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"OH MY GOD I'm so, so sorry." Sophie McShera's reassuring Yorkshire accent is even stronger in real life, "I'm never late". And I believe her. She orders a green tea, quick to point out it's not a diva predisposition for herbal hot water, she just can't do coffee. As she beams at the waitress, declares a deep love for her kindle and moans about East London buses, I realise I might be meeting the nicest person in the entire world. There is nothing underserving of her kindness, even electronics. "Oh, it looks fancy", complimenting my Dictaphone as she offers to hold it to her mouth like a microphone, "we'll test it to make sure it's working".
I admire her flash trainers and high-waisted trousers. This is not the Daisy Mason I know from Downton Abbey, always neutrally uniformed for her role as kitchen assistant. "People are obsessed with how awful it must be to not be in the fancy dresses and not have any makeup, but I'm quite clumsy so I'm happy to be in the dowdy dress." Style disparity aside, it's clear that Daisy's heart-on-sleeve vulnerability belongs entirely to Sophie. "My biggest spill was a whole bowl of tomato soup on the catering bus." With a big laugh, she sips her tea with exaggerated caution."The costume people were sat right where I spilled it and their response was amazing. They basically ripped the dress off me before I knew it and had it in some kind of sink."
Image: J Won coat, Paint It Red top and skirt
As recognition sets in, I sense serious side-eye from our neighbouring tables. Downton Abbey is huge, still huge, after a whopping six years on air and Daisy is one of the show's most beloved characters, in a cast that remains largely unchanged. "We've done all of secondary school together, basically. That's pretty cool." The analogy ends with a big grin, affirming that the show's success hasn't gone to her head. "It's dead nice to make proper friends."
The latest season has seen big changes for Daisy, who opts to get herself educated so she can take over her father-in-law's farm. "She's suddenly ambitious and realised that there might be a world outside the house that she could maybe be a part of." There's certainly no shortage of strong female roles on the show. Really, it's a world governed by women, albeit surreptitiously. "I love how Julian (Fellows) writes for women, he's got all these very strong characters…I've got really strong female role models." And working with the number one matriarch? A breeze. "Maggie Smith is amazing, she's really funny. She's everything you would dream." I am relieved. My fantasy of sharing tea in spinning chairs with the Dowager shall endure.
Image: El Pizo top
As we descend into conversation about her latest project, Cinderella, there's a bit of IRL drama. In a disaster only possible in a Soho café packed with media luvvies, an eager barman mis-pops a champagne bottle, firing the cork and contents into the sea of PR meetings. The suits at the bar, and their eggs, are doused with Moet. It's a potentially social life-threatening situation. But Sophie's laugh cuts through the ensuing silence. "OH NOOO are you OK?" She's asking the entire restaurant. A bit of colour returns to the perpetrator's cheeks and the tension is broken. The bucks fizz business (still fashionable, who knew) can continue as normal.
It's hard to conceive that Cinderella will see Sophie, the aforementioned nicest person in the world, play the role of the ugly sister. Although stateside that label isn't PC. "Everyone says stepsister." Of course they do. The film, as they say, is gonna be huge. Starring Cate Blanchett as the evil stepmother, Helena Bonham-Carter as a fairy godmother and her Downton cast member Lily James as Cinderella, it lands Sophie well and truly amongst the Hollywood big guns.
Image: Orla Kiely top
Swapping downstairs for upstairs was an understandably welcome change of pace. "I had so much fun with Lily (James) because the tables had turned and I was getting to boss her around." Better still, it meant a serious outfit upgrade. "I loved my costumes. Big and silly – my dream dresses. Everything was accessorised, socks, shoes, handbags, hair, everything matched" and there was no room for clumsiness: "Sandy Powell would not have been happy if I'd spilt tomato soup down them. They were incredible, she's a proper genius."
While it's easy to spot the great comic timing needed to pull off the role made famous by Disney, it's harder to see any wicked in Sophie. Whatsoever. But there's a distinct glint in her eye as she confesses, "it was fun playing somebody evil." But you can't fully extract all that good, thankfully: "well…to an extent it was fun. There was one scene where we had to be so mean to Lily that every time he (director Kenneth Branagh, casually) said cut I'd have to run over and say sorry, I felt really bad." Sophie's face creases at the memory. "She's got such an amazing innocence that she makes you want to cry, she's perfect for Cinderella."
I ease cautiously into what it was like to work alongside Cate Blanchett, fearing tales of method acting horrors. Instead, Sophie emits a large, contented sigh. "IT WAS AMAZING." Phew. "I'm such a huge fan, and me and Holiday (?) saw Blue Jasmine like the day before we met her, and we were like WHY DID WE DO THAT." But, as it turns out, there was nothing to worry about. "She puts you at ease, she's very funny and normal – why wouldn't she be…I was just in awe of her. Which is kind of convenient because we had to be in awe of her in character too."
We part ways, after a lengthy debate on who she'd like most to work with next (Julianne Moore) and I'm hoping some of that goodness has rubbed off on me. Strolling through the West End, I do feel like there's hope for the world yet. But then again, it might just be my champagne soaked jacket going to my head.
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