'Downton Abbey' Cast Spills Secrets on Hollywood Ambitions at Season 3's U.S. Premiere

From left: Hugh Bonneville, Rebecca Eaton, Lesley Nicol, Joanne Froggatt, Rob James-Collier and Gareth Neame
From left: Hugh Bonneville, Rebecca Eaton, Lesley Nicol, Joanne Froggatt, Rob James-Collier and Gareth Neame
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We’ve been thinking of Downton Abbey in the wrong way, if we’re to listen to Hugh Bonneville, who plays the Grantham family’s father/clan leader. “It’s Breaking Bad with tea instead of meth,” joked the star of the Edwardian-era drama.

Bonneville was in Los Angeles for Downton’s third-season premiere party Friday at the Pacific Design Center. It came with a prescreening reception at the PDC’s Red Seven co-hosted by The Hollywood Reporter, then an excerpt of the first two-hour episode of the new season that will begin its American run Jan. 6 on Masterpiece Theatre, along with a panel hosted by THR's chief television critic Tim Goodman.

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The night was primarily a fan fest with the PDC’s theater packed with roughly 400 avid followers of the Grantham’s pre- and post-WWI woes. “Apparently, Anglophilia is not a dirty word,” said Masterpiece Theatre exec producer Rebecca Eaton, who had been honored as one of THR's Power 100 in its annual Women in Entertainment issue just days before. “Downton has made it an easily transmitted social disease."

Also on hand were Donald Thoms, vp programming at PBS; Gareth Neame, an executive producer on Downton Abbey; Joanne Froggatt, who plays the maid Anna on the series; Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore, the cook; and Rob James-Collier, who plays Downton's footman Thomas Barrow.

At the reception, James-Collier said the reason for the overflow crowd was, “Hugh Bonneville in tight britches is always going to sell.” Bonneville, who was standing next to him at the bar, just rolled his eyes. But Bonneville doesn't strike a very different tone in person than his character the Earl of Grantham -- and indeed became very lordly as he spoke to an audience member about the Egyptology exhibit in the basement at Highclere Castle, where much of the series is filmed.

James-Collier, on the other hand, seemed to be making a point of distancing himself from his polished, conniving, gay character Thomas. He looked decidedly more metrosexual Silver Lake than pre-Edwardian Yorkshire in a plaid shirt, khakis and Chuck Taylors. He mentioned his wife several times and also pointed out, in an ironically grandiose tone, that he was wearing a Ralph Lauren cardigan. "Good people wear cardigans," he joked during the panel discussion.

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James-Collier said this was his second trip to L.A. in the past couple months and that he usually stays with friends near USC. He said he had especially enjoyed a day in Crenshaw and that he “comes over for the jollies -- the rest is a bonus.” But he also admitted to one guest that he had "hired a car" to run him around town to several exploratory appointments. 

"I know Damian Lewis just won an Emmy for Homeland, so I'm working hard on my own American accent. I think I'll nail it very soon," James-Collier said. "There's definitely a wave of Brits doing great work on American television, and I wouldn't mind being one of them! I signed with Billy Lazarus at UTA and hope to be auditioning here when we're not shooting."

He was joking so much during the panel discussion that exec producer Naeme said he was planning on having much more comedic material written into season four.

In the panel discussion about season three, it was revealed that Thomas and the maid Mrs. O'Brien will battle throughout the season and that one of them will end up with their life changed forever. When Goodman suggested that a good couple to develop would be Thomas and Lady Edith Crawley (whose trouble in the early episodes of the season he called "hilariously depressing"), James-Collier said: "But who would wear the dress? I didn't shave these legs for nothing!"

Judging from chats back at the bar, it does seem clear that one of the bonuses for the cast in a visit to Hollywood is checking out what work might be available while the Granthams' travails are riding high in the ratings.

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Joanne Froggatt, whose character is married to the imprisoned valet John Bates (staff working the event were wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Free Bates"), also presented herself very differently from her drab domestic servant persona on the small screen: Her hair was teased up, crimped and full of volume, and she donned a tiny tight electric blue dress and heels. 

She said she saw this trip to L.A. as “warm recreation in the States” but enjoyed talking about what a comparable hit on a U.S. network series would pay.

When it was mentioned that Angus T. Jones is making $300,000 per episode in his 10th season of Two and a Half Men, Froggatt let out a sigh. When asked if pay on Downton is comparable, just laughed and said, “No comment.”

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