In the United States, fans of “Downton Abbey” must comfort themselves with, say, proper afternoon tea and the knowledge that season three of the show will begin airing Jan. 6. The bad news? Lucky Brits are already well into the season, and spoilers are already trickling onto the web to taunt us. But on Friday, “Downton” stars Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham), Rob James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Smith) and Leslie Nicol (Mrs. Patmore) were joined by the show’s executive producer Gareth Neame and “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton for a excerpt screening and Q&A for fans and journalists in Los Angeles. As restrained as the show can sometimes be, the stars were as modern — and often funny — as their characters are not.
After the audience watched the first 20 minutes of the season 3 premiere (and booed when it became clear they were only getting the teaser), the stars took the stage. Though Nicol probably looked the most different from her harried cook character with straightened red hair, fans were probably the most surprised by James-Collier. When the moderator noted that no one seems to have recognized him without Thomas’ slicked-back hair while he’s been in Los Angeles, Collier, dressed down in khakis, grinned. “Good people wear cardigans, not evil people, so I get by undetected.”
James-Collier also offered a hint of what’s to come for Thomas, who remains working downstairs after his plot to sell black market goods fell apart. After he does something “quite nasty” to Mrs. O’Brien’s nephew, who comes to work at Downton as a footman, “It’s like the Cold War all over again” between Thomas and Mrs. O’Brien, according to James-Collier. “If there’s one person in the world you don’t want to piss off, that’s Mrs. O’B… It gets more sinister and nasty toward the end. Someone’s world gets turned upside down and destroyed, but I’m not saying whose.”
There were other not-quite-spoilers as well. Neame said that, despite Edith’s bad run of luck, “there’s reason for optimism for [he] in the new season,” mostly stemming from the emancipation of women afoot in the ’20s. When it was suggested Edith and Thomas could have a romantic storyline, James-Collier joked, “Who would wear the dress? I didn’t shave these legs for nothing!”
Nicol also suggested there was an “exciting new character” entering Mrs. Patmore’s storyline. Finally, though one fan wondered if the supposed cousin who was badly burned in the war and visited Downton to recover might return to the show, Neame shook his head. “We’ll probably not see him again.”
What was quickly revealed in the teaser (spoiler ahead) is that Lord Grantham will be going broke due to bad investments. “I think Robert met Bernie Madoff, and it all seemed like a good idea at the time,” Bonneville joked. “But it’s a great catalyst into future episodes.”
It’s also a great catalyst into bringing Cora’s mom, played by Shirley Maclaine, into the storyline. “She’s loaded, like all Americans,” Bonneville said. “There is hope she’ll bail us out. When I first read Robert’s reaction to [going broke], it was quite big and very strong. But it’s his destiny to hand Downton down to an heir, thus this is a huge source of shame for him… there seems to be no way out, and you’ll see it doesn’t get much better [in coming episodes].”
Still, the cast agreed that working with a legend like Maclaine was great fun — even better was seeing her work with that other legend on the show, Maggie Smith. “It was like Stanley meeting Livingston,” Bonneville said. “Maclaine couldn’t believe they’d never met before, and Maggie reminded her they had met 40 years ago… when Shirley was face down in a cake.” As might be expected, they had “a hoot together.”
Though James-Collier joked around about Thomas (when asked what he thinks the character did before Downton, he suggested, “Thomas worked in a gay bar. Underground. Illegal and against God”), he had serious thoughts about his character’s plight. “His sexuality was a tremendous burden [during that time period],” he said. “You can’t go on Google and find people, I’m not joking. You want to tell someone how you feel, and if you do you could end up in jail. It was horrible to deal with. I think we can all let him off now, because YOU try being gay in 1920!”
The stars also revealed the kinds of details sure to appeal to super fans (Bonneville said of the Highclere Castle location “the attics are a complete mess and the roof leaks”) and said they’re really nothing like their characters. Nicol admitted she can’t cook and Bonneville said “I don’t have labradors and enormous heating bills.”
Froggatt added, “My husband is not in prison, thank God,” while James-Collier finished with a joke. “I can’t stop kissing men, and the missus is not happy, believe me.
Not surprisingly, James-Collier was called out as one of the biggest pranksters on the set, while Allen Leech (Branson) and Bonneville are also prone to playing around.
The questions finally rolled around to Season 4, and who might (or might not) be returning. James-Collier said he hadn’t received a call yet about whether or not he was wanted, and turned toward Naeme. “Gareth, am I coming back? I have a mortgage and a small child!” We can only hope, but if Thomas doesn’t come back, we suggest James-Collier has a natural flair for comedy.