'Downton Abbey' EP on Shirley MacLaine, Pippa Middleton and the PBS Darling's Future (Q&A)

"Downton Abbey"

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

This story first appeared in the Aug. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

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. 

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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.

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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: Are you temped to stunt cast?

Neame: No, I don’t think that would be a very good idea. We have to be quite careful with guest characters. If we have an episode with a new maid coming in who’s just in one episode and you put a huge star in that part it would be very unbalanced.

THR: In the age of social media, are you concerned that the show airs so much earlier in the U.K.?

Neame: [It’s] going to be quite difficult to control. Once the plot spoilers are out there, nobody’s going to stop tweeting about it. So I think shows like Donwton are going to emphasize the globalization of certain shows and the fact that it’s increasingly a problem. 

THR: Has Downton spurred more interest from U.S. network’s interested in British dramas?

Neame: I think so, now there’s a real sense that a story can come from anywhere and a show can come from anywhere and still be a world-class show.

THR: Is there a difference between the notes process for British distributors compared to American distributors?

Neame: It’s possibly even more intense [in the U.K.]. There’s less volume and therefore there’s more attention to the individual shows. I don’t try and say we do things any better. We f--- up slightly less often.

THR: And the price point for British shows is also lower...

Neame: Right, we don’t the splash the cash as much. I would like to think that we have the least money of the six [Emmy-nominated dramas], which is a statistic that English people love because English people love to say we made this wonderful thing for very little money. Americans couldn’t care less. 

THR: Downton won the Emmy for miniseries last year. Do you think the competition is stiffer in the drama series category?

Neame: We knew we were going into the toughest category of all. But we feel confident of our show and we feel very proud of it and however it goes in that category, it’s up against the five best shows on television in an absolute golden age for TV dramas.

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.