A minute before MyAnna Buring, new star of Downton Abbey and soon to be seen again in BBC One's Victorian thriller series Ripper Street, had been talking about the difference between the Victorian and post-First World War era her characters lived in and the 21st-century one the actor herself occupies.
Then suddenly we've taken a left turn into the sexualisation of children, thongs being sold in kids' clothing stores and the horrible idea that the young are learning about sex from pornography and how we need to tackle that. "It's not about banning pornography. We need education," Buring says. Which is how we ended up discussing the Dutch approach to teaching the facts of life. "They start when they are incredibly young and they teach in a way that's appropriate for the age, but they are matter-of-fact about it. There's no lying. No pretending. No talk of storks. So I think young kids are growing up not being confused. They have all the information and if there's something they don't know they are not afraid to go and find out in a healthy way."
Michael Russell, take note.
MyAnna Buring is Swedish by birth, British by location and anything but "blonde" in outlook (if you take the colour of hair and the quality of thought as in some way analogous - and Buring can confirm, some people still do). It turns out, too, that she's as vivid in person as she is on the screen. Spend an hour in her company and you might end up talking about Downton (naturally), misogyny, giant turtles, the Moomins and, yes, sex education in the Netherlands (she has not, as far as I can ascertain, ever lived there, so we must put her knowledge down to an interest in the world around her). You might also discover her favourite pub in Falkirk.
On screen I first really noticed her as the fierce wife of Neil Maskell's damaged hitman in Ben Wheatley's spooked and spooky horror film Kill List. Since then she's played a part in the Twilight franchise and taken on the role of Long Susan, a Victorian brothel keeper in Ripper Street, which I reckon may be the most feminist drama on TV for years; it leaves you in no doubt as to how exploited women were in that era. (She also turned up in the James Corden and Matthew Horne horror comedy Lesbian Vampire Killers, whose feminist ideology was slightly more disguised.)
And now, as Edna the maid, she's got herself a recurring role in Downton, which must be the acting equivalent of a lottery win, I suppose. "I think with hindsight I'd say it is a lottery win," she agrees. "When it happened it was so fast and I'd just come off Ripper Street, literally just finished, and within two days was cast in Downton and was starting work. So it was such a whirlwind. And when you're in the midst of something it's hard sometimes to process what's going on. I mean I appreciated it. I had a great time. It was another fantastic job. I loved the show. It's only in hindsight you realise what a gift it is to work on a show like Downton. And Ripper Street. To have both of them is a real treat."
She now has first-hand experience of the Downton experience. And the responsibility that goes with it. "It was only when I started working on Downton that I realised how particular they are about how they butter toast or drink tea, or how they moved or how they wear clothes. There's a structure and decorum in how they behaved."
Were there lessons for new cast members? "You get instructions. It wasn't like we went to boot camp, but definitely I was told off if I wore my clothes the wrong way, that's for sure."
Downton boot camp sounds like a great spin-off, I say. "Can you imagine?" she says laughing. "I'm sure that could take off. That would be an idea. We're sharing this."
Which would she rather be in real life? A twenties maid or a Victorian brothel keeper? "Hah. Good question." It's the difference between being employed and self-employed, I suppose. "Probably self-employed. Both prospects were bleak at the time. I think Edna would love to be Long Susan. She would happily trade places."
I'm not sure Buring would, though. But then again it's not as if things are perfect in 2013. "In my job you have pay differences. Usually men are paid more. And I think sometimes you do get scripts where females are reduced to quite simplistic characters. I have read so many scripts where it's all about 'page two, the girl gets her top off and humps the man while he's fully clothed'. That still exists and I bristle at that sort of writing. But for the last three years I've played a succession of women where that's not the case. And if sex is involved it's not portrayed in a way that's demeaning as an actor."
This is clearly close to home for her. The problem of misogyny is something that affects us all, she says. "It will affect your son as well as your daughter and so it's for all of us to take responsibility for it.
"And sometimes you can play up to the 'ditsy little blonde' part. But it's your responsibility to say no and to help other people realise that's not all you are or that it's not acceptable to you and making comments about your boobs or your bum isn't really appropriate.
"I used to think: 'Aw, you've got to joke about it …' and you do. We take things too seriously at times. But I also think it's important to realise that sometimes if you don't draw a line for people they're going to be able to overstep the mark with you.
"I think if you want to play on your sexuality as a male or a female then, of course, you should have the right to do that. I just think that sometimes women in particular are encouraged to do that."
Which is almost where we came in. She does say at one point that we are as a society too fixated on the physical. Which might come across as rather rich given that she's hardly lacking in that department. But she does add: "It's not really how you look. It's how you feel. You could look a million dollars, everyone could tell you that. But if you feel awful it won't make a blind bit of difference."
