Interview by Simon Thompson for Forbes
Three years after the Downton Abbey movie landed in movie theaters and grossed $194 million worldwide, audiences are getting a chance to head back to the country estate on the big screen.
Downton Abbey: A New Era, which has already topped the UK box office, reunites fans of the historical drama with old faces while adding in some new ones and a touch of Hollywood when a film crew comes to the stately home. There’s also high drama with a potential family scandal and heartbreaking health issues. It’s never dull at Downton.
I caught up with the Earl of Grantham himself, Hugh Bonneville, to chat about the second decade and continued evolution of Downton Abbey, avoiding spoilers, and, of course, the third Paddington movie.
Simon Thompson: For years, people were asking you when you would do a Downton Abbey movie. I’m guessing ever since then people have been asking you when you were going to do a sequel. When did the sequel talk start?
Hugh Bonneville: (Laughs) I remember it was during the publicity tour for the first movie that we all started realizing that we were talking about doing another one before the first one had even come out. I think that it’s a mark of the affection we have for the show, for each other, and our audience. Our audience has always been the driver of the show. If there hadn’t been an audience, we wouldn’t have done beyond season one, but it took off and then has spread worldwide, and here we are publicizing the second movie. There’s talk about a third one, but I think that is a bit premature. We need to see how this one performs. There was no question that the first one worked. It became Focus Features’ biggest success in America, and I think the optimism is there for the second one. So who knows about a third?
Thompson: We’ve seen that the optimism is there because it has already opened in the UK, and the box office was strong. The traditional demographic turned out for it, but also, we’re in the second decade of Downton, and there’s a whole new generation of people getting on board.
Bonneville: That’s very true. The messages we got during the pandemic where people were either revisiting the show or watching it for the first time were astonishing. Very touchingly, many people were saying things like, ‘I’m watching it again because the first time I watched it was with my late grandmother or my son and he’s now married with kids, and it takes me back.’ That was a world, let’s face it, that was pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, pre-the divisions that we’re experiencing even more than pre-pandemic. It almost seems to be a golden age before all these stresses and strains we seem to be under. This movie is so welcome because it is pure escapism in that sort of Downton way of being two hours of having a nice time in the dark with your clothes on.
Thompson: We’ve talked about what keeps bringing the audience back to Downton Abbey, but what keeps bringing you back? I’m guessing there is no obligation for you to do this, so you do it because you want to return?
Bonneville: Absolutely, and a massive paycheck helps (laughs). You’re absolutely right that none of us are compelled to be here, and we wouldn’t have stayed on more than our three-year contract had we not got on. The fact that not just once but twice, we’ve come back voluntarily, all of this and more, it’s a great testament to this world that Julian Fellowes has created. We are very fond of the characters, we’re fond of each other, we like working with each other, and most importantly, the audience has wanted us to come back. It’s all down to that. It seems to be a virtuous circle, and the anticipation for the second movie is intense. People want the sense of escape and fun that Downton can provide and, frankly, the big warm hug it can give us. We all need a big warm hug right now.
Thompson: It’s interesting to hear your use of the word circle because somebody who’s been circling Downton Abbey ever since the beginning is Simon Curtis, who has directed this movie. He has been hanging out with you guys for 12 years, but now he’s finally getting a chance to sign up to helm this.
Bonneville: When Gareth Neame, the producer, rang me and said, ‘What do you think about Simon directing?’ I just went, ‘Of course!’ It made total sense because Simon Curtis is married to Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora, for those of your audience who don’t know. He had been hanging around the set, and Gareth had been slightly cautious about that because he didn’t want him bringing his professional advice onto the set when he was just meant to be there having a cup of tea. He’d become friends with all of us. He directed me before Downton, and he directed Elizabeth and me together in a show that was loosely based on their own life. It was very funny, and I’d have loved to have seen it progress. It was a show called Freezing which we did for the BBC. We do have a great rapport, and he was a great inspiration. Simon loves the show, loves actors, and he’s a proper actor’s director. He ran the Royal Court Theatre in London and was a TV executive for many years as well as a filmmaker in his own right. Simon’s a great leader and wants everyone to have a nice time. He’s always organizing quizzes instead of shot lists and ensuring a good atmosphere on set.
Thompson: Talking of new faces, Dominic West is one of the new faces joining the cast for Downton Abbey: A New Era.
