Interview: DOWNTON ABBEY'S Amy Nuttall and Ed Speleers
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November 14, 2015
The Great War is over and a long-awaited engagement is on, but all is not tranquil at DOWNTON ABBEY as wrenching social changes, romantic intrigues, and personal crises grip the majestic English country estate for a third thrilling season.
With the return of its all-star cast plus guest star Academy Award®-winner Shirley MacLaine, DOWNTON ABBEY, Season 3 airs over seven Sundays on PBS beginning on January 6, 2013. BWW brings you a series of interviews with the award-winning cast of this popular PBS series. Next up, actors Amy Nuttall and Ed Speleers.
AN INTERVIEW WITH Amy Nuttall
The first surprise for Amy Nuttall, who plays maid Ethel Parks in Downton Abbey’s third series, was that she was in it at all.
“I was always of the understanding that I was only going to be a series two character, so it was a lovely surprise to find that I was back for series three. At the end of filming last time round I got a call from a producer saying, ‘Watch this space,’ as in, ‘Don't go rushing off just yet.’ And then when it was confirmed... I was absolutely chuffed to bits. In fact I was chuffed to bits just to have been in the whole of series two, so it was the icing on the cake to be able to come back and do more.”
Ethel was last seen with a babe in arms born out of wedlock. And as we join her, things have only got worse.
“I think we can say that she’s fallen on hard times. Other than the workhouse there aren’t too many lower rungs of the ladder to fall down than where she is, in terms of society’s view of her. No, things aren’t going too well.”
Ethel’s storyline represents a stark historical fact, however. After the war many women found themselves without husbands and with no means to support themselves. They had to do what they could to make ends meet.
“Historically, what happens to Ethel happened to thousands of women. It’s not like in this day and age when we have the welfare state. Back then you would have been completely shunned by society and frowned upon. It’s not unusual today to have babies out of wedlock but it leaves Ethel hugely dependent on the kindness of others. Fortunately for her there are a couple of people that do step in to help her. They’re hugely unlikely sources of support, let’s just say that.”
It has meant, however, that Nuttall has been away from most of her friends on the cast for much of filming.
“It’s been nice to have my own storyline and it was a completely unexpected arc, but in one respect it’s a shame being in a different place – out of the house, neither upstairs nor downstairs - because I don’t get to see anyone. Normally there’s a lot of banter and a lot of fun, especially in the downstairs scenes. Instead I was out filming in Beaconsfield, Bampton and Ealing. But we’ve kept in touch.”
In the meantime she’s been enjoying the company of a new co-star: because her on-screen baby Charlie has now grown in to a little boy.
“The little boy playing my son Charlie was just a complete star. He was called Frank, he was about two and a half and he was amazing. Obviously you can’t tell a child of that age to be quiet when they say, ‘Action.’ So bless him, he was listening to every line and then he’d react and say his own little lines that he made up and just came out with. But it somehow worked. We all just adored this little boy and in the end I think they got some great takes.”
AN INTERVIEW WITH ED SPELEERS
What’s it like for a newcomer joining a hit series?
“The first day was like a first day at a new school,” says Ed Speleers. “But luckily everyone’s been very welcoming here. My character arrives a few episodes in, so it’s not like I had a rehearsal period or a read through to really get to know everyone. I literally had to arrive in the middle of the scene in the day and hit the ground running. It meant I didn't have any time to think too much, and actually I think that that’s the only way you can approach it: you just get on with it. There are a lot of big personalities here - great personalities, but they're big personalities. And it’s Downton: it does have a big name.”
Speleers, whose break came when he was cast in the lead in 20th Century Fox’s 2006 fantasy epic Eragon, plays Jimmy, a new footman.
“Jimmy is a very ambitious young man who has come into the house having worked at the Dowager Lady Anstruther’s house and obviously done quite well there. He’s vying for the position of first footman. He comes into it as a bit of a mystery man - no one really quite knows who he’s into; what his turn-ons and turn-offs are as such. But as the series develops he gets himself into a couple of sticky situations.”
Jimmy quickly grasps that to get along below stairs he will have to contend with Thomas, just like everybody else.
“He actually realises that in order to succeed he’s got to keep in with Thomas, because Thomas is directly above him and a valet is what Jimmy aspires to be.”
But there’s one other thing.
“He doesn't know what the viewers know, and have known for the last two series - that O’Brien’s a conniving so-and-so.”
Jimmy’s appearance is both a problem and a bonus – all of the girls fancy him the minute he walks in. But that doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it might today. Speleers says that a handsome man in the 20s would have seen himself differently to now.
“It’s something that Alastair Bruce [Downton’s historical advisor] talked about quite early on actually – the idea that men at that time, if they were regarded as a handsome fellow, probably wouldn't appreciate it in the same way as a modern man would. It might even make them a bit uncomfortable, which I thought was an interesting take. I’ve tried to make it more about the fact that he’s coming in for a job interview and he’s really nervous about that. He’s oblivious to the fact that there might be a couple of women staring at him.”
Speleers says that once he was cast his first priority was to get up to speed on matters of etiquette, status and of course history.
“Carson is my God basically, so although Lord Grantham effectively employs me the man I really want to impress at all times is Carson. Alastair Bruce has instilled that in me. But the other thing he’s taught me is the idea that it’s 1920 now, so my character would certainly have fought in the First World War. He wouldn’t dwell on it but it’s there ticking over in the back of his mind – he has seen people die and that’s a much more serious thing than making sure that the silver’s polished properly.”
Speleers needed physical, as well as mental training for the role. Deportment matters at Downton.
“Alastair said I’ve got a bit of a waddle. So he got me marching, properly marching, all day, just marching up and down. I’ve also found the costume helps. It may get bloody hot, but every time this suit goes on my back instantly straightens up.”