Interview with Raquel Cassidy

Best known for her role in the BBC comedy series Lead Balloon, actress RAQUEL CASSIDY has joined the cast of ITV’s drama Downton Abbey. She tells Zoë McIntyre about her acting and travelling experiences in France

In the BBC sitcom Heading Out, broadcast earlier this year, you played a free-spirited French woman called Sabine. What was it like taking that part?

I loved everything about it, from the first moment of the audition. Sometimes characters grab your heart and say, “This is how I need to be done!” It’s delightful, because it feels quite an easy thing to do.

Did you have to research the role a great deal?

In terms of the Frenchness, I went to see somebody so that if I wanted to improvise during scenes, I had the right words in French. In secondary school, one of our teachers, Mrs Cook, taught us an important lesson – that to improve our French accent we should speak English with a French accent, so we did that in class. Effectively, I have been rehearsing for the role of Sabine since the age of 11!

You have recently returned from an acting role in Paris. What was that like?

I was filming a guest role for a new crime thriller [called Jo] alongside Jean Reno, based in Paris, but shot in English. My character was really downtrodden – the worst kind of anti-heroine. Those roles are interesting, but they’re not enjoyable; you give yourself over to them and then it all feels rather tough.

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What was it like working alongside Jean Reno?

From his appearances in The Big Blue and Léon to more modern work, I have always thought him to be an interesting and challenging actor. I actually met him and went, “Oh my God, he’s also lovely and charming and funny,” which I wasn’t prepared for, as I thought he might have kept himself to himself. He was not at all a ‘star’ in the worst sense of the word.

How did you find Paris as a backdrop?

It was amazing; and such a beautiful set. It’s exciting being driven through Paris when you’re going to film there. It’s a dream come true. There are places where you just go, “You want to pay me to go and work there? Thanks, I’d love to!” and Paris is certainly one of them.

What other places in France have you enjoyed?

One of my favourite holidays was going along the north-eastern coast via the port of Honfleur in Normandy (pictured below). It is quite a wild and rugged area, and impossibly beautiful. I’ve always been a Francophile, even though I’m half-Spanish [Raquel’s mother is Spanish]. For me, France is somewhere that is magical and frightening at the same time. Our family used to drive through it on the way to Spain – we would go over the mountains on the border and arrive in places after dark. In the morning, we would have bowls of hot chocolate and huge croissants.

What do you like most about France?

I’ve always had a romantic feeling about the country, and also love the food – particularly the cheese – and the language. I like the way people in France really love being French. You know the kind of thing: “We’re French and you can fit in if you want, but if you don’t, then tough!”

Are you a fan of French TV and cinema?

I don’t think I’ve seen a bad French film. I love the scenes and the strength of the characters, especially the women; not in the sense of being gun-toting and muscle-bound, but in the ability to explore their vulnerability and complexity.

Are there other French actors with whom you want to work?

Marion Cotillard is one; she is extraordinary, but I’m not sure I would be able to open my mouth in her presence. One of the first French films I remember seeing was Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. The lead actor [Denis Lavant] and Juliette Binoche were astonishing.

Tell us a recent French film that you would recommend.

I saw the three French entries in this year’s Bafta Best Foreign Language Film category, because I was on the awards panel. All three were excellent: Amour [the eventual winner], The Intouchables and Rust and Bone. The last one haunted me the most, especially the scene where the child is under the ice – I think I was shouting at the screen, “No, no, no, it cannot happen!” It swept me up to a different place.

The fourth series of Downton Abbey is on ITV1 in now.