I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with a connection between Disney and Downton Abbey, but so far all I’ve got is that Hugh Bonneville was in Muppets Most Wanted. So if you only come to Disney Travel Babble for Disney and maaaaaybe puppet stuff, scroll down to my Dark Crystal Set Visit!
But if you are as nutty about Downton Abbey as I am, stick around to read the interview I got to participate in with Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Allen Leech to celebrate the opening of the Downton Abbey movie last week!
I’m also going to throw in some photos from our visit to Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, which is wrapping up its run in Boston before a Christmastime engagement at the fabulous Biltmore Estate. Except for the first room, which is super-crowded in Boston, it is really, really well done and contains a ton of iconic costumes, props and sets. I highly recommend it!
First, I gotta say this movie was fan service in the BEST way! Not pandering or shoehorned in—more like a bigger, posher double episode of the show, minus the more cringe-worthy melodrama we’ve been subjected to over the years. You get to see so much more beyond the tiny frame of a TV screen, too. I almost started crying when the first sweeping drone shot of Highclere Castle appeared! I think if you’re a fan of the show, you’re going to love this movie.
I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Downton Abbey that included a Q&A with Leech (Tom Branson), McGovern (Lady Cora) and Bonneville (Lord Grantham) after the movie. It was slightly surreal to see three people we’d just watched waltzing around in 1927 evening wear step off the screen in 2019 casual wear!
Here’s a transcript of the Q&A so you can hear everything we got to—including a question asked by ME!
The movie was outstanding. What are three things that you would like audience members to walk away with from this movie?
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: Entertained. Reassured.
ALLEN LEECH: Happy. And we want them to walk away as well. We don’t want them to, you know, die in the theaters.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: And then come back again.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: Yeah, I think that’s a fair… I think that sums it up, really, doesn’t it? It is to escape from the hassles of our current world. It’s pretty nice and it’s a nice place to go. And you sort of know you’re going to be looked after, because I think the characters in Downton Abbey look out for each other in some way, shape, or form. And I don’t think we need to apologize for that. It’s just pure escapism. And so it’s a nice place to be for a couple of hours.
This question is for Elizabeth. You were nominated for best supporting actress in Ragtime. And you’ve been doing Downton Abbey for ten years, right? And now the big screen version. What is it about period pieces that makes you intrigued as an actress?
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: Well, that’s a very interesting question, because I seem to end up in period pieces quite a bit. But the fact is, I really don’t care about that. I’m really drawn to great stories and great characters. And the fact that they happen to be in that period is irrelevant to me. I really hope that they spring out to a modern audience as if they are not in the period. And that what’s kind of remarkable is that people in that period are just like we are today. Things really don’t change all that much. That’s kind of the extraordinary thing if you read books that are set way in the past, right? Just happened to finish reading Don Quixote. And I couldn’t believe that the things that are written in that book are still so relevant today, because the fact is, people don’t change all that much. And when you do something that’s set in a period, it’s always a kind of funny thing about convincing people that it is actually the period. Because people talk about the way you move and the way you speak and the way you hold yourself. But nobody really knows. I mean, nobody was there if it happens to be something said in 1801. It’s just we have a kind of an agreed understanding of what we accept as the way people moved or spoke or sat or ate. And we want the audiences to believe that they’re in that period. So if we do that, then nobody questions it. But of course we might be completely wrong.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: Yeah. We actually had a historical adviser who was the sort of continuum of that or made sure that these standards were maintained. And there was sort of a house style, wasn’t there, that was established very early on, that the women wouldn’t cross their legs and the men wouldn’t put their hands in their pockets. It was simple as that. Now how do we know that the girls didn’t cross their legs or indeed the men didn’t cross their legs? But it was just decided that in our world, the fictional world of Downton Abbey, that wouldn’t happen. And I suppose that did lend it to certain if not grace, then a certain look to the thing.
How does it feel to revisit characters that were untouched for almost four years?
