Interview by David Onda for Xfinity
The cast of “Downton Abbey” is nearly halfway through filming the sixth and final season of its hit drama, but for star Hugh Bonneville, the reality of the series ending still hasn’t set in.
“The schedule’s so punishing that we’re just trying to get through each day, frankly,” Bonneville told me, laughing. “It’ll take a while to sink in. I think the strangest time will be next February, where, for the last six years, we turned up for work at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, and I won’t be doing that anymore. It will be a very strange feeling, but it’s the right time to call it a day.”
While U.K. fans will get a first crack at learning the fate of Bonneville’s Lord Grantham and the rest of the Crawley clan in 2015, U.S. fans will have to hold their breaths until 2016.
“I think it’s going to be a wonderful swan song,” Bonneville reassures.
For now, fans of the 51-year-old actor can catch him as Mr. Brown in the critically acclaimed family movie “Paddington,” which is based on the Paddington Bear book series by Michael Bond. The film, which is now available to own with XFINITY On Demand, follows a young bear named Paddington (voice of Ben Whishaw) as he leaves the jungles of “darkest Peru” for London, where he meets and subsequently moves in with the Brown family. The big city is not without its predators, however, and a crazed museum taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) wants to make Paddington a part of her collection.
Check out the rest of my interview with Hugh Bonneville below for more on “Paddington,” and final out why he really, really, really wants people to stop sending him marmalade.
David Onda: I honestly loved “Paddington,” and I initially saw it primarily because of how many adults told me that I would enjoy it. That’s a rare thing for a family or children’s movie.
Hugh Bonneville: Yeah, it is. And I think that’s what appealed to me straight away. The adventures that Paddington gets into are full of wit and warmth and a wry wink from the grownups to the children, and I think this script captures that perfectly. As you say, it engages children, it doesn’t patronize the children, and there’s plenty for the grownups to get. The kids and the grownups laugh together. The first time I screened the movie, I had a 5-year-old kid on one side and a 75-year-old kid on the other, and they both got the joke. It’s that rare thing. You can’t force it. It came from the humanity and wit of Paul King, our writer-director. I think there’s just a humanity about it that’s very engaging. And there’s some good laugh-out-loud moments, as well as some great slap-stick for the bear and the children to enjoy.
Onda: There are obviously cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K., and Paddington is a distinctly British character living in London, yet his story easily translates across borders.
Bonneville: Yeah, it does. And I was wondering about this the other day, and I think it’s actually a very simple thing. We’ve all been to a new school, we’ve all moved to a new town or arrived in new country and have felt out of our depth, and we depend on the kindness of strangers to guide us in each of those environments. And that’s really what is at the heart of this film. It’s about reaching out a hand and looking for someone to guide you. And we’ve all been there, so I think we all identify with Paddington in some way, shape or form. It’s the kindness of others that allow us to stand on our feet. And I think that’s possibly one of the reasons this character endures and engages all around the world.
Onda: Were the Paddington books a part of your childhood?
Bonneville: Very much so. I remember mum and dad reading them to me, and then when I was a little bit older, being able to read them for myself. Paddington became a very personal friend of mine, and I wanted to go up to London and have adventures with him and share his marmalade sandwiches.
Onda: It’s kind of crazy that you read those books as a child, having no idea that one day you would grow up to play Mr. Brown.
Bonneville: [laughs] I know. It’s quite freaky, actually. At aged 8 or something, I wasn’t sitting there thinking, “I must play Mr. Brown one day!” But when it came along, it was a tremendous honor. You’ve got a degree of nervousness, because you don’t want to muck it up. All of us on the project wanted to respect this beloved character. When Michael Bond, who is 89 now, when he saw the movie, he said, “I came, I saw, I was conquered.” Which was a delightful comment.
Onda: When Mr. Brown sees Paddington in the train station for the first time, it doesn’t strike him as particularly odd to see a bear in Paddington Station. Are train station bears common in London?
