Sunday, September 29, 2013

MyAnna Buring on Downton Abbey and Ripper Street

September 28, 2013

A minute before MyAnna Buring, new star of Downton Abbey and soon to be seen again in BBC One's Victorian thriller series Ripper Street, had been talking about the difference between the Victorian and post-First World War era her characters lived in and the 21st-century one the actor herself occupies.

Then suddenly we've taken a left turn into the sexualisation of children, thongs being sold in kids' clothing stores and the horrible idea that the young are learning about sex from pornography and how we need to tackle that. "It's not about banning pornography. We need education," Buring says. Which is how we ended up discussing the Dutch approach to teaching the facts of life. "They start when they are incredibly young and they teach in a way that's appropriate for the age, but they are matter-of-fact about it. There's no lying. No pretending. No talk of storks. So I think young kids are growing up not being confused. They have all the information and if there's something they don't know they are not afraid to go and find out in a healthy way."

Michael Russell, take note.

MyAnna Buring is Swedish by birth, British by location and anything but "blonde" in outlook (if you take the colour of hair and the quality of thought as in some way analogous - and Buring can confirm, some people still do). It turns out, too, that she's as vivid in person as she is on the screen. Spend an hour in her company and you might end up talking about Downton (naturally), misogyny, giant turtles, the Moomins and, yes, sex education in the Netherlands (she has not, as far as I can ascertain, ever lived there, so we must put her knowledge down to an interest in the world around her). You might also discover her favourite pub in Falkirk.

On screen I first really noticed her as the fierce wife of Neil Maskell's damaged hitman in Ben Wheatley's spooked and spooky horror film Kill List. Since then she's played a part in the Twilight franchise and taken on the role of Long Susan, a Victorian brothel keeper in Ripper Street, which I reckon may be the most feminist drama on TV for years; it leaves you in no doubt as to how exploited women were in that era. (She also turned up in the James Corden and Matthew Horne horror comedy Lesbian Vampire Killers, whose feminist ideology was slightly more disguised.)

And now, as Edna the maid, she's got herself a recurring role in Downton, which must be the acting equivalent of a lottery win, I suppose. "I think with hindsight I'd say it is a lottery win," she agrees. "When it happened it was so fast and I'd just come off Ripper Street, literally just finished, and within two days was cast in Downton and was starting work. So it was such a whirlwind. And when you're in the midst of something it's hard sometimes to process what's going on. I mean I appreciated it. I had a great time. It was another fantastic job. I loved the show. It's only in hindsight you realise what a gift it is to work on a show like Downton. And Ripper Street. To have both of them is a real treat."

She now has first-hand experience of the Downton experience. And the responsibility that goes with it. "It was only when I started working on Downton that I realised how particular they are about how they butter toast or drink tea, or how they moved or how they wear clothes. There's a structure and decorum in how they behaved."

Were there lessons for new cast members? "You get instructions. It wasn't like we went to boot camp, but definitely I was told off if I wore my clothes the wrong way, that's for sure."

Downton boot camp sounds like a great spin-off, I say. "Can you imagine?" she says laughing. "I'm sure that could take off. That would be an idea. We're sharing this."

Which would she rather be in real life? A twenties maid or a Victorian brothel keeper? "Hah. Good question." It's the difference between being employed and self-employed, I suppose. "Probably self-employed. Both prospects were bleak at the time. I think Edna would love to be Long Susan. She would happily trade places."

I'm not sure Buring would, though. But then again it's not as if things are perfect in 2013. "In my job you have pay differences. Usually men are paid more. And I think sometimes you do get scripts where females are reduced to quite simplistic characters. I have read so many scripts where it's all about 'page two, the girl gets her top off and humps the man while he's fully clothed'. That still exists and I bristle at that sort of writing. But for the last three years I've played a succession of women where that's not the case. And if sex is involved it's not portrayed in a way that's demeaning as an actor."

This is clearly close to home for her. The problem of misogyny is something that affects us all, she says. "It will affect your son as well as your daughter and so it's for all of us to take responsibility for it.

"And sometimes you can play up to the 'ditsy little blonde' part. But it's your responsibility to say no and to help other people realise that's not all you are or that it's not acceptable to you and making comments about your boobs or your bum isn't really appropriate.


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