mean, I'm really late to the party, but I love watching food being cooked. I'm always hungry, and I just find all of the chefs's stories so fascinating.
What's the next thing that you're most excited for?
Well, I think the exciting thing about being an actor is not knowing. You kind of live in this middle ground between all the fear and excitement, which is "maybe I'll never work again," or "I can't wait to see what's coming next." So, yeah, I suppose just excited to see what the next step is.