Emmys: 'Downton Abbey' Stars Reflect on the Bloody, Deadly Third Season
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's August Emmy stand-alone issue.
To see castmembers and producers from PBS/Masterpiece's Downton Abbey clad en masse in slick, L.A.-ready garb is a little like seeing Scarlett O'Hara traipse down Rodeo Drive in skinny jeans.
On a humid spring morning in Beverly Hills, the show's creator, Julian Fellowes, executive producer Gareth Neame and four of its castmembers -- Elizabeth McGovern, Joanne Froggatt, Rob James-Collier and Emmy nominee Michelle Dockery -- have ditched their post-Edwardian costumes and class division to enjoy a bit of a casual conversation across the pond. From newfound fame to their dream guest-star gigs (Mad Men and Homeland are top picks) to -- in the words of Fellowes -- "the alternative lives" that eluded each of them, these six Brits are every inch the class acts and pictures of poise their addictive series celebrates. With none of the stuffy pomp and circumstance.
It was inevitable that Mary and Matthew would be an iconic TV couple. I think it's true that people see these characters as an extension of their own families. And the episode [where Matthew dies] played in the U.K. on Christmas night! Imagine somebody that you feel is a part of your life is suddenly killed in front of your eyes at 11 o'clock, when you've just finished opening your presents! People were devastated. But it is the shocks and the surprises in this show that give it so much dramatic rocket fuel that we need to keep it compelling. And we can't have too much external influence, should I say, or opinion makers about the scripts. Julian couldn't write all these scripts and have 40 people giving notes. It just wouldn't work. Lots of shows obviously work with a big staff and therefore can cope with the fact that you have multiple broadcasters, studios and umpteen producers. That isn't the way we make the show.
I like to think that it's one of the things that may have led to success of the show; we all back Julian's vision. Our broadcasters back our vision. And they frankly leave us alone to get on with the script. We would never get them done if they did. Working outside of Hollywood is significant, I think, particularly when we are in production and you have your pages to learn; that's your focus. And it's very easy to forget the fact that there are over a hundred million people in the world that watch the show and in over 200 countries. That's quite hard to grasp!
I've been acting since I was 16, and I've never done anything else, and honestly I can't do anything else. I would be pretty useless! But I've always been interested in people and their lives and what makes people tick. So maybe I'd be a psychiatrist if I weren't acting? I'd also love to guest star on Mad Men or Homeland. Or The Following.
The biggest change for me since being on the show is really just coming out to the States more frequently. Fame-wise … I don't feel I'm instantly recognizable! I definitely don't have people stopping me in the street every five minutes. As an actor, you do whatever you need to do for the role to make yourself believable in the role. In the beginning of [season] one, I did a bit of research and read a book about servants. Also, our historical adviser, Alastair Brewster, is just a mine of information. After I understood where this character would be as a woman in this time, I was ready to play her.
As the outsider on the series, someone who grew up and cut her professional teeth in Los Angeles, there is something just absolutely extraordinary about the discipline and commitment of this group of actors. Every day I'm in awe of it! They're so prepared. And none of the [media attention] phases them. It is truly about the work in their ego-less way. That would be a hard thing for us to duplicate if we worked in Los Angeles. There's sort of a cultural approach to the work in England that is, I suppose, based on years of a theatrical tradition. It's just in their DNA.
I actually just discovered the book that Julian read before he wrote Downton Abbey. It's called How to Marry an English Lord, and I read it about two weeks ago. I thought, "My God, I better read this. … Four years into the show!" Either way, moving forward, I don't have the luxury of knowing what is ahead for my character. I never know. I find it exciting. I don't think any of us can wait till that next episode hits the doorstep. It's a bit like life. You don't know what's going to happen, do you?
If I weren't acting? I'd be opening for Sting at the Montreux Jazz Festival with my band, Sadie and the Hotheads. Oh wait, I did! I play guitar and write songs. And because of Downton Abbey, we've really gotten some momentum, and we're performing a lot more. It's very exciting.
We knew quite early that Dan [Stevens] was leaving, but we certainly didn't know how the story would pan out. Now going into [season] four, there is definitely more focus for me on Mary being in a very, very dark place. But it's strange, even though so much as happened since we started, I feel as an actor that the mood and tone has stayed the same as it was when the series began.
I've thought about what I would be if I weren't acting, and I'd probably have been a dancer, I think, because that's what I started out doing. I auditioned for musicals when I was 16 or 17. And I didn't get any!
This is one of the first show I've done where we actually had a few weeks' rehearsal before we started. That's always huge. Something special is always born out of a rehearsal that you maybe wouldn't have time to do on the day of shooting -- like me kissing another man, for example, came out of that! Doing Downton has afforded me a certain amount of security, which you rarely get as an actor. You hope that for six months of the year you're going to be in employment. The show also makes it easier to get a mortgage. The bank manager looks on me more kindly than he used to.
Sybil, Sybil, Sybil! We decided to calmly kill her [Jessica Brown Findlay] off in the fifth episode, which would give people three episodes to recover. Then they would have the Christmas special, and everyone could move forward. We could have essentially a whole episode of her dying. But when the news came through that Dan was also leaving the show, we couldn't very well do it again. So that was a bit testing, wasn't it? Fans are people who aren't in the TV business; they didn't understand that Matthew's fate wasn't our choice. It was Dan's choice to go. Every show sets up its own reasonable expectations; Game of Thrones sets up certain expectations, and Downton inevitably sets up very different ones. It's not as though a serial killer is on the loose! It just wasn't what fans thought they were going to get from the show. That's what we were up against really.
My favorite fan interaction was actually just after Matthew's death. I got a letter from this guy, and he said, "I've got some recommendations on how to save the show. What we have to do is remount [Matthew's] death at the beginning of the fourth episode. And this milk [truck] will come along, get jolted and fall all over Dan. Then it does something to his face and he wakes up as a different actor." Then, at the very end of the letter, he said, "I reread this letter, and I am not so sure about the milk."
Funny, I always feel the career that escaped me was the law. I went and spent the day in the [lower courts]. And I remember thinking, "Wow, this is really interesting." And I certainly could have imagined and loved being a divorce lawyer because I love soap opera. All those dramas of people sobbing and screaming and insulting each other. I would have adored that.