'Downton Abbey's' Hot Streak

6:00 AM PST 07/24/2012 by Marisa Guthrie, Lacey Rose

With his show nominated for an Emmy 16 times, exec producer Gareth Neame offers a sneak peek beneath the pinafore.

The stunning success of Downton Abbey, which hit a new high with 16 Emmy nominations July 19, has done wonders for PBS' profile. The show, which won for outstanding miniseries last year and maintains a bargain price tag of $2 million to $2.5 million an episode, has become a cultural phenomenon with blockbuster ratings (the second season averaged 7 million viewers an episode) and fans among the British royal family (Pippa Middleton was granted a set visit) and Hollywood royalty (Maggie Gyllenhaal inquired about a cameo). Executive producer Gareth Neame (who also is managing director of Carnival Films, the NBCUniversal-owned co-producer of the series with PBS and England's ITV) cryptically teases "story surprises" for the show's third season, which begins Jan. 6 in the U.S. after premiering in the U.K. in September. 

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: Which of Downton Abbey's celebrity fans has been the most surprising?

Gareth Neame: It's amusing when you hear that John Kerry is obsessed with it, or Hillary Clinton, or can Michelle Obama's staff member come to the set? But then there are these touching stories. We had a letter from one gentleman whose sister was dying very prematurely of cancer, and this show and watching it constantly in hospice while she was dying was the thing that she clung to.

THR: How many seasons will Downton continue?

Neame: We have to balance between continuing to make it for audiences around the world that adore it and making sure that we don't take it too far … which is not now and not next year, but likely five years or six years, not 10 years.

THR: How did you get Shirley MacLaine to join the cast?

Neame: We had approached her, and she had already seen the show and loved it. Having Maggie Smith in that part, you had to have an American actress of similar weight. And actually, there isn't a huge list. We spoke to her publicist, and her publicist said, "If she doesn't agree to do this, then I quit."

THR: Which stars have reached out to be on Downton?

Neame: We met with Jamie Lee Curtis, who adores the show, and came up with an elaborate storyline that she could be Cora's older sister who was murdered in Chicago in the 1880s; therefore, she doesn't have to actually appear in the show. (Laughs.)

THR: You could be the show that breaks Mad Men's Emmy streak. Thoughts?

Neame: I must say, I hope very much that we win. I think we have a good chance. But we couldn't admire Mad Men more. And if we don't win, I'm not going to cry into my cup.

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