The feature DOWNTON ABBEY was born with a captive audience and is pleasing the fans. In 2016, the British TV series said goodbye and had won 120 million devotees (viewers) in 200 countries around the world. The film opened here in the U.S., on September 20, and opened in the UK a week earlier, on September 13. I also should say that the drama earned an 85 percent critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s over $40 million dollar gross at the box office (as of 09/25/2019 by Box Office Mojo).
The 20 main characters, created by screenwriter Julian Fellowes, are back a year after the conclusion of the last season in 1926, when the family and staff at Downton are anxiously awaiting a royal visit, this one from the king and queen. The series six-season plot begins in 1912.
This time around, our beloved Crawleys and their intrepid staff prepare for the most important moment of their lives. A royal visit from the King and Queen of England will unleash scandal, romance and intrigue that will leave the future of Downton hanging in the balance. Downton Abbey is directed by Michael Engler, who directed four episodes of the TV series, from a screenplay by DOWNTON ABBEY’s creator and writer Julian Fellowes.
The main cast has returned including Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Allen Leech, Joanne Froggett, Brendan Coyle, Jim Carter, Laura Carmichael, Rob James-Collier, Phyllis Logan, Leslie Nicol, Sophie McShera, Dame Penelope Winton, Matthew Goode and, of course, Dame Maggie Smith as the cantankerous Violet Crawley. Imelda Staunton, and others.
I had the opportunity to attend the film’s press conference in Beverly Hills, California. We had the pleasure to speak to three of the cast members: Allen Leech, Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville.
Let’s check it out excerpts of the press conference:
In your opinion, why does DOWNTON ABBEY resonate with so many fans around the world?
Hugh Bonneville – It is to escape from the hassles of our current world. It’s pretty nice and it’s a nice place to go. 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. So, it’s a nice place to be for a couple of hours.
Elizabeth, you’ve starred in a number of period pieces from “Ragtime” to “The Chaperone,” earlier this year, along with your role as Lady Cora on DOWNTON ABBEY. Do you gravitate towards these types of roles?
Elizabeth McGovern – I seem to end up in period pieces quite a bit. But the fact is, I really don’t care about that. I’m really drawn to great stories and great characters. The fact that they happen to be in that period is irrelevant to me. I really hope that they spring out to a modern audience as if they are not in the period and that 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. 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.
How does it feel to come back to these characters after saying goodbye to them four years ago?
Allen Leech – We all had a certain level of trepidation going in. 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 play these characters for so long. Even when you weren’t playing them, you were probably talking about them. 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.
Elizabeth – It doesn’t happen very often that you get a chance to revisit a character that has just settled in your bones for years without you even thinking about it.
Hugh – 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. It was a small miracle that Gareth Neame, 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. It’s a great testament to the audience really as much as anything. Because it was the audience who drove the enthusiasm and the constant questioning. Is there going to be a movie. And I think if they hadn’t been asking that, then we wouldn’t have done it.
If you had the opportunity to play a different DOWNTON ABBEY character, who would you want to play?
Allen – I would love just to be Thomas Barrow for a day. Early Thomas Barrow. Like, evil conniving Thomas Barrow. (He laughs.)
Elizabeth – I’m with Allen. I like early Thomas Barrow. That was a very complex character who acted in ways that weren’t always the best way to act, but you could see that it was coming from a place of pain and frustration, and I always thought that was really interesting.
Hugh – 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.
What has playing a character from the 1920s taught you?
Elizabeth – It’s made me appreciate the freedoms and the power we enjoy as women, which I might have taken for granted otherwise. 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. We’ve come a long way, baby!
Hugh – I hope I’ve taken into my own life is a greater sense of tolerance. All of the characters on this show are really based in a world in which tolerance and compassion are found quite frequently. We’re so quick to judge these days and so quick in the pace of life to make rash decisions. (In the 1920s), just the general pace is 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. The common courtesies that everybody in the estate is used to expressing. I think they aren’t bad things to hold onto now.
What will you take away from your DOWNTON ABBEY experience?
Allen – I had a very poignant moment with Hugh, actually. We snuck in at the New York premiere and stood at the back of the theater for the last 20 minutes of the movie. For me, I’ll take this incredible journey that we had over 10 years, and the amazing family I have.
Hugh – Something that I actually learned some of that through the character of Robert and the relationship with Cora (played by McGovern). That they do have their ups and downs, but they’re there for the long haul.
What are the differences that you’ve noticed between fans in the U.K. and fans in the U.S. of DOWNTON ABBEY?
Allen – Rob James-Collier summed it up brilliantly when he said in the U.S., fans will cross the road and risk being knocked down to tell you they love your show, and in the U.K., people will cross the road and risk being run down just to tell you they don’t watch it. So, the enthusiasm and the excitement that we experience from American audiences is so refreshing.
The movie centers on the Downton crowd preparing for a royal visit. Have you met any royals in real life?
Hugh – We had a dry run of the film plot, because the duchess of Cambridge came to visit the set. She was having such a good time looking around the wardrobe bus and learning how everything worked. We also had a couple of visits from the Countess of Wessex. Sophie Wessex came a couple of times incognito. Unfortunately, my good lady screen wife didn’t really take all this onboard, and thought she had met the blonde-haired lady in the supermarket recently.
Elizabeth – No. I thought she was an extra wardrobe person that had come on. I didn’t recognize her.
How was it shooting the extravagant dinner scene where Molesley embarrasses himself by addressing the royals directly, which is a big no-no?
Hugh – Normally, those dining room scenes we can’t wait to get out of because they take a long time (to shoot) for obvious reasons. But that’s the one time we actually wanted to stay in the room because take after take (Kevin Doyle) was just sublime.
Allen – It was a lovely moment where Maggie Smith saw him do it for the first time. There was a bit of applause, and she just turned and said, “Well, that’s delicious!”
What was your favorite scene?
Allen – The ballroom scene was fun because, obviously, I sat on the sidelines and watched these guys do their job. Every so often, Imelda Staunton and I would go in and give our judging scores, like “Dancing with the Stars.” Everyone would line up and we would walk up and down and then say, “You guys were the best this time. Well done.” Everyone got to win at different stages.
Hugh – Over the years, Elizabeth and I have had quite a few dances on the TV show. Diana Scrivener, our choreographer, has always been very patient, because we often may start at the bottom of the class, but she would give us incentives. We’d get little badges along the way, until we finally ended up with gold. We were very excited. We got a gold star.
What’s the future hold for DOWNTON ABBEY?
Hugh – It’s certainly the end for us in terms of the TV show. But let’s not forget that the central character is the house. It’s still standing and will be standing in another 100 years. Knowing a little bit of the history of Lord and Lady Carnavron’s family who live there, his grandfather was quite a character. If those walls could talk. In the 1960s, it was one heck of a party house. Some fascinating shenanigans have gone on there over the years. So, of course, they absolutely could do spin-offs in that way.