BEVERLY HILLS – “You have excellent taste,” Brendan Coyle tells me as we conclude our interview overlooking the pool at the Beverly Hilton.
The words sound familiar, coming from an actor who has become best known Stateside for playing emotionally tortured, physically hobbled, pathologically noble and expertly obsequious Mr. Bates on PBS’ “Downton Abbey.”
Of course, in this case, Coyle’s words come with a wink, because I’ve just realized that he was one of the stars of the West End production of “The Weir,” which I saw and loved in London shortly after its 1997 premiere. At the time, I didn’t know Coyle or his co-star Michelle Fairley, now of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Now, 14-plus years later, I’ve taken the opportunity for a retroactive compliment for what happens to be a favorite project for Coyle as well.
Actually, other than his consummate politeness, Coyle seems very little like Mr. Bates. He dresses nattily, walks without a limp and — and this will seem almost unfathomable for “Downton Abbey” fans — he frequently smiles.
I got very few spoilers out of Coyle in our brief chat.
I know that Mr. Bates will spend some/much of Season Three in prison. But I don’t know how much, exactly.
I also know that he knows what happened with Vera, the horrible late Mrs. Bates, but I don’t know what he knows.
Click through for the full conversation…
HitFix: First off, congratulations on the Emmy nomination!
Brendan Coyle: Thank you very much, Dan. I appreciate it. It’s a lovely thing.
HitFix: Did you have any expectations or anticipation or nervousness about that?
Brendan Coyle: No, I didn’t even know I was in the running. No one said, “Listen, you might be nominated for an Emmy.” I didn’t think about it at all. I was nominated for a BAFTA the year before, so that was lovely, but I thought, “That’s it now for ‘Downton Abbey.'” So this is extraordinary. It’s indicative of also the way it’s been appreciated in the States, which has been remarkable for us. And… yeah. I’m delighted.
HitFix: Who let you know and how?
Brendan Coyle: Well, we had a break in filming. It was during our lunch hour. I was sitting having “a sneaky fag,” as we call it, with O’Brien, with Siobhan Finneran. The producer came up. He had about three phones on-the-go and he was talking to someone while saying, out of the corner of his mouth, “And here’s the Emmy nominated Brendan Coyle.” And I just went, “What? What?!?” The extraordinary thing is… Joanne Froggatt, she popped out to the post office, so she didn’t know about her nomination either, so we were filming a scene and half-way through the scene, we broke for lunch. So when we left, half of the scene we shot was as non-nominees and when we came back after lunch, we’d both been nominated for an Emmy. So I’m gonna watch that scene and see if you can see if there’s any glow in the second part of the scene.
HitFix: Given how much your characters and performances are tied together, how gratifying was it for you that Joanne was also nominated?
Brendan Coyle: So gratifying! I’m such a fan of her work and I see it at close quarters and I just think she’s magnificent. She’s a beautiful actor and I was just really thrilled for her. So deserved.
HitFix: Last season, your character gets sentenced to death, which usually doesn’t seem like a good thing for an ongoing character. Were you told at that point, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s going to be commuted. You’ll still be around…”?
Brendan Coyle: Well, it was commuted in the same episode, but I wasn’t told before I read the episode. When we get these episodes, when they land on our doormat, it’s quite an event. You put the kettle on, you put your feet up, you turn your phones off. “Alright. I’m going to read ‘Downton Abbey’ now.” I read it as a fan as well and I’m very interested in what happens to the other people. So I read this episode. I knew got arrested, obviously, and I read this episode and it said, “He hangs” and I went, “Oh. OK. I didn’t think they’d do this to Mr. Bates.” I didn’t think they would hang him. And, sure enough, they don’t.
HitFix: So Julian Fellowes didn’t reassure you or anything before giving you the script?
Brendan Coyle: No, no, no. We don’t have that sort of… We all have a great rapport with Julian, but not when it comes to these characters and these scripts. So we get these scripts after a lot of work’s gone into them.
HitFix: When it comes to looking at a season arc, how much are you told in advance? Last season, things got very dark with Bates, so how much were you told at the beginning, regarding where the season was going for the character?
Brendan Coyle: Not a huge amount. What I was told was that because we had to cover the whole of The War in Season 2, we covered quite a bit of time, so I was told that in Season 3, we were going to slow down a little bit and just take our time with 1920 and 1921, so it meant that I would be in prison for quite some time.
HitFix: And how much were you told about the arc of Season 2 before production began?
Brendan Coyle: I knew from the beginning of Season 2 that Vera Bates would turn up and she would really throw a cat among the pigeons and it would be a very distressing sort of tangle. I didn’t know she going to die at the beginning. I did not know I was going to be going to prison. That was something that evolved. They must have an idea, but they were still formulating the script. They don’t tell us where it’s going until we get the scripts.
HitFix: I assume that the issue of what actually happened to Vera comes into play in the third season, right?
Brendan Coyle: [Squirms.] Yes.
HitFix: So following up on that, were you told last season what happened to Vera? It seems like something that would be important to know for an actor. Just: Did I kill her or not?
Brendan Coyle: [Squirms.] Yes. We were clear about that. What’s not clear is whether or not he did it. A lot of the audience, a lot of the fans, there’s a lot of debate about whether or not he did or whether or not he could. That’s quite interesting, that ambiguity. It’s still not clear whether he did or not. I’m clear.
HitFix: I want him to have killed her.