ALLEN LEECH: I think when we read the script, we all had a certain level of trepidation going in. As you say, can you go back and you revisit it and can you be as precise as you were originally? And the funny thing is, the minute you start reading the script and then when you start getting into your costume, you realize actually that it’s almost muscle memory. That it’s just sitting below the surface, because you play these characters for so long. And even when you weren’t playing them, you were probably talking about them. And then suddenly you had a little break and you got to go back. So it was a really happy discovery for me that it didn’t take a huge amount to get back to being Tom Branson at all.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: It’s a luxury in some ways, because the fact that you don’t have to think about all those things that you think about when you’re just creating the character to begin with. How do they talk? How do they walk? How do they sit? And since it’s so deeply in our bones, you can just play it. You can just be it. And perhaps go to a deeper more confident place for that reason. So it’s a luxury because it doesn’t happen very often that you get a chance to revisit a character that has just settled in your bones for years without you even thinking about it.
What was the atmosphere like when you all reunited on the set?
HUGH BONNEVILLE: I think really the moment that sticks in my mind is when we joined together for the read-through. Now obviously we had six of these events in the past. But there had been a gap of three years. And it was a small miracle that Gareth Neame, our executive producer, had managed to get all of us around the table again. Plus our new characters as well. But obviously the main challenge was to get the core of the cast back together. But I do remember looking around the table at this big old square table that was erected around the studio. And basically having sort of a wry grin on my face. Sort of, I can’t believe that we’re here again. And also I can’t believe in a good way that we’re here again, that we’ve actually made this happen, we all linked arms and decided to jump in together. Because I think if we hadn’t done that, then it wouldn’t have happened. If four or five or six characters had said, “Actually, I’m done with it,” which everyone had the right to do, so I think it’s a great testament to the audience really as much as anything. Because it was the audience who drove the enthusiasm and the constant questioning. “Is there going to be a movie?” And I think if they hadn’t been asking that, then we wouldn’t have done it. It’s as simple as that really. And again, a testament that we were a good band of friends over the six years and that we didn’t end up punching each other and we’re happy to spend another ten weeks together.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: Something just occurred to me this minute, actually, that I haven’t thought of before, of course, because that question has come up quite a bit. But I feel like we all quietly grew in confidence a little bit in the best way. Like when somebody is quietly more confident, they’re just more fun and more relaxed. I feel like across the board, you could apply that to every member of the cast. Maybe because of the experience of the show or the opportunities that it had brought people. And I think that pervaded the atmosphere when we were making the movie. There was a kind of quiet, peaceful confidence that wasn’t brash or arrogant. It was just kind of there.
(ME!!!) If each of you had the opportunity to play a different Downton Abbey character for an episode, who would you want to play?
ALLEN LEECH: I would start by saying I don’t think I could play it half as well. I think everyone is incredibly well cast in the show. But I would love just to be Thomas Barrow for a day. An early Thomas Barrow. Like evil, smoking, have the conniving Thomas Barrow.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: I think I would like to play Lady Mary. Because then you can shag a Turkish diplomat, have incredible sex, and then you don’t have to see them for breakfast!
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: I cannot follow that answer.
When it comes to playing characters from a completely different era, how has that changed you as actors or how has that even affected your personal lives? Have personal habits changed after embodying these people from another world for so many years?
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: It’s made me appreciate the freedoms that we enjoy as women and the power that we enjoy as women, which I might have taken for granted otherwise. I am so happy at the end of the day to come back to 2019 and know that I can vote, I can control my own money, I can control my own destiny. And we’ve come a long way, baby.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: I think something that has grown out of the show, and I hope I’ve taken into my own life, is a greater sense of tolerance, actually. I think that this show, all the characters are really based in a world in which tolerance and compassion, they’re not expensive. And it’s found quite frequently. And I think we’re so quick to judge these days and so quick in the pace of life to make rash decisions. I think that just the general pace is obviously inevitably so much slower in the world where the telephone is about the fastest means of communication or the way of getting in touch with people. And I think just the common courtesies that everybody in the estate is used to expressing. I think they aren’t bad things to hold onto now.
ALLEN LEECH: I would say the manners and the way people took care of themselves, and kind of I suppose the way that people treated each other. It’s a very similar issue. Actually, Hugh’s answer. Yeah. [LAUGHTER].
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: Ditto.
A couple of years ago, I went through a tough time. My father passed and my mom and I binge watched for a couple of months. So you guys really helped us through a tough time.
