Playing the Mrs. to 'Mr. Selfridge'

Frances O'Connor discusses playing Mr. Selfridge's wife on the latest PBS Masterpiece Classic.

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Riding off the (literal) coattails of "Downton Abbey," "Mr. Selfridge" is another hit British-period drama being showcased on PBS's Masterpiece Classic. But where "Downton Abby" explores the decay of the British class system from the countryside, the eight-part "Mr. Selfridge" focuses on the forces pushing England forward in the city—namely, an American department store magnate set to revolutionize the way London does retail.

Jeremy Piven, best known as pushy agent Ari Gold on HBO's "Entourage", marquees as Harry Selfridge, based on the real life innovating merchant who opened the grand London department store Selfridge's in 1909. So far, reviews of his performance have been mixed. Luckily, he is buoyed by a number of female-centric storylines, each more intriguing and unexpected than the last—from the pretty showgirl Ellen Love (Zoe Tapper) who as Harry's mistress and the "face of Selfridge's," is collapsing under the weight of her own insecurities; to Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus), a unassuming, working class accessories assistant who has caught the eye of her male colleagues at the store.

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And then there is Mrs. Selfridge herself, Rose. The daughter of a wealthy family, Rose has given up her life of comfort in Chicago to watch her husband labor to make his new-fangled business model work. Where Harry is loud, she is demure; where he is domineering, she is serving; where Harry is hasty, she is thoughtful and patient—even in the face of his very public infidelity.

"She kind of has a slightly introversion to her and a delicacy to her, but also a strength," says Frances O'Connor, the Australian actress who plays her. "I think {she ] is a great contrast to Harry Selfridge."

O'Connor has compared her character to Hillary Clinton, in that in the face of his affairs—not too mention the difficulties of moving to London, where high society is difficult to break in to—she can remain loyal to him.

"He's a idealist, he's a dreamer and she loves that in him," says O'Connor. "She knows he's got a dark side, and it's something that she grapples with. It's not easy for her."

But Rose doesn't complain or wallow in self pity. She sets out on her own journey of independence, exploring her interests in art and dance—and even the attentions of her own extramarital suitor..

O'Connor looked to the wives of powerful men for inspiration. "Their psychology is interesting in and of itself because it can be a thankless task and they are kind of invisible. And yet the husbands are totally dependent on them, for advice, for support."

Rose Selfridge certainly isn't invisible on the eight-part series. Playing the yin to Harry's yang, she shines.

Mr. Selfridge premieres Sunday, March 31 at 9 p.m. on PBS.

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