Bonneville: Funnily enough, seemingly half the cast of Downton Abbey were in a movie called From Time to Time with Maggie Smith, which Julian Fellowes wrote and directed. Dominic and I worked on that together in 2009, and it was during that film I asked Julian what else he had on the back burner, and he described the outline of Downton Abbey. It’s taken Dominic 13 years to get on board, but he has finally done it. Hugh Dancy and I have worked together on two projects, and so that was like welcoming old friends, and Laura Haddock fitted in hand in glove. We’re always delighted when our casting director Jill Trevellick brings new people in because we know that she will cast it well with good people you want to work with. There are enough egos on set with something like 15 recurring characters, so we don’t want anyone coming in and being a pain in the neck, so generally, we try and have a good time, and we do (laughs).
Thompson: New people join the cast, and, with no spoilers, some people leave the cast. There’s a specific scene in this that must have been quite taxing. Everyone’s in a room saying goodbye to a character, and that took a whole day’s shooting, so tell me about the reality of that set. How many times did you have to summon those tears?
Bonneville: The filming is obviously very technical and not done in sequence, but when you are saying farewell to a much-beloved character, it doesn’t take a lot to tap into feelings of farewell. I can remember when dear Lady Sybil, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, passed on, in that rather than a violent death, there was a party for her afterward in the pub in Ealing. It was just across from the studios. However, in order not to give any spoilers, the guys who set up the party put Happy Birthday banners and so on all around the pub so that the audience was thrown off. We didn’t quite do that on this occasion, but there was equal poignancy.
Thompson: You say it’s a bit too early to talk about a third movie, but Hugh, what about a third movie?
Bonneville: (Laughs) Oh, I think so. I think it’s high time that the Crawleys went and found a long-lost cousin in the South Island of New Zealand or Tonga, maybe the Bahamas. That would be a nice place to film. Now that we’ve visited the South of France, the world is our oyster.
Thompson: Did you get to go to France to film parts of this, or was that very much Brighton and Hove made to look like France?
Bonneville: (Laughs) Well, there was a moment when we might have had to do precisely that because of Covid. There was Plan A and Plan Z. Plan Z was to film in a composite number of houses or put several villa-looking homes together. Of course, it would have looked terrible and would have relied entirely on CGI and making the sky blue. We were fortunate to go to the South of France. You can’t beat that. The quality of the light and Andrew Dunn, our DOP, captured it beautifully. I thought he made it look utterly ravishing as the South of France can be and made everyone want to go there.
Thompson: How would you like to see Downton evolve? Would you like to see it, not necessarily carry on as it is, but maybe come to the future, and you will play descendent of your character?
Bonneville: Yes, I would play George’s son, which would be quite a weird concept, but I think there would be a place to have a contemporary version. I think it would be fascinating to see how the Carnarvons have had to cope with inheriting and living in an estate in the 21st century with the trials and tribulations of the modern era.
Thompson: I want to ask you about Paddington 3. What’s the latest on that?
Bonneville: I don’t know at the moment. I saw a script a while ago, but I think things have paused. I think there’s a great will to make it, but I don’t think it’s going to be this year for various reasons to do with logistics more than anything, so when it’s ready, the bear will come out of his trailer and will give of his best. At the moment, he’s busy making marmalade.
Thompson: The first two movies had great villains in Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. Have you had any words about who you’d like to see being a villain in Paddington 3?
Bonneville: Oh my gosh, no, I didn’t even know there is a villain. I hope that David Heyman and our new director will attract the best of the best. They usually do.
Thompson: How does it feel to have two significant pieces from your career, Downton Abbey and Paddington, be so acclaimed and successful internationally? A lot of people don’t get to have that.
Bonneville: I haven’t really thought about it, but you’re right. I don’t take either of them for granted, but it is pretty remarkable. I’ve been involved in two projects that are so loved but are obviously quite different. I feel extremely honored, actually, and it’s only when you describe it as you’ve just done do I think, ‘Blimey, that’s true.’ Both Paddingtons are beautiful films and are loved by every generation, not just youngsters, while Downton has traveled the world and is, again, beloved by millions of people. I’m a very lucky fellow.
Downton Abbey: A New Era lands in theaters on Friday, May 20, 2022.