ALLEN LEECH: Oh, thank you. Thank you for telling us.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: We hear stories like that sometimes. And I can’t tell you genuinely how much it means to us. Because sometimes in the world of show business, you get just so sick of the bulls***. Sorry. But then when you’re reminded that you’re actually doing something that has helped somebody. It does really genuinely mean a lot.
I wanted to ask you guys if you had a favorite line or scene from this movie? The writing is so good. There were a couple like really amazing lines. But did you guys personally have one for your character?
HUGH BONNEVILLE: For my own character, that’s really interesting, because I think we all immediately go for one of Maggie’s lines.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: Yeah. We all want Maggie’s lines. Let’s not mince words. I like the way… we were talking about this the other day. I really like the way the arc was written after the death of Sybil, I think it was series three. I think it was… for my character. And Robert’s character. It was beautiful writing in the sense that it really delineated the process of grieving and the impact that a trauma like that can have. And I just think that Julian did an especially good job for our characters in that episode.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: Well, I think as a series, a line I’ve always loved where Tom Branson I think embodies Tom as he says, “I don’t believe in types, I believe in people.”
What are the differences that you’ve noticed between fans in the UK and fans in the US of Downton Abbey?
ALLEN LEECH: Rob James-Collier I think summed it up brilliantly when he said in the US, fans will, just people in general will cross roads and risk being knocked down to tell you they love your show. [LAUGHTER]. And in the UK, people will cross roads and risk being run down just to tell you they don’t watch it. [LAUGHTER]. Which is very true. Yeah. So the enthusiasm and the excitement that we experience from American audiences is so refreshing.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: You’re much more comfortable with your emotions.
ALLEN LEECH: It’s so exciting. And then obviously in Britain, the movie comes out and you get this face [BLANK EXPRESSION]. It’s just like [SOLEMNLY], “I was very excited to see that. One of the best cinematic experiences I’ve ever had.” [LAUGHTER]. Whereas in America, they’re like, “[SQUEAL]!!!” [LAUGHTER]. That happened in New York when I opened the door of Starbucks. And someone walked out.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: Translation: Starbucks. Go on.
ALLEN LEECH: What did I say?
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: Starbooks. [LAUGHTER].
ALLEN LEECH: I had to put up with this for ten years. StarBUCKS. Okay. So I held the door anyway. And the woman said, “Oh, thank you, what a gentleman. Oh holy f***, it’s Tom Branson!!!”[LAUGHTER].
Since everything is wrapping up, what will you take with you? What’s going to be in your Downton Abbey heart?
ALLEN LEECH: I had a very poignant moment with Hugh actually. We snuck in at the New York premiere. And we stood at the back of the theater for the last 20 minutes of the movie. And for me, I’ll take this incredible journey that we had over ten years. And the amazing family I have.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: I agree.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: Me, too.
What’s something for each of you about your character that really means something of quality about your character?
HUGH BONNEVILLE: I would go back to something I said earlier really. It’s to do with compassion and tolerance. Just when you think a typical father, if you like, patriarchal character, would explode at something that his daughter has done, some misdemeanor or bringing the shame upon the family name. You think he’s going to cast her out into the snow or something. And actually, he basically in a couple of cases says, “Well, we all make mistakes. So long as you’ve learned from it.” And I think that taught me something as a father apart from anything else, a father of a teenager. That actually we’ve all made our own mistakes. So long as you as a parent are there as a safety net. Allen, I’m talking to you now because you’re about to be a father. I think so long as you are there as an unconditional safety net, then that’s something that I actually learned some of that through the character of Robert and the relationship with Cora. That they do have their ups and downs, but they’re there for the long haul.
I would love to know who your favorite Downton Abbey character is and why. Whether it’s yours or another character.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: I always tend to gravitate to Mr. Molesley. But that’s as much a testament to Kevin as an actor as to the character. Because the character was I think originally commissioned, if you like, for two or three episodes in Season One. And then Kevin brought something so remarkable to the character, the sort of almost Chaplin-esque hangdog quality, which can be utterly heartbreaking and very fun at the same time. And as you’ve seen in the movie, it’s brought to the perfect peak in the movie. So I always love watching him work. Because you know you’re going to get a little bit of jewelry.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: I’m with Allen. I like early Thomas Barrow. I think that it was a very complex character who acted in ways that weren’t always the best way to act, but you could see that it was coming from a place of pain and frustration. And I always thought that was really interesting.
