Hugh Bonneville on the enduring charm of "Downton Abbey" and why he was nervous to film "Paddington"

"Julian Fellowes writes from a default position that people try to be good," Bonneville said on "Salon Talks"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 23, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Carmichael in "Downton Abbey: A New Era." (Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC)
Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Carmichael in "Downton Abbey: A New Era." (Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC)

Within the surfeit of charms "Downton Abbey" shares with its devoted audience are many notes of wisdom concerning change.  Accepting change, says Lady Cora in the third season, "is quite as important as defending the past." Two seasons later even the manor's butler and stubborn traditionalist Carson (Jim Carter) had to agree: "The nature of life is not permanence, but flux," he observes.

This is all very true . . . although, when pressed, the story's devoted fans might claim that what keeps them coming back to their favorite fantasy Yorkshire estate is knowing that at their core the Crawleys remain the same genteel characters as ever. What they can't change is time. When Julian Fellowes ("The Gilded Age," "Belgravia") first introduced Hugh Bonneville's Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, along with his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and mother Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), it was 1912.

Six seasons of television and two films hence, their latest chapter, "Downton Abbey: A New Era" picks up in 1928 and offers new paths for several of beloved characters, along with emotional developments both expected and entirely surprising. 

RELATED: "Downton Abbey" is entirely unnecessary, and essential viewing for super-fans

Bonneville knows quite a bit about that feel after spending more than a dozen years playing Robert, as well as stepping into the roles of Mr. Brown in "Paddington" and "Paddington 2" along with his recent turn as Roald Dahl in the biographical film "To Olivia."

Salon Talks caught up with Bonneville recently to talk about the lasting legacy of "Downton Abbey" as well as his other recent work, and you can watch our entire conversation here or read our conversation below.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

"Downton Abbey" is one of the most beloved shows of our time and it keeps on extending. First, we had the series on television, now we have two films. You have returned again as the Earl of Grantham in  "Downton Abbey: A New Era," which starts in 1928, correct?

That's right. We open in 1928. The story has moved on a little bit, as ever in "Downton." It's a glacial pace, so we don't want to rush things too much. We've moved on a few months from the last one, and the roof is leaking at Downton. In order to plug the gaps, Lady Mary suggests that we should accept the idea of a film crew coming to film with the castle. Meanwhile, my mother, Lady Violet, has inherited a house, a villa in the south of France. And so some of us go off to find out why.

That must have been fabulous to be able to take that trip. Was it filmed on location or did you mock it up in post-production?

No. I'm delighted to say it wasn't a green screen . . . because for a long period during pre-production and indeed during production itself, there was a danger that we wouldn't be able to film in France because of the COVID restrictions. And so they had a plan Z, which was to film in a couple of properties in the UK that they could sort of stitch together and sort of make look a bit French. But it would've had the quintessentially gray skies of Britain overhead and that would've required a lot of CGI. So we were very fortunate that we were actually able to go to the south of France and film at Cote d'Azur.

Let's go back a bit: You started playing Robert Crawley, what, back in 2010 at this point? Perhaps a little bit earlier [considering] pre-production. So it's been quite a long time. What do you think it is about this series and this story that keeps it enduring more than a decade later?

It's a question we're always asked. It's a question none of us have the answer to, and we always search around for it. And I always end up saying, I can only put some of it down to the experience I had when I first read the script, which was, I wanted to know what happened next. And . . .  I enjoyed spending time with the characters. Each of them popped in my imagination.

"A lot has changed, but 'Downton' remains the same."

Also I think there was just a sense of escape, that where the world was when we started, just coming out of this painful financial hit, [people] wanted a piece of escapism really. Now, of course, it's seven years since we finished the TV show. It was pre-Brexit, pre-, dare I say, pre- Mr. Trump, pre-pandemic. And it seems like a golden era. It seems like a kind of calmer time.

. . . So a lot has changed, but "Downton" remains the same.

Maybe by its third season, as people had seen it a little bit more, I recall reading a number of critiques talking about the idea of the class relationship between the Crawleys and their servants, and of course the people in the village. And how the show takes a very kindly view of how the noble classes might have treated the working classes.

It's a fictional world. And it gives me a bit of a tickle, actually, that newspapers treat it like it's a sort of documentary and get very angry. . . . There were some articles recently saying it should be pretty much canceled as it's disgusting, that it perpetuates the class myth, that there was a sort of benign benevolence in certain estates. And that in fact, all land owners were ghastly people and that should have been put up against the wall. You don't critique "Star Wars" or "Star Trek" in the same way. This is equally fictional.

. . . It's not pretending to be a historical document . . .  any more than "The Waltons" is a true account of life in the early part of the 20th century in the U.S.