Brendan Coyle: [He laughs.] She’s a really good friend and she’s had a lot of trouble with that. She’s a great friend of mine now, Maria [Doyle Kennedy], and she’s had a lot of grief from some of the more excessive audience members.
HitFix: But Vera was so terrible!
Brendan Coyle: She was awful wasn’t she?
HitFix: How have people responded to you and to Bates differently after what happened last season?
Brendan Coyle: How do you mean?
HitFix: In the first season, people responded to Bates and his nobility and his dedication and he was the show’s romantic lead, almost. But last season, Bates did some dark stuff. He may or may not have killed his ex-wife and all of that. Surely that makes people approach him different?
Brendan Coyle: I don’t think so. The biggest response, or the most visible response, has been the “Free Bates” campaign, which is quite extraordinary. I keep getting these links. I wish I had a slight bump on the merchandising, because there are fantastic t-shirts and bumper-stickers. People are having a lot of fun with that. I think Bates had enough in the bank from Season 1 to tide me over, to make the audience still respond to this character and still appreciate him and still want to watch and follow him.
HitFix: And what do you say to fans who want the gratification of happiness for Bates and Anna, who don’t want all of these bumps in the road that keep getting in the way?
Brendan Coyle: I say to them, “You can’t always get what you want. Behave yourselves.”
HitFix: Have people gotten rowdy about that? People are really anxious for those two to just have some happiness!
Brendan Coyle: Yeah. Yes, they are. People are. They had their moment. They got married. Unfortunately, the honeymoon involved him getting arrested for murder. The course of love does not run smoothly in the series or in life. His love for her is what keeps him alive at the beginning of Season 3. That’s all I can say.
HitFix: How much time have you gotten to spend in the States since this all began?
Brendan Coyle: Very little. I have a friend in New York, who has a theater company I’m now a patron of, Origin Theater, and I was there about two months ago. It was extraordinary and it really astounded me, the recognition factor, and also the demographics — black, white, young, old — it was just just extraordinary the appreciation and the scale of the recognition. And now, being here, this is my first time in LA and I’ve just landed yesterday an Emmy nominee, so God I love America.
HitFix: Do you have a sense, though, of what American audiences are responding to? So much of “Downton Abbey” is so foreign to our cultural experience, but obviously there are core things that are universal.
Brendan Coyle: Great storytelling is not foreign to your culture in any way whatsoever and I think people are responding to it in the same ways they are all over the world. They are very compelling characters and it’s great storytelling. It’s an like an open-ended, dynastic, multi-stranded novel. It’s great storytelling and you have people all over the world respond to that as we’ve seen with it showing in 200 territories now. I think that’s what it is. And there is that added fascination of the class structure and that period of history that we cover in England, so there is that.
HitFix: If Bates is in jail for some or most of Season 3, how has that made production different for you? Presumably you’re not getting to work with the whole ensemble in quite the same way.
Brendan Coyle: It’s been a challenging one for me, Season 3, because I’ve been very isolated. Bates in prison, there are storylines there. He’s not alone there and there are issues. But what I love about the sweeping scale of “Downton Abbey” is that instead of just being in one cell or one visiting room, we took it out to this place, this perfectly preserved Victorian three-tier prison. It’s part Lincoln Castle and we went out there, as befitting the series, to give it sweep, to give it scale and to give it a landscape, to give it context. That’s why I have a cellmate and there are other characters there. It’s a whole world removed from Downton Abbey. But I miss my friends. I miss the gang. But I can’t tell you what the conclusion of that is.
HitFix: I assume that Anna probably makes her way to prison. But who do you miss working with when you’re in that isolated mode?
Brendan Coyle: I’m really missing doing scenes with Hugh [Bonneville], because I love that dynamic between Bates and Lord Grantham. Luckily, the scenes that kept me going, the most moving and obviously the most tender scenes, are between him and Anna. So that gave me succor and I just missed the companionship of the gang, because it’s a great gang. Upstairs and down, we’re a very good old troop.
HitFix: How long did it take for that rapport to set in with the entire cast?
Brendan Coyle: That’s a good question. Let me think… Not very long. It’s a very funny cast, lot of comedians, so it can be a bit raucous on set sometimes. Humor’s a great thing. There’s a great energy it brings and it’s great facilitator for comradeship. I think that fairly early on when we were having our fittings and we were having our research meeting and we were getting our etiquette lessons, all this kind of stuff, I realized quite quickly that this was a really lovely bunch.
HitFix: I want to hear more about those etiquette lessons. How much did you come in knowing and how proper are you now?
Brendan Coyle: We have this guy on-set, Alistair Bruce, who can trace his ancestors to Robert the Bruce, and he’s an extraordinary military man and he’s Julian Fellowes’ representative here-on-Earth basically. He’s a serving army officer who had a valet himself, so he knows this stuff and he teaches us the etiquette and how we compose ourselves, how we serve tea, how we dress His Lordship. He’s on-hand an awful lot to tell us what the structure would be within this household. He’s an expert in his field, so we have access to that sort of knowledge throughout the whole shoot, which is fantastic. So the whole etiquette thing and the whole set-and-setting thing, that information is available to us the whole time and we have that amazing house that we have access to.
HitFix: Do you have any sort of modern mannerisms that they’ve had to drum out of you?
Brendan Coyle: We had to all stop hugging and kissing each other. But that’s just actors being lovey, though.
The third season of “Downton Abbey” premieres on PBS on January 6, 2013.