ALLEN LEECH: I’ll go with an unsung hero oftentimes in Downton, who is Isobel Crawley. Because Maggie Smith is as good as Maggie Smith is, but she can only be as good as who she is fighting against. And I think Dame Penelope Wilton, as she is now, is a very worthy adversary for her. And I think she does a wonderful job. I think the people really enjoy Maggie because they enjoy Penelope as well.
Have you guys had a chance to meet the royals? Are they fans? Have you had any interaction like to where they’ve seen the movie or you had any feedback?
HUGH BONNEVILLE: I don’t know if they’ve seen the movie. But we had a dry run of the film plot, because the Duchess of Cambridge came to visit the set.
ALLEN LEECH: Kate Middleton.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: Kate Middleton. Yes. [LAUGHTER].
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: To you.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: Sorry. So she came to the set in our final season at Ealing. And that was a great day. She was due to stay for an hour or so. And her detectives were checking their watch because she was there for about three hours because she was having such a good time looking around the wardrobe bus and learning how everything worked. But we also had a couple of visits from the Countess of Wessex. Sophie Wessex came a couple of times, incognito. There was one occasion when we were filming outside Oxford, I think it was at a house that Winston Churchill used for sort of war plans during the war. And we knew that a dignitary was coming to visit sort of by coincidence. Was it a Brazilian or an Argentinean? Argentinean ambassador and her entourage were coming to be escorted by the Duchess of Wessex. Unfortunately, my good lady screen wife didn’t really take all this on board and thought she had met this blonde-haired lady in the supermarket recently.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: No. I thought she was an extra wardrobe person that had come on. Didn’t recognize her.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: Okay. So that was Sophie Wessex. Yeah. Just so you know for next time. Member of the royal family.
ALLEN LEECH: No wonder she found us so weird when you said, “Can you sew this part of my dress please?”
So the dinner scene with Molesley and the ballroom scene. You guys had to have had some moments where you cracked up and they had to redo the take. You had to. Especially the scene with Molesley.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: Well, normally those dining room scenes, we can’t wait to get out, because they take a long time, those dining room scenes, for sort of obvious reasons. And that’s the one time that we actually just wanted to stay in the room and see them there, because, take after take, he was just sublime.
ALLEN LEECH: It was a lovely moment where Maggie saw him do it for the first time. And she just turned. And there was a bit of applause. And she just turned and went, “Well, that’s delicious.” [LAUGHTER]. And I think it’s a lovely way of describing that moment. Because he’s such a comic genius. And the ballroom was fun. Because obviously I sat on the sidelines and watched these guys do their job. And every so often myself and Imelda Staunton, we would go in and we would give our judging scores. Like Dancing With The Stars. We would go in and everyone would line up and then we would walk up and down. And then we go, “You guys were the best this time. Well done.” And so everyone got to win at different stages. Except for the king and queen. Now that wasn’t Geraldine and James’ fault.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: They sucked.
ALLEN LEECH: They sucked. [LAUGHTER]. For royalty, they really couldn’t dance.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: And over the years, Elizabeth and I have had quite a few dances in the TV show. And Diana Scrivener, who is our choreographer, has always been very patient, because we often may start at the bottom of the class, but she gives us incentives. And it will go little badges each way. And we finally ended up with gold. We were very excited. We got a gold star.
ALLEN LEECH: And you deserved it.
Do you feel like this is really the end? Because I feel like there could be a whole another series spun with the younger generation.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: Oh. Me being Maggie.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: Oh.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: I think realistically, it’s certainly the end for us in terms of the TV show. Of course there could be, because let’s not forget that the central character is the house. And the house is still standing and will be standing in another 100 years. So absolutely. And knowing a little bit of the history of Lord and Lady Canarvon’s family, the current Earl who lives there, his grandfather was quite a character. And if those walls could talk in the 1960s, that was one heck of a party house. So some fascinating shenanigans would have gone on over the years. So of course, I think they absolutely could do spinoffs in that way. In terms of our section of the history, I think if you can just persuade all your friends to go and see the movie, then maybe we’ll do another one.
ALLEN LEECH: Yeah. Absolutely. If the appetite is there. [APPLAUSE].
HUGH BONNEVILLE: Thank you.
ALLEN LEECH: Thank you very much.