Interview by Michelle Duff
It is the end of an era for British actor Hugh Bonneville, who will film the last episode of Downton Abbey this August. He tells Michelle Duff about his next project, and why he’s vowing to leave costume dramas behind.
“I’m giving myself a little rule,” actor Hugh Bonneville says. “For a while, at least, I won’t do anything with stiff collars. I’ve worn them long enough.”
If it sounds like an exaggeration, think of this: Bonneville has been hobnobbing with the British upper class for five years now, turning out in his finest as the Earl of Grantham in the period drama Downton Abbey.
It’s a long time in coattails, and while Bonneville has loved playing Robert Crawley, the head of an aristocratic Yorkshire household, he admits it’s time for something new.
“It’s the right time for it to come for an end, though I’m sure there will be a wall of tears on the last day,” he says. “We’re filming the final chunks at the moment, and we’re having a good laugh.”
Bonneville and the cast still do not know how the hit series is going to end, with creator Julian Fellowes admitting this week he still had not written the final episode.
The sixth and final series signals the end to a show that has become a phenomenon, to the extent of (according to the Daily Mail, at least) increasing demand worldwide for professionally-trained butlers. Did Bonneville ever expect it would be so popular?
“Yeah I had it in my contract that I would only be in it if it was a huge worldwide success,” he laughs. “No, who knows, who ever knows, you always set out to make a good show and five times out of 10 some people watch them – but once in a career something becomes globally popular and I’m fortunate enough to have been on that ship that sailed.
“It won’t happen again in my lifetime so I’m proud to have been part of something that was so beloved.”
OF SHAKESPEARIAN COMEDY
While television and film roles have propelled Bonneville’s career in the past decade – some might remember him as the loveable Bernie from Notting Hill, and he more recently starred as Mr Brown in Paddington – his origins are in the theatre.
It’s to those thespian roots he returns in documentary series Shakespeare Uncovered, an exploration of the Elizabethan playwright set to air here this month.
The episode hosted by Bonneville is the first in the BBC Four series, which features six Shakespearian actors and directors, including Morgan Freeman, Kim Cattrall and Joseph Fiennes, going behind the scenes to provide deeper analysis of the plays.
Bonneville aims to find the secret to the enduring appeal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that kicked off his own career. One of his first acting roles was as an understudy to Ralph Fiennes in a 1986 production at London’s Regent’s Park. Fiennes played Lysander, one of the Athenian lovers in the Grecian comedy, while Bonneville “bashed a cymbal at the back of the stage”.
While he didn’t get to tread the boards in the open air theatre, he did eventually play the role when the production went on a European tour and Fiennes took over the part of Oberon.
“I’ve got a long association with the play and I’m very fond of it, and I also think it’s very accessible,” Bonneville says. “The point of the whole series is to introduce people to Shakespeare who might find it a bit intimidating. It talks you through the play, through the interpretations of it, and to the actors who have played the various roles.”
Bonneville first saw the play, which remains one of Shakespeare’s most famous, when he was a child of seven. His parents were avid theatre-goers and he always felt there was something special about the summertime romance. “I don’t remember much of it, but I do remember it being very visually stunned.”
THE MAGIC OF THEATRE
While filming the episode, Bonneville met up with Fiennes in Regent’s Park, the first time the two friends had been there together for 30 years.
“It was quite strange going back – it’s a magical place, that theatre in the middle of London. You can hear Lord’s cricket ground and you can see the planes turning as they approach Heathrow and the trees are rustling, so it’s a perfect setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and it’s very evocative. We had fun going back, and also looking at some of the source documents and discussing with academic historians the roots of the play.”
Shakespeare has left an indelible mark on Bonneville, who considers him the greatest playwright to have lived.
“The fact he hasn’t actually written a play for 400 years is almost irrelevant. The sheer scale and sweep of the plays that he writes – from intimate little dramas to tragedies to historical epics – he manages to get inside the complexities of human relationships and emotions. As a writer, he had it all, it’s as simple as that.”
Bonneville hopes to make a return to theatre at some point, saying he misses the experience of telling a story in front of an active audience.
“I haven’t done a play for 12 years, I grew up doing theatre and spent many years with the Royal Shakespeare Company and never thought I’d work in front of a camera, yet for the last 12 years I’ve done exclusively that.
“The disadvantage of celluloid is that it’s locked there forever, and you go back and look at it and think ‘I know how I should have played that scene’ but it’s too late. And you might not even make it, you might get left on the cutting room floor in the editing process.”
But, for the moment, Bonneville remains in the firm clutches of film. In September he will start shooting for Viceroy’s House, a BBC film with Gillian Anderson, which follows the lives of the British rulers of India and politics leading up to the partition of India in 1947.
And that, he promises, really will be the last stiff collar. “I do hope that will be my last uniform for a while.”
Shakespeare Uncovered premieres in NZ on Sky Arts on Monday 15 June at 8.30pm.