Hugh Bonneville launched his acting career with the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain and, having studied theology at Cambridge University, he trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. A veteran Masterpiece actor, he has appeared in Miss Austen Regrets, Daniel Deronda, Madame Bovary and The Cazalets among others.
The patriarch of Downton Abbey, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, has the unenviable duty of steering the sprawling English estate through a succession crisis. So it is reassuring that he is in the capable hands of actor Hugh Bonneville. He talked with Masterpiece's Richard Maurer in December, 2010 about his role.
Select a topic from the list below to see Bonneville's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
The World Of Downton Abbey
Robert is such an admirable man. Yet nobody is perfect. What would you say are his flaws?
Since birth, it has been drummed into him that his role in life is to take over the estate, to handle it the best he can, and to pass it on to the next male heir. If we're looking for a flaw, it would be that he puts duty ahead of everything else. For example, when he married it was to get the estate out of debt rather than for love.
Another thing is that he is short-sighted about the way he treats his daughters. From the perspective of Mary, his eldest daughter, he's not very good at pretending that the new heir, Matthew Crawley, is not the fulfillment of all his dreams. He's the son that Robert never had; the heir who will save the estate from being broken up. Robert doesn't realize the damage he's inflicting on his daughter by seeming to transfer affection, even though he obviously loves Mary.
Could you tell us about Robert's marriage?
He married Cora, an American heiress, because the estate was in deep debt. As frequently happened in estates such as Downton towards the end of the 19th century, it was a question of cash for honors: cash from American heiresses marrying into the British aristocracy. Cora brought the equivalent of millions and millions of pounds to save the estate, and that's the only reason he married her.
But within a year of their marriage, he had fallen deeply in love with her. I think it happened, partly, because she represented everything that he would never have found in a British girl of his background. She's sparky, she's different, she comes from a country in which anything is possible, while he lives in a country where change, if it happens at all, occurs very, very slowly. He must have found her refreshing, invigorating and extremely attractive; a real breath of fresh air.
In Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express, you played a butler. Does playing both sides of the master/servant relationship give you insight into the nature of it?
Funnily enough, I filmed Murder on the Orient Express before we started Downton Abbey, so I suppose I was promoted from butler to Earl! While the Earl in Downton Abbey is apparently the figurehead of the family, it is in fact the butler who is all-knowing. The eagle eyes and bat ears of the butler are, I think, more interesting in terms of potential drama, because they see everywhere and hear everything. But at the same time the butler is, of course, the soul of discretion.
In Downton Abbey did you learn anything surprising about how the upper class lived?
The most surprising thing for me with my 21st-century spectacles was the number of times women got changed! They would put on different outfits three or four times a day, partly because they had nothing else to do since everything else about their life was being done for them. So in a way, job creation schemes were going on. Something for the women to do; something for their maids to do! One day when I instinctively flicked my tail coat to sit down on a chair, the historical advisor, Alastair Bruce, said, "No, don't do that, because you have a valet to iron your tail coat for you; you wouldn't even think about it." It was those sort of details that I found fascinating.
Robert's valet, Bates, was his batman during the Boer War. What is a batman?
If you think of a butler and put him in a military context; that's a batman. In the British army, the batman was an officer's servant. He would run errands, look after the officer's uniform and laundry, drive the officer around, and be his bodyguard. It was often seen as quite a cushy job, because it wasn't necessarily frontline. If you were in the ranks, it was a position to aspire to because it was a promotion — perhaps to Corporal — and a job of importance. Of course, the bond between someone like Bates and Robert, who have seen action together in the Boer War, would be very strong.
Can you give us a hint on what to expect in series two?
All I know is I'm having a new tail coat made and am being measured for an army uniform. But who wouldn't with the arrival of World War I?
Let me wish you good luck in World War I. It's going to be quite a slog, I'm afraid.
Well, we know Downton has broad shoulders. We'll be able to bear it! And anyway, "it'll all be over by Christmas"... won't it?
The Experience Of Making Downton Abbey
Tell us about Maggie Smith, an acting legend who plays your mother. What is it like to work with her?
There's the old cliché about improving your tennis game by playing with someone who's better than you. In my case, it's absolutely no match. I'm a ball boy and she's Martina Navratilova or either Williams at the peak of their game. In less capable hands the Dowager Countess could come across simply as a dragon but Maggie brings vulnerability and great subtlety to the role, indeed to everything she does, as well as a formidable presence and unmatched skill. Off camera, she's naughty, funny and is the mistress of the flinty stare delicately edged with twinkle.
Do you have a favorite room in Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed?
The library, where Robert spends a lot of time, is a stunning room. My least favorite is the dining room, simply because whenever you shoot a dining room scene it takes forever. And, if you've got a bit of dead quail in front of you at nine in the morning, by four in the afternoon it smells beyond manky, the fifth set of candles of the day have just been lit, it's getting hotter and hotter and... well, everyone is just dying to get out of there.
Was there an element of fantasy fulfillment in playing the lord of such a magnificent estate?
Absolutely! Every time I drove up to Highclere Castle, where we filmed the series, it made my heart flutter. It's such an impressive house. You can't help but be swept away by the atmosphere.