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Making Miss Reed

With much buzz around British period drama Downton Abbey, most of its fans were glued to their TV when season three opened on PBS last January. KET (Kentucky Educational Television) reported right away that a record 7.9 million viewed it, and the number tripled by the season’s finale. The American audience was treated to two episodes in one sitting as the series began. In it, we watch Shirley MacLaine as Lady Grantham’s American mother, Martha Levinson, arriving at Downton. She is accompanied by her maid, Miss Reed, played by dark-haired, distinct-voiced, Kentucky native Lucille Sharp.

For 23-year-old actress Lucille Sharp, her ride from Reed Lane—where she started her foundation years as a drama major at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts (SCAPA) Lafayette High School—to Miss Reed, her role in mega-hit Downton Abbey, has been nothing short of adventure.

“Since I was a little girl, I couldn’t suppress my need for adventure,” Sharp tells me from her apartment in London. It made her try many sports at an early age and explore the world of Lexington Children’s Theatre (LCT)—part acting, part play. “In the long run, acting was the only thing that stuck,” she says. And at age 9, she auditioned for SCAPA in Lexington.

She has a vague recollection of that audition, but remembers being Alice in Wonderland, and talking to a stuffed animal she brought with her. “It is kind of strange to audition for school when you are so young. I would love to see that audition,” says Sharp, laughing. Strange or not, the audition landed her in the SCAPA drama program, which back in 1999 was already a spot in high demand. With an eye on talent, SCAPA directors Alberta Labrillazo and Paul Thomas figured out Sharp’s strengths early on.

“She had incredible intensity and determination, rare in one so young. But also the work ethic. Her eagerness to experiment and challenge herself led me to cast her as Anne Frank during her freshman year,” says Thomas. Many in Lexington still remember her captivating rendition of Captain Hook in Peter Pan, and spirited Anne Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank, both SCAPA productions, as well as Juliet in Summerfest’s Romeo and Juliet.

But her adventurous streak pushed her to explore the theater world beyond her hometown of Lexington. “When I was at the beginning of high school I decided to go for arts camp at Interlochen to study somewhere else in the summer, to gain the experience, and be away from home,” says Sharp.

Her summer camp morphed into two years at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. While there, and searching for college, she saw a flier calling for auditions for the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. “I didn’t tell anyone, and said to myself, we would see what happens.” What happened was the acceptance letter, and three wonderful years at the conservatory in Glasgow, Scotland, after which she decided to stay in London and audition there.

Sharp recalls having always been fascinated by other actors. “I was lucky to have SCAPA and LCT growing up—people in Lexington who were devoted to theater. And we were always going to see things, whether in Lexington, Louisville, or Cincinnati.”

Fascinated by other actors—how about playing next to Shirley MacLaine in your first professional role? “Goodness. I guess I didn’t know what to expect,” says Sharp excitedly. She had a month for a read-through to prepare for the role of Reed in Downton before they started filming. “I was trying to get my head around what it was going to be like. “In one weekend, Sharp visited all the Shirley MacLaine films, being so fascinated by her co-actress. “I saw Shirley on set properly only for two days, but I tried to get whatever wisdom I could. She has the strongest personality I’ve ever seen, and such an incredible self-assurance and confidence that you only get from decades in the industry.” But while on set, doing her job and being focused was Sharp’s primary goal. “You always want to make the impression on the first job, and there is the nervousness and the excitement.”

I ask about how the character is created and if there is a backstory to Reed. “Not really,” says Sharp. “I discussed it with the director, and the historical advisor. But you don’t have a huge amount of information about her, so you have to create the life of this person on your own. Reed is young, about 17, and impressionable. For her age at the time to be a lady’s maid was nearly impossible. That’s why she is resented a little bit by the staff at Downton, because she has this enviable position. And she is like ‘I am here doing my job and you can’t tell me otherwise.’ Secretly, though, Reed is fascinated by this whole British world, and very excited to travel. She probably hasn’t been anywhere else outside Newport and New York. I had to create what her life was like day to day, based on my information. There she was.”

After the PBS broadcast, many of Sharp’s friends called, also from places like Mexico, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. She was amazed the show reached that wide and far. Sharp attributes its success to the excellent cast of wonderful actors as well as Julian Fellowes’ interesting, fast-paced script. Many period dramas are based on big swooping English novels.

“But the pace and the pulse of this show is very modern. “Sharp feels it’s in sync with her generation. “We have our YouTube, our Facebook, and our Skype. We are used to living in these increments of time,” Sharp says.

The show works very well with the modern attention span. There is never a dull moment. The intrigues are cropping up everywhere. And as viewers we seem to spend as much time with the Crawley family upstairs as with their help downstairs. Their lives are equally fascinating, and equally trapped.

The part of Reed on Downton created something else for Lucille Sharp’s professional acting life. Sharp says, “I have more sense of confidence because of more camera experience. And I have this experience on a very successful show. It is the conversation starter in the audition room.”

She is signed up with two agents: one in London and one in New York. “It helps to have someone on both sides of the pond and they are all lovely, influential women…and very honest with me,” says Sharp.

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