Bonneville: [laughs] Obviously the audience suspending their disbelief is very important, and the fact that the Browns aren’t surprised by seeing a bear in Paddington Station, and that it’s part of London life, shows you how topsy-turvy the world is. But you buy into it very quickly. Mr. Brown is very suspicious, of course, in our version.
Onda: Before accepting this role, were you concerned about sharing a screen with a computer-animated bear? Because not all movies mix live-action and computer animation as well as “Paddington” does.
Bonneville: No, and I have to say, I saw an early cut of some of the animation and I was utterly astonished from quite an early stage. The first sequence I saw fully rendered was the sequence where he sticks his head down the loo and the bath and everything. The way the fur moves when he sticks his head in the toilet was just astonishing, and I think that’s when I realized that this was something quite different, this was a quality that hadn’t been reached before. There are literally hundreds of people who worked on it frame by frame. The quality of what they achieved is remarkable, to the extent that I genuinely forgot when I watched the film that the bear wasn’t real. [laughs]
Onda: Who or what stood in for Paddington on the set? Was it a beach ball on a broom stick?
Bonneville: We had an actress, Lauren [Barrand], who’s three-foot-six, so she would walk through the shots wearing Paddington’s red hat. If we were doing movement shots, she would be there for us. But sometimes we’d have, yeah, a stick with a bit of sticky tape on it. And a lot of times it was thin air. So, a variety of acting techniques were required to project to something that wasn’t there at all.
Onda: Did you have Ben Whishaw’s vocal recordings for reference at that point?
Bonneville: No, we didn’t, but we did have a vocal reference. Apart from having Lauren, we also had an actor with us all the time who could pitch in with the lines. We also, most interestingly, had a physical comedian – a guy who’s done a lot of clowning, Javier [Marzan] – who would improvise some of the scrapes and some of the movements that Paddington might get involved in. For instance, in the tea room sequence at the beginning, where Paddington gets stuck into a pot of tea and gets his foot stuck in a cup and tries to eat a donut, Javier acted all that out in front of me in that sequence. So when it came to actually watching the bear sitting opposite me, I could have the image of him doing it in my head. It was a fascinating process. It obviously plays tricks on your brain, but it was wonderful thing to gradually piece together.
Onda: Was it a wonderful thing to get all dolled up like a woman for that one particular scene?
Bonneville: [laughs] As Mr. Brown says, “It was very liberating.” It was a hoot, actually. The wonderful costume designer Lindy Hemming and I had long discussions about what the look should be. And I was adamant that anything that Mr. Brown gets dressed in should have been available on the cleaner’s trolley. So we went for this cardigan and apron thing. Even the rouge that I put on is actually meant to be floor polish that I picked off the cleaner’s trolley. And the magnificent bust that he has was actually floor mops stuffed down his shirt. That was a hoot. Tthat was a good laugh.
Onda: And you get to play a little bit of an action hero in “Paddington,” which is certainly a departure from what you do on “Downton Abbey.”
Bonneville: You don’t see Lord Grantham hanging off a gargoyle very often. That was great fun as well. I not only released my inner bear, I released my inner Liam Neeson, I think.
Onda: Do you share Paddington’s affinity for marmalade?
Bonneville: I’m now drowning in it. Very, very kind friends and family from around the world have obviously been sending marmalade. Actually, the nicest one I got was marmalade vodka, which I’d never heard of before. Please, please, no one needs to send me any more marmalade. I have quite a lot. I do love it, but a little marmalade can go a long way.
Onda: I’d imagine you are approached by “Downton Abbey” fans all the time. What is the one thing fans yell out to you on the street?
Bonneville: It’s not too bad here in the U.K. Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas the footman – he puts it very well when he says that, in America, people cross the street to tell you how much they love the show. In Britain, they cross the street to tell you they don’t watch it. [laughs] Which sums up the British psyche. They’ll say, “Morning, my Lord,” as I’m standing there in my jeans and my t-shirt, but at least they’re not coming up and making a bad joke.
“Paddington” is now available to own on Blu-Ray and DVD.