Hugh Bonneville on acting, adapting and his mother the MI6 operative: ‘We’re all performing in some way’

Interview by Tara Brady for the Irish Times

27th August 2022

He can do period and modern parts, cuddly and evil roles. But then acting, in a way, ran in the family.

Many years after his mother had retired, the actor Hugh Bonneville noticed a story in a newspaper under the heading: “Century House, MI6 building, to be sold.”

It was only then that he recognised his mother’s office and realised who her former employers were. She had never mentioned MI6 at home.

“We’re all performing in some way,” says the Downton Abbey star. “You and I are performing right now. We’re probably not speaking to each other in the same way that we would if we were in a pub together, we’d be speaking very differently. A judge, who is wearing a wig and robes, might go home and start playing foosball or tiddlywinks. We all have a different persona at different times. My mum just had to be consistent about it, I suppose. I mean, she did a job that was sensitive and didn’t talk about it because she wasn’t allowed to. It made her no different to me as a person. It was only in retrospect, I think to myself, gosh, she was doing some interesting stuff that she just couldn’t share with anyone.”

Bonneville, in turn, has proved equally adept at adopting roles. As a young theology graduate from Cambridge, he moved through the National Youth Theatre into the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he made the acquaintance of one Kenneth Branagh. He played Laertes to Branagh’s Hamlet between 1992 and 1993. The Belfast actor would later cast Bonneville in his first film role, sharing space with Robert De Niro’s Frankenstein.

It took me about 20 minutes to realise it was actually De Niro. And that’s when I started shaking

“It was terrifying,” recalls Bonneville. “I never thought I’d actually get to meet Robert De Niro. And suddenly, we were rehearsing for the same film. I remember that for a couple of weeks or something there was a walk-in or double when we were in rehearsals. And one day, I’m working beside the double and he’s got a towelling robe with the hood up. And it took me about 20 minutes to realise it was actually De Niro. And that’s when I started shaking.”

A steady, less shaky career followed. He was nominated for a Bafta for his performance as the young John Bayley opposite Kate Winslet in Iris. He played the poet Philip Larkin in Love Again, and the architect Christopher Wren in the docudrama Wren: The Man Who Built Britain. He starred alongside Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis and Christopher Lee in John Landis’s grave-robbing comedy, Burke & Hare.

The unexpected success of Julian Fellowes’s Downton Abbey — a ratings-topping series named by Guinness World Records as the most critically acclaimed English-language television series of 2011, with a record number of Emmy nominations — changed everything. Paddington, the unexpected $510-grossing franchise based on Michael Bond’s Peruvian bear, sealed Bonneville’s status as a movie star.

“If Downton had come along when I was fresh out of drama school, would I have been ready,” wonders the actor. “I don’t know. But I might have missed out on all those formative apprentice experiences at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I mean, every year is formative for an actor. But I’m very happy with the way things mapped out. I can remember vividly, in 1991, when we finally performed all four plays that we had been rehearsing at the RSC in Stratford and the buzz that I got. Four plays, which are quite different, one was a tragedy, one was light Shakespearean, one was Restoration, and then a Ben Jonson play. Doing those back to back with largely the same group of actors was so freeing.”

I Came By, Bonneville’s first major role since Downton Abbey wound up with a second spin-off feature earlier this year, is a big deal. The first film from Netflix’s new UK-based slate is both darker and strikingly more cinematic than we’ve come to expect from the streaming giant. The film, which was written and directed by the Bafta-winning Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow), is a very Hitchcockian thriller in which George MacKay’s graffiti-tagging, millionaire-robbing activist meets his match when he attempts to burglarise Bonneville’s former judge. A cat-and-mouse chase ensues.

“Reading the script for the first time, it was engrossing,” says Bonneville. “I couldn’t quite get my head around all the twists and turns of it at first, because you think you’re watching one sort of film and then it sort of turns left and then turns right and left again.”

Anvari, who previously fashioned ghost story Under the Shadow to explore the Iran-Iraq conflict, has in I Came By crafted a nail-biting genre piece, threaded with sly ideas about status, class and old-fashioned, imperial British entitlement.

It’s a good feeling when you realise you won’t have to spend too much time in hair and make-up and starchy collars

“There are a lot of ideas about the dispossessed and about immigrants,” says Bonneville. “You’ve got a guy from the upper echelons of the establishment wanting to maintain the status quo and being aware of his own power and his own privilege and, at the other, the people who want to change the status quo and make a statement in society, but don’t know how to and haven’t got the equipment. So the film asks some interesting questions about the structure of the establishment and society. But all in the guise of a ripping page turner of a thriller.”

It is pleasing for Bonneville to find himself in a contemporary genre film. His career to date has been varied enough to include such projects as Muppets Most Wanted and Top Gear. But between Downton and many of his higher-profile roles — in George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, Gloucester in The Hollow Crown, Pontius Pilate in Ben Hur, Lord Mountbatten in Viceroy’s House — the actor spends a lot of time in period costume.

“It’s a good feeling when you realise you won’t have to spend too much time in hair and make-up and starchy collars,” he says. “I got to hang up my ruff for a bit. And go home to sweatpants.”

It’s equally pleasing for Bonneville to find himself caught up in one of the most fiendish counter-casting ruses of recent times. His character in I Came By is not merely the antithesis of his cuddly patriarchs in Downton Abbey and Paddington, it may be the most evil role he has ever played.

“In my character’s defence,” he laughs. “He’s just trying to keep his house clean.”

I Came By is on Netflix from August 31st

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