To her mum and dad (and a few friends) she's My (pronounced Me). MyAnna was a name she got at school in the Middle East, a conflation of her first and middle names. If you want to give her her full title she's My Anna Margaretha Buring. "And then I found out only this year - because my mum's Rantapaa and my dad's Buring and I've always been a Buring - but apparently because my parents weren't married when I was born I was registered as Buring Rantapaa so I realised I've got a whole new surname. My Anna Margaretha Buring Rantapaa, which might be a little too much for working purposes."
She was named My after the character in the Moomins. Her mother was reading Tove Jansson's books when she was pregnant, "and the character was described as 'happy, angry, but never regretful' and my mum thought: 'Yeah.' That's all she wanted for her kid. It's good to be angry every now and again, get it out of your system. It was great to be happy. But to be regretful is pointless."
Ask her to speak Swedish and she does, a fluting throaty tumble of words one of which I recognise as Soho (where we're meeting). But as she points out, she's spent most of her life, 17 years out of 33, in the UK. "I keep being defined as a Swedish actress, but as an actor I think I'm definitely British. I've never worked in Sweden."
When she was a child the family moved to the Middle East when her father, an orthopaedic surgeon, got a job there. "He's never been afraid of adventure and trying new things." Her mother, meanwhile, sold exclusive fur coats and Christmas trees in Kuwait. Buring remembers waking up in the night and seeing flashing lights in the distance; explosions from the Iran-Iraq war. The family also spent time in Oman where she'd race jet skies or go camping in the desert with the Bedouins or watch giant turtles lay their eggs. It sounds like a magical childhood all in all. "I suppose Sweden is magical too, really idyllic. And I'm aware of how lucky I am."
She thinks she's inherited her parents' sense of adventure, "the lack of fear in the face of new opportunities. And also the lack of fear about the fact that life changes. It's never constant. Maybe that's helped me as an actor."
She has one brother but there are 13 years between them and they have different fathers. At 14 she returned to Sweden to go to school. "I tried to convince my parents to let me live on my own. I did a whole presentation about how this would be a good idea. I think I was very independent.
"I love my parents. I'm really close to both of them. But I just felt this desire to establish my independence, to forge my way in the world. So I thought living on my own would be fantastic. My parents went: 'She's smoking crack. That's ridiculous.' So I compromised and went to a boarding school just outside Stockholm."
She quit after a year. At 16 she was living with her boyfriend and working as a glass collector in a restaurant. The shine of that life soon faded too. "I realised I was really broke, really tired and really understimulated and I thought school might be a good idea."
So she went to school in Oxford which she liked much more. Then Bristol University where she studied drama and Spanish (though she dropped the Spanish) and eventually the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
By then her dad had moved to Scotland to work. To Falkirk, where she'd come and visit him. That's where I live now, I tell her. "Really? Is Behind The Wall still there?" She's inordinately pleased when I tell her it is. "That was the place to be."
In her summer holidays she would work in Stirling, working on her Scottish accent. How's that going? "It's all right. It's no' bad," she replies. Like a native. Then there was the odd Edinburgh Fringe play. "I always say learn how to put on an Edinburgh show. You will have skills for life."
She started getting acting jobs just under 10 years ago. Parts in Casualty and Doctor Who on TV, and the lead in Neil Marshall's horror film The Descent. She appeared in the sequel in 2009, the same year as Lesbian Vampire Killers, Corden and Horne's ill-fated film debut after the success of Gavin And Stacey. Buring is happy to give it a sort of defence. "I first read the title and thought: 'Aww, this is another one.' And yes, all the female parts were two dimensional. But I also saw in it a tongue-in-cheek nod to Hammer horror. It was meant to be wink-wink, nudge-nudge.
"When it came out it had already been overhyped … but that happens. I think other people always want me to go: 'It was so bad,' but I can't say it was. It was what it was. Artistically or creatively it's not a Kill List for me, but it was fun."
It was Kill List that opened all the doors for her, and even helped get her a job in the Twilight films, where she worked with R-Patz and Kristen, as well as such Oscar winners as Anna Kendrick and director Bill Condon. She remembers the cast and crew having an Oscar party to watch the Academy Awards during filming and looking around and realising: "I'm sitting in a room with six Oscar winners. This is incredible. These are people at the top of their game, who have so many stories about an industry I am fascinated by. What a treat! How lovely is that?"
MyAnna Buring is full of stories too. And opinions. If she was Scottish you might say she's decided to choose life. Or something like it.
"I think happiness is a choice we can make. I think circumstance plays a part, but also I think it's a choice. Horrific things happen all the time. If you make a choice to always see the good in things you will always find something good. If you choose to see the bad you will always find something bad. There's a freedom in that positive thinking because it means you are not locked into things. You have the ability to change things yourself."
Here endeth the lesson. n
Downton Abbey continues on STV at 9pm tomorrow night. Ripper Street returns later this year