Do you think that reaction is angrier now? Because there's more class inequity nowadays. And I just wanted to say – and I love "Downton," I just want to establish that – but when you were saying we don't critique "Star Wars" and Star "Trek," I wonder if it's the fact that it is a historical drama, that it does depict something that's real and not on a spaceship, that might be part of the reason that sustains some of these critiques.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I can understand because of course in the space genre, you are completely outside the reality, but whereas we have one foot in reality, as indeed many TV shows do, but I think to get exercised about a piece fiction, particularly in the UK, there's a tall poppy syndrome. If something is successful, there must be a reason, there must be a way that we can put it down. And it's part of the British psyche. Maybe it's part of human psyche, I don't know.

. . . But ultimately it is about family. And there must be a reason why it's resonated around the world. I think one of those reasons is that it is about a recognizable set of human relationships that pertain worldwide, that are just universal, that pertain to human beings.

Julian Fellowes writes from a default position that people try to be good. They try, they get it wrong and they do bad things and wrong things, but they try ultimately to get by and look after those around them that they care about. And I suppose that may sound wishy-washy, but I think that is one of the, going back to the question, why does it work or why has it worked and why has it resonated? I think that's, again, one of the factors. That there is a sort of underlying sense of compassion in these characters that they do try and care for each other.

I want to step back a little bit and talk a little bit about you, Hugh, because we have you playing Robert in "A New Era."  People also know you from "Paddington," as I'm sure you know, ["Paddington 2"] has now topped "Citizen Kane" in the U.S. is one of the most beloved movies on Rotten Tomatoes. And then you also are playing Roald Dahl in "To Olivia." So we have these very different roles of fathers here. . . . Two of the men are very similar just in terms of they're the kinds of people that we want in our lives. And then Roald Dahl is very complicated as people know. So what has been appealing for you to play these characters in recent years?

Well, I mean Mr. Brown was, I was nervous about doing the "Paddington" film because I grew up with Paddington and I didn't want to see a childhood hero of mine being given the Hollywood treatment and made a complete mess of. But when I read the first page of Paul King's script, I was laughing on page one and I thought, "We're in safe hands here." This guy understands Paddington and understands Michael Bond, more to the point, the creator of Paddington. Also, the Mr. Brown in the book is a fairly straightforward character. There's not a lot of texture to him. He's just Mr. Brown, who works in the city somewhere and is a dad. And that's about it. Whereas with Paul . . . we spent quite a lot of time improvising and building up the sort of texture of their relationship and their characters. And the idea that Mr. Brown has been very risk averse.

"Julian Fellowes writes from a default position that people try to be good."

And of course, the presence of the bear gradually unleashes his hinterland. And so playing a character who one can really genuinely flesh out from the bare bones of what Michael Bond had created was really fun, and it had Michael's blessing. That was important to us.

And in Roald Dahl it was a very different thing. It was really the complexity of the matter that I found riveting. I mean, like millions of people, I knew, I'd read his books when I was younger, but I had no idea about the family challenges that he and Patricia Neil went through.

. . . And Roald is a very complicated man. There's no question about that, and a controversial man, and you get into the whole world of, if you like, the whole world of cancel culture . . . It's well documented in Patricia's own autobiography and indeed books about the Dahls, about how Roald did or didn't cope with the loss of his daughter. . . . So it's an extraordinary time of charting this journey through grief for this man and this woman, charting their marriage and also charting their creative energies.

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Since you had "To Olivia" before "Downton," did it feel like a relief to let Roald Dahl go and let that world go? You're talking a lot about just the processing of grief that we see in the story. How was it to go from that to coming back to this role that you've known for such a long time?

Yeah. It's obviously a very different tone, and was a relief. I mean, the Roald Dahl filming and the development of that story, which we'd been working on for several years actually, it was quite intense and it was a small budget film, but I think a very telling film. And so then to go to something that was more familiar, more relaxed, more lightweight, even though it's got these little wave patterns of quite intense emotion within it. "Downton" is a much broader, more relaxed landscape in terms of I knew the territory, we all knew the territory much we're much more familiar with it and weren't trying to reinvent the wheel.

Then laterally, I did a movie that's coming out soon called, "I Came By," which is a movie by Babak Anvari, a British movie that's being released by Netflix that is altogether a different experience and is neither Lord Grantham, Mr. Brown, nor Roald Dahl. So I've had a very enjoyable sort of, different textures to play with over the last couple of years.

So you've cycled back to Robert. Are going to cycle back to Mr. Brown again?

Oh, I hope so. I mean, there's certainly talk of a third "Paddington" film, but the logistics of it at the moment are quite complicated. And so it won't be for a while anyway.

With "Downton Abbey: A New Era," just because it's a new era that doesn't mean necessarily that it's ending. Do you foresee coming back to playing Robert Crawley again in the future?

I'd never say never. It's entirely going to be down to the box office. . . . If the audience is still enjoying it, then it would be fun to think we could do one more.

"Downton Abbey: A New Era" is currently playing in theaters.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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