Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Hugh Bonneville
Hugh Bonneville portrays Lord Grantham in "Downton Abbey." Also in the cast are, from left in background: Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary.
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English actor Hugh Bonneville has appeared in several popular movies including "Notting Hill" but for the 49-year-old it has been PBS's Masterpiece "Downton Abbey" that's been the game-changer. He plays Robert Crawley, Earl Grantham, lord of the family estate, married to American Lady Cora. For the stage-trained Mr. Bonneville, it's just another day at the office, albeit a good one. At last count the period drama is seen in 170 countries. Married to LuLu Williams, the couple live outside of London. Season 3 of award-winning "Downton Abbey," which has already been aired in Britain, airs here Jan. 6 on PBS.
I read you were obsessed with needlework?
I'm not. That's a complete fabrication [laughing]. It's a complete misquote. There was a charity I was hosting at the other day, a wonderful charity in Britain called Fine Cell Work, which promotes the use of needlework, embroidery in prison. It gives inmates a sense of discipline and purpose and their work is fantastic. It's being sold around Britain, around the world. It gives them a sense of pride in what they are trying to do.
In introducing the charity, I said many years ago I would do some embroidery on set between takes, but I haven't done any for 15 years. So my ability to stab myself in the finger with a needle is long gone. Maybe I should take it up again. I am not obsessed with needlework.
What about tweeting?
I started, bizarrely, when "Downton Abbey" started. The PR team said they were going to do a "Downton Abbey" feed and I didn't understand. I don't do Facebook and I didn't understand Twitter, but I had a look and like a lot of people got ridiculously drawn into it. Now, ironically, I can't tweet about "Downton Abbey" anymore because I don't want to spoil it for people who are lagging behind in the various broadcasts around the world. So I don't really comment on Downton, but I do enjoy tweeting. You know, it goes in ebbs and flows. Sometimes you hate it and sometimes you love it [laughing]. I use it for everything from getting tips on restaurants to go eat in to how to avoid traffic snarl ups to what's on at the movies sort of thing.
And your airport adventures on what you call the travelators (people movers).
There are a number of people who think I'm actually serious and there is a sport called travelator. I invented some word the other day and someone tried to look it up in the dictionary [laughing]. It's just sort of a nonsensical thing to pass the time in airports.
As far as your craft, does memorizing lines come easily?
When I was young we used to have to learn a poem a week at school. I think that really started in me the ability to learn. I can remember stuff from a long, long time ago that was deeply embedded because of repetition like theater parts. Film and TV parts leave a much shallower memory trace. The discipline of learning poetry at school was a wonderful one, partly for the enjoyment but partly for the mental muscle, if you like, that began to be trained.
Acting is such an insecure profession. Were you innately confident or did you have to build that up to survive?
I don't think any actor who is worth his salt is confident about what they do [laughing]. I think it's a daily discovery. It's a lifelong insecurity. I think the best actors are those devoid of complacency. It never ceases to be a nerve-wracking experience because you are only as good as your last job. I love the fact that next week I might be on the other side of the world two days playing a banana or I might be rehearsing a play in London. The unscheduled nature of it I've always found daunting, but it's the biggest boost of adrenaline.
And what about audiences, do you get addicted to the applause?
I haven't been on stage for eight years and I do miss it. I suppose, of course, the applause is mixed in with the whole. Actors are showoffs basically.
I mean, since I was a kid I used to love dressing up and prancing around on stage and writing little plays and making my friends be in the plays that they didn't want to be in. So it's a bug that goes way back with me. I feel very comfortable in front of an audience. I don't know how much the praise is a factor. I guess it's partly just escaping into being other characters, actually.
How does the level of attention you are getting from "Downton Abbey" compare to other projects you have done?
Certainly the show has had this extraordinary ripple effect around the world. First, I thought maybe it's just a show that is working in Britain but gradually as it rolled out overseas we became aware -- maybe because it's a quintessentially British show -- that people do latch onto it. I can't analyze why. It's just good telly and there seems to be something for everyone to enjoy in it.
Are you finding you are more recognized in the airports and on the street?
Yeah, yeah, sure. The odd thing people actually think you are an earl, Lord Grantham, which I find very disconcerting [laughing]. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Several of the younger cast members have left [or are rumored to be leaving]. Don't you want to say to them: Don't you realize you are on a mega hit? Stay for the ride.
No. I am not going to comment on why people stay or go. Everyone has got their choices about the way their career goes. Everyone needs a different -- I'm very happy doing the show at the moment.
Has acting lived up to your expectations?
Well, put it this way, I only ever thought I'd be on stage. It was the world that I knew and the world that I loved going to visit when I was a kid. I never, ever thought I'd be in front of the camera. It was a completely different language or a different dialect of one language. It was a skill I didn't understand and thought I'd never learn. So it's very strange. You can never predict how your work is going to go in this profession, but I love the company of actors. I'm very lucky to have done a lovely variety of different types of shows. It will probably all dry up next year, but for the moment I'm enjoying the ride.
Did you have to develop a thick skin between critics and auditions?
Absolutely. You have to have a thick skin and a thin skin at the same time. The thin skin is being prepared to show every shade of your emotion or vulnerability or talent or whatever it may be when you have the chance to audition. The thick skin is to walk out of the room and pretend it never happened because eight times out of 10 you don't get the job. That doesn't get any easier the older you get. It's just a fact of the profession .... It's very hard not to take it personally when you are on the receiving end.
So is Christmas a big deal in your home?
Yes it is. As long as I'm kept away from the kitchen, it's a great success. It's a big family time for us. I have my in-laws and my parents luckily live with in a few mile radius of where I live so that's always an easy visit to have. We all congregate at one another's house. Extended family come to visit. It's a very big deal. I think we had 22 for lunch on Christmas day last year. So I'm looking forward to it.
And you have Boxing Day.
Boxing Day, which is nothing to do with smashing each other in the face. I think it's a Victorian invention. It's the handing out of boxes of gifts to poor people the day after Christmas Day. I used to think it had to do with putting on red gloves and beating each other to pulp.
New Year's Eve, has your approach to that changed?
Yeah, when I was young I used to love nothing more than going to Trafalgar Square in the middle of London along with tens of thousands of other people hoping to kiss a strange lion and seeing in midnight. But gradually as times gone on, it's got less and less appealing as you realize you're inching yet closer to the grave as the calendar clicks over to the new year. The sweat of having to earn a living to try and pay the mortgage has to be revivified. No, I'm normally in bed by 10 [laughing].
Just another night?
It is a bit. I do love it. I love celebrating it with friends, but I think the pressure of having to be jolly at midnight when you've probably been up since 6 is a bit tiring at my age [laughing].
First Published December 17, 2012 12:00 am