Interview: Hugh Bonneville star of Downton Abbey

Harry Peto talks to the Downton Abbey star about his role as Lord Grantham, the Footlights and Maggie Smith....

Hugh Bonneville, a sort of new Colin Firth figure in his own right, will put you at immediate ease should you ever meet him, just like all those swooning middle-aged mums would like to believe. In spite of his oozing charisma, he remains touchingly modest throughout my meeting with him; I ask about his experience of student drama and the Corpus alumnus tells me, "I wrote a terrible sketch for the Footlights. I wasn't in the Footlights." Many current actors will empathise with the fact that he "tended to do more play than work", and left Cambridge with a 2:2 in theology.

I'm keen to know if he aspires to any particular roles, Shakespeare or otherwise - the modesty once again shines through as he remarks that "maybe I'm getting too old and slow for Benedict but I love that play very much". Whilst he's never had a yearning for a specific role, he'd "love to do some Chekov", so perhaps that's where Lord Grantham is destined to head next.

What really gets Bonneville going, it seems, is a real challenge, in which he's forced to face up to his fears. His examples are playing John Bailey in Iris (2001) and Philip Larkin- "who I felt I had nothing in common with at all, but I thoroughly enjoyed a) researching him and b) developing as a character"- as well as Mr Pooter in Diary of a Nobody (2007), "which was a challenge in its own right because it was a one-man piece to camera. So it was me talking to the camera for two hours, which presents challenges of its own. So I suppose those sorts of roles, where it's outside your comfort zone, and yet you try and push yourself into some sort of representation, I find those exciting."

The success of Downton Abbey has catapulted Bonneville to stardom. "A couple of people last time I was in America said to me, ‘oh, you must have been very grateful when Downton Abbey came along' like I hadn't been doing anything for 25 years!" The ubiquity of the show's success is evident as well: "I was in Thailand just after New Year and I was just walking down the street and my wife said, ‘gosh, isn't it refreshing to be somewhere where no-one recognises you?' At which point someone leapt out of a shop and said ‘I LOVE Downton Abbey!!' It's nice, it's lovely that people like the show, etc. but it's peculiar. It's a strange thing."

Stressful though? "It's a shrinking world, and everyone has camera phones, and everyone thinks nothing of coming up and sticking a camera in your face, so it's not just the paps anymore. It's everyone. But I can't complain, it's part and parcel of modern-day life", he explains light-heartedly.

Not many people are aware that ‘Bonneville' is a middle name and Williams is his actual surname. I'm curious as to whether this is in part to give himself a separate identity for the public eye. "No, not at all, no, no, it's simply a practical one"; namely that his first audition involved a director wasting time explaining he shared a name with a famous actor from the 1940s. "So it's all very confusing but I answer to everything. There's no clever reason behind it." Never mind!

Does he think one can be simply ‘right' or ‘wrong' for a part? He cites the film Tootsie, where Dustin Hoffman "is desperately auditioning on Broadway, off Broadway, everywhere, and audition after audition they say no, you're too tall, you're too short, you're too whatever, and eventually one of the directors shouts ‘we just don't want you'. It's not about your intrinsic talent. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I think the hardest thing, and the most essential thing, is not to take it personally", and with that he laughs very cheerily.

I want to know whether there are common characteristics of actors, then. "We are vagabonds and rogues! There is something magpie-ish about actors. I don't mean they go round thieving but they do thieve traits of personalities.

"I love the company of actors: they're irreverent, deeply loyal to each other. People always say actors just bitch about each other. I'm not entirely sure that's true. They care deeply about each other actually. I think, if we're lucky enough to be in a profession which is about expression of any sort of artistic form, yes of course there's bitching and cliques and all the rest of it but the true actors, or the true artists, in the entertainment industry I've found very compassionate people and I love their company."

Is working with the likes of Maggie Smith totally different from working with other less well known actors/actresses? "No, not in the least, no- I mean, what's different is you're working with the best actors in the world! She's gonna deliver so you'd better damn-well be prepared. You can't put your finger on why they are different, like watching Mark Rylance on stage: you simply can't take your eyes off him. And people say the same of (Lawrence) Olivier and (John) Gielgud and they all have their particular qualities. But Maggie is one of our current great actresses and it's amazing that I'm playing her son six months of the year."

Does he look up to anyone in particular? "I'm a huge fan of Philip Seymour-Hoffman. I think the range he displays is enviable. He can play light comedy and he can play very, very dark, sinister characters and I adore watching that sort of metamorphosis in an actor. I don't possess it myself necessarily but I admire it in him. I'm nervous of meeting one's heroes or, in fact, turning into jelly when I do meet them."

Maggie Smith recently said she never watches Downton. "Yeah I know some actors don't... because they find it weird and compellingly horrible. Or rather, I do watch and find it compellingly horrible! Also, the first time I watch something I will learn from it and think, ‘ooh that's odd', and ‘why did they cut that scene?' and that sort of thing. And then the second time, hopefully, if it's good, I'll enjoy the story. I'll just watch it like anybody else... Not that I queue up to watch my own films or anything like that! But I don't run and hide behind cushions; sometimes I do. But I find it quite instructive actually."

I acknowledge his recording of an audiobook version of Goldfinger and ask him if he's a Bond fan- only an "armchair" one apparently. He (rightly) guesses that I want to ask which his favourite Bond is. "I have to say Daniel Craig. I think Daniel Craig has brought an incredible new depth to the character and verges on menacing at times, particularly in Casino Royale, which I thought was a wonderful, wonderful film. But I'm afraid I've got to go back to Connery. Connery's MY Bond", and again he sounds off that wonderfully charming laugh, and I can't help but agree with him.

Finally, I ask him which series of Downton Abbey is his favourite. "The one we're shooting at the moment actually", chuckling again, perhaps in amusement that I'm now desperate to know why- alas, he can say nothing more! I suppose we'll just have to wait and see what Lord Grantham has in store for us...

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