Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville and Allen Leech on Returning to the Elegant Halls of ‘Downton Abbey’
Like a family reunion “Downton Abbey” returns to bring back together its vast ensemble and reconnect with its many fans. The plush drama about aristocratic life in the early 20th century, covering everything from the Titanic sinking to the cataclysm of World War I, first made a splash on PBS nearly a decade ago. Now four years after the series finale, the Crawley family saga hits the big screen to give admirers one last chapter on the vast canvas of a movie. Returning to reprise their roles are Hugh Bonneville as Robert, Earl of Grantham, patriarch of the estate, Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham, and Allen Leech as Irish rebel Tom Branson who fate inserts amongst the aristocrats. They are joined by the other major players now making it through the year 1927. In the tradition of the series the movie explores issues of life and class, traveling through the lives of the aristocratic Crawleys and those working in the kitchen. There are also a slew of new characters introduced when the king and queen decide to visit.
Bonneville, McGovern and Leech recently shared with Entertainment Voice on the experience of returning to the world of “Downton Abbey.”
For Bonneville the appeal for viewers to come back into the world of this drama has a relatable, practical grounding. “It is to escape from the hassles of our current world. It’s pretty nice and it’s a nice place to go,” he said, “and you sort of know you’re going to be looked after, because I think the characters in ‘Downton Abbey’ look out for each other in some way, shape, or form. And I don’t think we need to apologize for that. It’s just pure escapism and so it’s a nice place to be for a couple of hours.”
McGovern however, feels the show has some striking parallels to the present. “What’s kind of remarkable is that people in that period are just like we are today. Things really don’t change all that much. That’s kind of the extraordinary thing if you read books that are set way in the past, right? I Just happened to finish reading ‘Don Quixote’ and I couldn’t believe that the things that are written in that book are still so relevant today, because the fact is, people don’t change all that much. And when you do something that’s set in a period, it’s always a kind of funny thing about convincing people that it is actually the period.”
From its conception on television, “Downton Abbey” has been praised for the pristine authenticity of how it depicts society in the 1910’s through 1920’s. “We actually had a historical advisor who was the sort of continuum of that or made sure that these standards were maintained,” said Bonneville. “And there was sort of a house standard, wasn’t there? That was established very early on that the women wouldn’t cross their legs and the men wouldn’t put their hands in their pockets. It was simple as that.”
Embodying the norms of a world nearly 100 years apart from our own has also made the actors reflect on more relevant, social truths. “It’s made me appreciate the freedoms that we enjoy as women and the power that we enjoy as women, which I might have taken for granted otherwise,” said McGovern. “I am so happy at the end of the day to come back to 2019 and know that I can vote, I can control my own money, I can control my own destiny. And we’ve come a long way, baby.”
To that Bonneville added, “I think something that has grown out of the show and I hope I’ve taken into my own life is a greater sense of tolerance, actually. I think that this show, all the characters are really based in a world in which tolerance and compassion, they’re not expensive and it’s found quite frequently. And I think we’re so quick to judge these days and so quick in the pace of life to make rash decisions. I think that just the general pace is obviously inevitably so much slower in the world where the telephone is about the fastest means of communication or the way of getting in touch with people. And I think just the common courtesies that everybody in the estate is used to expressing. I think they aren’t bad things to hold onto now.”
For Leech there was some nervousness when returning to a role and environment he had not stepped into for about four years. “I think when we read the script we all had a certain level of trepidation going in,” he said, “can you go back and you revisit it and can you be as precise as you were originally? And the funny thing is, the minute you start reading the script and then when you start getting into your costume, you realize actually that it’s almost muscle memory. That it’s just sitting below the surface, because you played these characters for so long. And even when you weren’t playing them, you were probably talking about them and then suddenly you had a little break and you got to go back. So it was a really happy discovery for me that it didn’t take a huge amount to get back to being Tom Branson at all.”
“It’s a luxury in some ways, because the fact that you don’t have to think about all those things that you think about when you’re just creating the character to begin with. How do they talk? How do they walk? How do they sit? And since it’s so deeply in our bones, you can just play it,” said McGovern about her own feelings when getting back into the mindset of Lady Grantham.
Bonneville remembers the feeling of sitting down once again with his fellow cast to read the movie script, “I think really the moment that sticks in my mind is when we joined together for the read through. Now obviously we had six of these events in the past. But there had been a gap of three years. And it was a small miracle that Gareth Neymar, our executive producer, had managed to get all of us around the table again, plus our new characters as well. But obviously the main challenge was to get the core of the cast back together. But I do remember looking around the table at this big square, this big old square table that was erected around the studio and basically having sort of a wry grin on my face. Sort of I can’t believe that we’re here again.”
A major story development in the movie is the visit to the estate by George V (Simon Jones) and his consort Lady Mary (Geraldine James). For the cast it’s almost an echo of a real-life royal visit during the final season of the show. “I don’t know if they’ve seen the movie. But we had a dry run of the film plot, because the duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, came to visit the set during the final season,” said Bonneville. “That was a great day. She was due to stay for an hour or so and her detectives were checking their watch because she was there for about three hours because she was having such a good time looking around the wardrobe bus and learning how everything worked. But we also had a couple of visits from the Countess of Wessex. Sophie Wessex came a couple of times incognito.”
Set in Britain, “Downton Abbey” has fans across continents, but reactions can vary as Leech explained. “In the US, fans will, just people in general, will cross roads and risk being knocked down to tell you they love your show and in the UK, people will cross roads and risk being run down just to tell you they don’t watch it, which is very true. Yeah. So the enthusiasm and the excitement that we experience from American audiences is so refreshing.”
Would they ever switch with any other characters? “I would start by saying I don’t think I could play it half as well. I think everyone is incredibly well cast in the show. But I would love just to be Thomas Barrow for a day. An early Thomas Barrow [played by Robert James-Collier]. I like the evil, the smoking, the conniving Thomas Barrow.”
Bonneville was quick to say he wouldn’t mind playing Lady Mary for some particular reasons, “I think I would like to play Lady Mary. Because then you can shag a Turkish diplomat, have incredible sex, and then you don’t have to see them for breakfast.”
“I cannot follow that answer,” is all McGovern could say in response with a smile.
“Downton Abbey” opens Sept. 20 in theaters nationwide.