Interview by Alice Howarth for GQ
Meeting at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel 51-year-old Hugh Bonneville, famed for Downton Abbey’s dapper Lord Grantham, is keeping up appearances in a three piece burgundy suit. His latest role as Henry Brown, a father who provides Paddington Bear with shelter, is a far cry from the Crawleys. Playing opposite Sally Hawkins and Nicole Kidman, the children’s book makes a smooth transition from page to screen. We sat down to talk P.Diddy, whether Paddington was racey enough to receive the PG certification and how it feels to have a waxwork.
GQ: Paddington’s a film made for families and youngsters – how would you sell it to the typical GQ man?
Hugh Bonneville: Well I think every GQ man needs to get in touch with his inner bear frankly. It’s a charming story that pleases kids of five and kids of seventy five so somewhere in between there is the GQ man. You can take your grandchildren or you can take your granny.
It originally received a PG rating from the British Board of Film Classification due to “dangerous behaviour, mild threat, mild sex references and mild bad language” – is that ridiculous?
I don’t think it’s ridiculous, I think it’s quite right that the classification board has to point out things to nervous parents. I understand ‘sexual references’ has been downgraded to ‘innuendo’ so it’s like going from code red to code amber and that actually refers to me dressing up as a cleaning lady and being flirted with by a security guard who thinks my monstrous pantomime dame is rather attractive. It’s no more danger than that. There is danger, I mean no one should sail away in a lifeboat across the sea only surviving on marmelade or indeed using their dog lead and umbrella for parascending but we join the ranks of Toy Story and Elf and other family classics so I think it’s no bad thing.
Paddington is ultimately accepted for his charm. What do you think are three qualities every man needs to have to be a gentleman?
I think politeness, an ability to doff his hat at appropriate moments and full access to marmalade.
The film shows the best of London. Where would you recommend a friend to eat in the city?
Gosh, well I’m not a Londoner but my favourite restaurant at the moment is Quo Vadis on Dean Street, I love going there. I love the atmosphere. The food is hard to describe, they always have fascinating things like salsify which I’d never come across before. It’s a root vegetable from the asparagus family or that’s what it looks like anyway. I always have to ask what things on the menu mean because they’ve always got something obscure. I had a delicious steak there just last night actually. I also love oysters and seafood so I love going to J. Sheekey.
What’s the best thing that you can cook?
I’m not a good cook at all but Jamie Oliver recently taught me how to do a good pad thai because it was a dish I loved in Thailand some years ago. You can see it on his upcoming programme [laughs].
You now have a waxwork. When was the moment in your career when you thought “I’ve really made it”?
I’ve never felt like that [laughs] and never will. The waxwork is just a wonderfully peculiar and waxy tribute to the popularity of Downton Abbey and hopefully Paddington as well. It’s a strange thing. I just assume when the fuss has died down they will melt it down and use it for someone who really is important. But no, it’s a great honour to be part of Madame Tussauds. It was quite eerie to see oneself in 3-D for the first time.
You’ve been working for 20 years but many regard Downton Abbey as the making of you. What do you think you’ve learnt from making it big later in life?
I suppose the fact that it went global when I was well into my forties was quite a useful thing, I’m fairly sanguine about it, I know that the popularity of shows like these is a passing thing. We’re all very thrilled about it, it is a passing thing and when it’s all over we’ll all be able to fade into the woodwork of obscurity. So no, it certainly hasn’t gone to my head. If I’m forever branded as the man with the labrador that’s fine, I’m very proud of the show and I’m very happy to be painted with that brush.
You wear Richard E. Grant’s fragrance Jack which was chronicled in GQ. What do you think men need to look for when selecting a cologne?
Something that’s not too overpowering, what I love about Richard’s scent is it’s sort of unisex, it’s like quite a lot of Jo Malone ones, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, it’s just got a nice subtle edge without being too overpowering.
Downton Abbey has seen you dress in countless classic suits. What suit labels do you like to wear in real life?
I’ve had a good relationship with Huntsman on Savile Row because they’ve made many of my suits for Downton Abbey – my white tie and tails, that was lovely. I’ve had a lot of stuff made by Chester Barrie, I really like the cut, I just love the way that they tailor stuff. As I approach my dotage I’m beginning to enjoy wearing suits more, it’s probably come as a by-product of Downton Abbey, I normally live in jeans and t-shirts but occasionally I like to smarten up a bit.
P.Diddy once did a Downton Abbey skit. Have you ever listened to his music?
[Laughs] Yes I have but I couldn’t sing it back again. I think he’s great, what I thought about that was the production values and the effort that they’d gone to to actually insert him into some of our scenes was extraordinary, a full production number and to think that people like him are actually fans of the show is quite humbling. We’ve got used to politicians and other actors saying that they like it but to have someone of his flavour being slightly obsessed with the show, it’s charming, it’s weird.
What three films should no man die without seeing?
Three films that would be on my desert island list would have to be It’s A Wonderful Life, My Life As A Dog and Pulp Fiction.
Can you recommend a good book?
I’m a terrible reader, that’s the truth of it. I’ve got a stack of books by my bed and I think “which one do I start reading?” The Great Escaper: The Life and Death of Roger Bushell is a book that I’m really looking forward to reading. It’s about the man who masterminded the great escape so it’s not a novel, it’s a biography. It’s an incredible story. These men were captured and imprisoned, it was their duty to escape – to try again and join the cause. In the middle of it there was this rather touching love story that he never quite got to be with the woman he was meant to be with partly because of circumstance but it’s a story of great derring do and I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into that.
Who’s your best dressed British man?
I like to think the Kemp brothers always look great, they always look rather sharp. Dexter Fletcher always impresses me, he always looks good in a natty suit and Neil Stuke wears a mean suit.
Who would you love to work with next?
Oh my goodness me, that’s a hard one. I have a bit of a thing about Bradley Cooper, I just think he’s brilliant, I love his lightness of tone. Him and Owen Wilson are my heartthrobs.