It would have been easy to make O'Brien Downton Abbey's irredeemable villain. Hell, all the pieces were there to place her alongside small screen scoundrels like 24's Sherri Palmer, Once Upon A Time's Evil Queen or Melrose Place's Amanda -- but that would have been predictable, obvious and completely contrary to the elegant character development Downton has embraced since day one.
O'Brien has not only been given a breadth of rich material which makes her so multifaceted, but also a remarkable actress capable of bringing this dynamic duality to life. ETonline recently caught up with the effervescent Siobhan Finneran (who could not be more different from her character) to find out why she loves O'Brien so, what fans can expect from the remainder of season two and when the past will come back to haunt her!
ETonline: Why do you think the world has become so obsessed with Downton Abbey?
Siobhan Finneran: I think we all quite like seeing into other people's homes. In the time it came out, there was very little set in that time and people love a period drama. Also, I think the way Julian [Fellows] wrote the characters, there's something about each character that appeals to the audience. Whether they recognize a part of themselves in that character, or just empathize with them -- once you can do that, you're really invested in whatever journey those people are going on so they can see who's doing what, to who, and when.
ETonline: I believe one of the show's greatest strengths is really exploring how multifaceted these characters are -- and O'Brien is the greatest example of that. What is it about her that you continue to be drawn to?
Finneran: I really, really like her so that helps a great amount and I find her very funny and a little bit naughty. I think when we first saw her, everyone assumed she would be Cruella De Vil or the Wicked Witch of the West -- but there's so much more going on beneath that. I think sometimes her severity and the way she is with the other people in the house, comes down to the fact that she's completely brilliant at her job and will never let anything take that away from her. She doesn't like to be out of control and is more aware of everybody in the house more than anybody else is. And I think that comes from some dark, dim past which we don't ever find out about – which I quite like because I think it keeps the audience guessing as to why she behaves the way she does. This season, you'll start to see a softer side to her.
ETonline: You mentioned that O'Brien likes to be in control -- and given what we've seen this season with just how much sway she holds with Lady Cora, it kind of seems like she feels untouchable. Is that fair to say?
Finneran: Yes. Absolutely. And that's where she likes to be. I think that's born from a massive insecurity but she would appear to be a bit of a megalomaniac. As well as using Lady Cora to her advantage, she's also become very protective of her and won't let anybody really near her to do any harm at all. It comes from that huge sense of guilt.
ETonline: Will the soap incident come up again?
Finneran: She's holding on to a tremendous amount of guilt over Soap-gate, as we call it, and she tries to make amends for that. With interesting results.
ETonline: There was a very interesting moment in last week's episode where Thomas moves past his issue with Bates and O'Brien says "clearly I hold a grudge longer than you do." Why do you think that is?
Finneran: Thomas has been away at war and seen so many things that affected him different ways. So they're not on the same page as much in season two because he's gone through this huge thing that she hasn't experienced. She's like a dog with a bone when it comes to Bates -- she just can’t let it drop. And I believe if O'Brien was to sit and think logically for a second, she would realize that it's a futile feud. To be honest, I don't know why she can't let it drop -- but as this season goes on, you see that really she doesn't wish him as much harm as you first might think.
ETonline: What else are you excited for fans to see this season?
Finneran: I wish I could tell you that she has a complete makeover and ends up with shoulder length blonde hair and red lipstick but sadly that doesn't happen [laughs]. That's my secret O'Brien fantasy. We're about to start shooting season three, so I'm quite looking forward to getting to be a bit of an old grumpy again [laughs]. I think that's what people like about her. I don't think we need to explain her reasons too much because I think people genuinely like that she can just be bad. Maybe one day we’ll find out the full extent as to why, but I think people like to make that up in their head.
Downton Abbey airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on PBS.