Interview: DOWNTON ABBEY's Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Brown Findlay
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 the first in a series of interviews with the award-winning cast of this popular PBS series. First up, actors Hugh Bonneville and Jessica Brown Findlay.
AN INTERVIEW WITH HUGH BONNEVILLE
“Some people genuinely think one lives this lifestyle,” laughs Hugh Bonneville, sitting on the grass in a field in front of Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey. The sun is glistening through the trees and for a moment it really does feel like another, probably better, world. And this is all part of Downton Abbey’s appeal, Bonneville says.
“There is a nostalgia in these troubled times that we look for something that’s a little bit less frenetic, a little less panicky, a little bit less nasty. Even though the social world around Downton in real life would have been pretty horrendous for 90% of the population of this world, our telly world, our fictional world seems to be a nice little retreat to go to sometimes.”
Series three, he says, will see a return to a gentler pace of life at Downton Abbey after the cataclysm of the First World War.
“The entire nine episodes have taken place over about 18 months so there's a much slower pace to things developing. I think that’s given Julian [Fellowes] the scope to really explore the character relationships at a gentler step. The freneticism or the impact of the First World War in the second series blew the emotions of the house apart. It made for a very extreme graph on the oscilloscope if you like, a wave pattern of big emotions here, there and everywhere because of the impact of the outside world. This series the outside world still impacts on the house, obviously, but it's in a much more nuanced way.”
That’s not to say there won’t be troubles aplenty for his character Robert, Earl of Grantham.
“After the end of the war and the Spanish flu and Matthew and Mary finally resolving that they're going to be together, I think part of him feels that life will return to how it was before the War: the old order will be restored. But of course life isn't like that - the changes that were brought about by the First World War and its aftermath are things he’s going to have to face.”
For a start there’s a huge estate to finance when Robert, as Bonneville puts it, “is not a man of figures.”
“You're beginning to see the cracks in the country house estate as a notion, what with the social changes brought about after the First World War. The big estates really did start to have to fight for survival.”
It is up to Robert to lead that fight, in spite of business not being his strong point. “Ultimately what Robert cares about is the family, be that his own family or the larger family of the estate - that’s his passion and he will do anything that will stop it falling apart.”
Robert also has to deal with the arrival of his mother in law: never an easy time. But as in this case she was played by Shirley MacLaine, Bonneville says he was more than happy to see her.
“It was quite something - I was there in the hall when Maggie [Smith] and Shirley first met. It was like Stanley meeting Livingstone, you know - these two great adventurers of our industry meeting for the first time on the show. Often in the dinner scenes, with me sitting between Maggie and Shirley, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven really, listening to some of the stories about the people they’ve worked with. The Apartment’s one of my favourite films and to be able to quiz her about Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon and the way they shot it and the editor and all that sort of thing, it's fascinating. I think she’s a remarkable woman and Maggie and she got on famously.”
It is a mark of Downton Abbey’s international reputation that actors like MacLaine want to appear on the show.
“It’s impact has been growing and growing,” says Bonneville. “When you’re here in a field in Highclere Castle, you know, just getting on with filming a cricket match or whatever, you’re not really aware of the way that it's been grasped to the world’s bosom. It’s very gratifying because ultimately we’re still trying to just get on with doing our day job. Yet go to New York or LA and it’s quite overwhelming actually. The only downside is people think you are the character – when of course you don’t actually live in a big house and wear a lot of tweed!”
That said, there are some aspects of the 1920s life Bonneville does appreciate.
“I think secretly we all acknowledge it would be nicer if we weren’t quite so tied to our mobiles and weren’t chasing our tails all the time but then again, you think about the phenomenal advances that have come since.”
He weighs it all up and concludes, “No, I can't really pretend I would like to live in that era, even with pots of dosh and a big house with cracks in the ceiling.”
AN INTERVIEW WITH Jessica Brown FINDLAY
A prosthetic pregnant belly proved the most entertaining prop for Jessica Brown Findlay while filming series three of Downton Abbey.
“Endless amusement!” she says. “Once I had my pregnant belly on Allen [Leech, who plays her husband Branson] kept trying to tell everyone that I hadn’t got it on - so they’d just think I was fat.”
Sybil’s impending baby is just one of several seismic changes to her life. Yet according to Brown Findlay, they’ve all been for the better:
“A lot has changed for Sybil but we find her incredibly happy and settled. She’s been able to find her identity. She’s spent these months in Ireland with Branson, she’s had the joy of work, she’s felt an independence and she’s completely accepted there. She’s just really content. I think she’s still hoping for some sort of reconciliation between her husband and her family, but in general it’s the happiest and most content we’ve seen her. And of course she’s pregnant – so she’s preparing for her own little family, too.”
In historical terms, however, the so-called Irish Question now looms large over Downton Abbey, and Sybil and Branson find themselves in the eye of the storm.
“A big concern is the Irish Problem: her involvement in that and what it will mean in terms of the freedoms they will or will not have to come back and forth to the house. She’s in a quite tricky position. She needs to come back because her family demands it but she also needs to not take too much of an English stance on Ireland. She’s caught between two worlds in a way.”
Inevitably it all leads to changes in her relationships with her two sisters, Edith and Mary: Sybil may be the youngest but she’s also the first of the three to be married and pregnant.
“She’s treated far more like a grown up now. I don’t think her opinions and the things she’s doing are quite so laughable any more – because she’s followed through with them. She’s not just a flippant teenager doing things to bait them. Her sisters in particular see her as much more worldly now. She can relate to them in many ways but I think they all relate to each other now because they’ve had a bit more life experience.”
It’s not as if Sybil has ever been at loggerheads with her siblings:
“Sybil’s always had the love of the two of them. She’s never really had trouble – it’s a different relationship to that between Edith and Mary, definitely. Sybil and Mary will have heated discussions but they’re quite similar in a way. They take things quite seriously. Sybil’s relationship with Edith is interesting because she sees a lot of herself in Edith – such as never feeling like she quite fits in. Neither Sybil nor Edith have quite fitted the mould of a lady in the way their parents expected.”
For Brown Findlay, Downton Abbey, her first major role, has kick-started a promising film career, including a lead role in last year’s Albatross, playing a tearaway teen with some – but not many- parallels with Lady Sybil.
“Just the fact I’ve been able to do this job means that when I go to an audition I’ve got something to talk about. It’s meant that a lot of people have been very positive towards me: they only ever have positive things to say about Downton Abbey. Of course, you don’t want to be known for just one role but undoubtedly it’s allowed me to go off and do other things which is really exciting.”
And if she could take one thing she’s sampled in the 1920s and transport it forward to the present day? “Easy: the amazing fancy dress parties. People held mad parties then.”