Playing 'Downton Abbey' maid had 'overwhelming' moments for Lexington actress

Lexington native Lucille Sharp played Reed, maid to Shirley MacLaine's American aristocrat, in Downtown Abbey's third season premiere on Sunday.
Lexington native Lucille Sharp played Reed, maid to Shirley MacLaine's American aristocrat, in Downtown Abbey's third season premiere on Sunday. Gary Moyes/Carnival Films

When Season 3 of the British television phenomenon Downton Abbey debuted to record-high U.S. audiences Sunday on PBS, most fans eagerly anticipated the appearance of Shirley MacLaine as the countess of Grantham's American mother, Martha Levinson. But many Central Kentuckians were just as excited to get a glimpse of her maid, Reed.

Lexington native Lucille Sharp, 22, a relative acting novice, won the role of Reed about a year ago.

When she was called to audition, Sharp said, she was vaguely aware of the global megahit, broadcast in the United States as part of the Masterpiece Classics series.

"My first introduction was last Christmas. My mom loved the show, so we had to sit on the couch and have a glass of wine and watch," Sharp said during an interview with the Herald-Leader. "It was just a few weeks later that I got the call."

Shortly after she was cast, she found out she would be acting opposite MacLaine.

"I kind of squealed over the phone," Sharp said. "She's just fabulous. ... Outgoing, confident, beautiful. ... Working with her was overwhelming."

Sharp's part wasn't big — she got only about five minutes of screen time during Sunday's two-hour premiere and won't return this season — but she did have some fun with it. In the Downton Abbey maid spectrum, Reed falls somewhere between stalwart, good-hearted Anna and scheming O'Brien.

"She's her own thing," Sharp said of Reed. "There's one American downstairs and one upstairs. They both cause trouble and are forward, confident women."

And it seems that many, many viewers saw Sharp play Reed: According to the Nielsen ratings, Sunday's third-season premiere attracted 7.9 million viewers, a high for Downton Abbey, PBS said. That's nearly twice the 4.2 million who tuned in for the second season's debut and quadruple the average PBS prime time rating, the network said.

Sharp, daughter of Lee and Steve Sharp, attended the School for the Creative and Performing Arts in Lexington from fourth through 10th grades. Her last two years of high school were spent at Arts Academy High School in Interlochen, Mich. She went on to study at the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and Drama in Glasgow, from which she graduated in 2011.

Lavish and melodramatic, Downton Abbey follows the travails of the Crawley family and their servants at an English estate early in the 20th century. Its large cast includes Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville.

More than 17 million viewers watched the second season of Downton Abbey, according to PBS, making it the most-watched Masterpiece installment in the series' history. The period drama has won nine Emmy Awards and been nominated for dozens more, and is up for three Golden Globes on Sunday.

Of the 1920-set third season, which airs on PBS stations through Feb. 17 and already has been broadcast in Great Britain, Sharp can reveal little. "There are a lot of surprises in store," is all she will say.

Sharp spent a few days filming at the real-life setting for Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England. But she said she preferred working on the downstairs scenes, the realm of the servants, filmed at Ealing Studios in London.

"Highclere is beautiful, enormous, very elegant," Sharp said.

And maybe a little intimidating.

"I was just trying to do my job and get out of there in one piece," she said. "I really just needed to keep focused, ... but how can you not be starstruck?"

Since her time on the show, she has stayed friends with Matt Milne, the War Horse star who played new footman Alfred (recipient of Reed's forward American interest).

Her favorite cast member: Phyllis Logan, the Scottish actress who plays dauntless housekeeper Mrs. Hughes.

"I really loved her. She's from Glasgow (the one in Scotland, not Kentucky), where I went to drama school," Sharp said.

As for what's next for Sharp, she's back in London, trying to decide whether to stay in England and making ends meet with voice-over work for a driving video game.

"I'm kind of in a funny place," she said. "I have a visa, so I'm trying to figure out where I'm going to live for the next couple of years. In terms of work, I haven't got anything lined up. Back to the grindstone, auditioning."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader