Interview by Chris Evans for Virgin Radio
The Downton Abbey actor joined The Chris Evans Breakfast Show with Sky to talk about his fascinating new memoir, stories about working with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars and delving into his relationship with his beloved parents.
The prolific actor told Chris about his mother: “She worked for MI6… After I’d mentioned this on Desert Island Discs, someone from MI6 rang up and said, We’re doing these lunchtime chats with the outside world, would you like to come along and have a chat about people who’ve inspired you etc?’
“So I did go along and met some of the boys and girls as they sat there with their sandwiches at lunchtime and I just chatted about people who’d influenced me along the way.
“They were very, very nice and they sat there either snoozing or playing on their phones pretending to listen to me in this lecture theatre and then afterwards, one of the chaps came up to me and said, I worked with your mum, and that was rather special because I obviously didn’t even know she’d worked there, let alone who she’d worked with.
“This chap was a little bit younger than me and said, So when I started out, we worked in this office and every time we could hear her footsteps on the lino we’d go, Oh, we’d better look like we know what we’re doing, and it was really weird. I knew exactly the footsteps he meant, the way she’d walk when she was in an efficient mode… there’s a certain gait that she had, and that connected us over the years. It was really touching because my mum had passed on by then.”
Telling Chris about being in Bond, he said: “I did have my one line in Tomorrow Never Dies and I was so excited that when the director interviewed me and dozens of others to play these naval characters in the finale, I had visions of us being on a sun lounger in Thailand for a couple of weeks as the Chinese navy took on the British Navy… but it turned out to be two days in a simulator in Portsmouth. I was devastated. It was half an hour from where I lived.
“This was obviously 20 years ago, we were sent a sheet of paper which said ‘Bond 18’ on it and our two scenes, which was me looking like a Pillsbury Dough man sat in front of a tumble dryer which is a radar screen, and in the simulator down in Portsmouth where all these naval cadets and junior officers etc were doing all their training. So they were doing all these routines day in, day out, and of course us actors were just rubbish at it going, Oh, sorry, I forgot my lines again.”
He joked: “Don’t you know who I think I was? They had these grey, functional – as you’d expect – radar screens which were being sexed up by the Bond team. They came in… to make it look really, really sexy and all the naval cadets were going, What the heck’s this? This doesn’t work anymore. They were far more efficient at doing the drills than we were.”
On his Sliding Doors moment and not getting the part on ITV drama The Bill, he said: “I had a brilliantly bad audition because of my own idiocy, so anyone who’s interested in how not to get a job, do have a look at the book.
“Basically, they said they were thinking of changing the format from an hour down to half an hour. What did I think? And I was so convinced that I’d done well in the audition that I thought these producers were my best friends. And so I said, Well, actually I think that’d be a really, really bad idea. Of course, they’d already made the decision and I gradually felt the job slipping away from me as I talked. So my tip in that chapter is at least show positivity until you’ve left the building.”
Starring in Notting Hill alongside a very generous Julia Roberts, he said: “She was very, very gracious because at the London premiere, she came over to us little gang, I was standing with Tim McInnerny and we hadn’t seen her since the filming and she said, Oh yeah, great to see you. Are you coming to the New York premiere next week?
“We sort of looked at our shoes and shuffled a bit and said, Well, no, that’s not really on the cards, it hasn’t been mentioned. And she went and got one of the exec producers and brought him over and with that charming megawatt smile, she said, If these guys don’t go to New York, I don’t go to New York. The next day, we got a phone call from this other sheepish producer saying, Ah, yes. Are you able to go to the New York premiere? Which was very, very kind of her because she needn’t have done that.”
Hugh shared his most Hollywood story about a helicopter bet and admitted: “This is probably the most ghastly showbizzy thing that’s ever happened.
‘Playing Under the Piano’ is out today. I wrote it and you are more than welcome to read it. It’s available now from all good bookshops and from some brilliant ones too.
— Hugh Bonneville ?? (@hughbon) October 13, 2022
“It was a bet we had in New York… this was the first Downton Abbey film and Allen Leech who plays Branson and I were going through the schedule of our press tour in America. The film was about to open and we were due to go to Santa Barbara from LA to do a press gig there and I said, How long is the press gig? And he said, It’s a 20 minute Q&A for half an hour.
“I said, We’re going to drive two hours there and two hours back which is bonkers. So I saw, at the next table, the boss of Focus Features which was the company that made the film. So I went over I said, How much does the film have to gross on its opening weekend for us to get a helicopter to Santa Barbara? All the people around him were sort of going, Hang on here, let’s not go here.
“And I think he said $25 million, so I grabbed his hand to shake on the bet before he could change his mind, and blow me down, on the Friday morning, Alan found me in my hotel room and said, I think it’s on. I’ve just been asked about my weight for the helicopter and, sure enough, they were as good as their word because it grossed, I think, 31m or 32m over the weekend, so we got a helicopter ride to Santa Barbara and back. That was very special.”
Playing Under The Piano is out now.