This weekend sees the release of the critically reviled “Winter’s Tale,” an era-spanning romance starring Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay. Farrell is familiar from years of projects of all levels of quality; Findlay is a newer face, but will be known to millions as the late Lady Sybil on “Downton Abbey.” She was one of two actors who were written off the show so they could pursue movie careers — the other is Dan Stevens, whose character, the show’s romantic lead, died at the conclusion of the third season.
“Downton Abbey” guarantees fame of a very specific sort — the actors crisscross the globe for awards ceremonies honoring their work in one project, but so far, none have managed to break through in other projects. Findlay has several upcoming projects that promise, perhaps, a bit of the movie-star sheen that “Winter’s Tale” won’t likely grant her; she’s to appear in a “Frankenstein” adaptation opposite Daniel Radcliffe, and the next film by “An Education” director Lone Scherfig. From there, the forecast for “Downton” stars is a bit muddy; Stevens is set to play a supporting role in an Adam Sandler movie and a Liam Neeson action flick; Michelle Dockery, who stars as Lady Mary, is in a different Neeson film, the forthcoming “Non-Stop,” as a flight attendant, and played a small role in “Anna Karenina”; Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, had a supporting role in “The Monuments Men.” Maggie Smith works all the time, but she also has two Oscars on the shelf.
None of these are roles that any working actor would sneeze at, but they do give the strong impression that the actors who have chosen to stay with “Downton Abbey” have made the right decision, for now. Findlay and Stevens are strongly identified with the characters they played on “Downton Abbey” to the degree that it’s hard to place them in a new context. And yet they’re not, yet, famous enough on the back of “Downton” (which keeps gaining viewers every season) to be bankable in a leading role. Maybe in time “Downton” will be able to spin off its actors into ready-made star vehicles on film, but the show is much more about the ensemble than it is about any one cast mate, anyhow.
TV-to-film fame is a very tricky thing; for every Jennifer Aniston or George Clooney, there’s a David Caruso or even a Jon Hamm (who hasn’t quite put the pieces together yet). And yet Aniston and Clooney both did precisely the same thing when embarking upon film careers: eventually, they figured out a way to sign on for roles that substantially differed from that which made them famous on the small screen. The “Friends” sweetheart was finally taken seriously when she did “The Good Girl”; Clooney, of “ER,” put his roguish charm to less purely heroic use in “Three Kings” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
While many of the “Downton” cast’s future projects remain in the future, things look promising enough for Michelle Dockery — who decks someone in the trailer for “Non-Stop” — and less so for Findlay. Her “Downton” character was most memorable at the moment she swooningly died, and her “Winter’s Tale” character is tubercular. So, too, is Dan Stevens’ turn as Lancelot in an upcoming “Night at the Museum” flick troubling — he ought to be leaning away from the romantic-lead side of his persona.
But does he really have a choice? Clooney and Aniston were famous stateside in a way that the star of a British soap cannot really be; Michelle Dockery is much better known as “Lady Mary” than as Dockery. Stevens’ freedom to do whatever he wants may be somewhat constrained; the blessing of a show as specific as “Downton” is the fan base it gives you, but the curse is that they can only see you one way, even if that limits growth potential.
It’s not all bad, though; any actor would be lucky to have the success “Downton Abbey” has given its stars. But the transition away from an iconic and beloved role is harder than it seems — just ask anyone from “Beverly Hills 90210,” or between one-half and three-quarters of the “Sex and the City” cast, depending on the day. One hopes the talented Findlay’s next role is something wildly different from Lady Sybil, so that she can spread her wings a bit, and so that the audience (and casting directors) can see a new side to her.