Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham
The mother of Robert, Earl of Grantham, Violet is proud, loyal to her son and immensely insufferable to her American daughter-in-law Cora, whom she regards as an interloper, a living compromise the family has had to make.
With no history of acting in the family, Maggie Smith enrolled in drama school at age sixteen. Following performances in student revues and in cabaret, she joined London's Old Vic Theater alongside Laurence Olivier before moving on to London's National Theatre.
No stranger to Masterpiece, Maggie Smith has appeared in such productions as David Copperfield, Memento Mori, All for Love, and All the King's Men. She has two sons, also actors, Toby Stephens and Chris Larkin, both with Masterpiece credits of their own.
Now with an astonishing array of awards to her name including two Oscar awards, Smith is renowned for her sense of humor. As Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes explains, "Maggie Smith has a unique sense of comedy, based on a somewhat ironic view of real life, making it both funnier and more sad. But perhaps her greatest ability, or at least the one that most intrigues me, is how she can convey deep and powerful emotion without a trace of sentimentality."
As for her role as Violet, the Dowager Countess, Maggie Smith remarks, "It is very satisfying to play a character such as Violet...Julian is good at those sorts of ladies. This is the third old lady I've played for him, so I am getting the hang of it now," Smith laughs.
Cora, Countess of Grantham
Cora is the beautiful daughter of Isidore Levinson, a dry goods multi millionaire from Cincinnati. She arrived in England with her mother in 1888 at the age of 20, and was engaged to Robert by the end of her first season.
Born in Evanston, Illinois, Elizabeth McGovern moved to Los Angeles when she was 10 years old and soon began acting in school plays. She went on to study at The Juilliard School in New York City and while there was offered a part in her first film, Ordinary People, directed by Robert Redford. The following year she earned an Academy Award nomination for her role in Ragtime. In 1984, she starred with Robert De Niro and James Woods in the cult gangster movie Once Upon A Time In America and later opposite Mickey Rourke in Johnny Handsome.
In a small way, McGovern's character, Cora, reflects her own journey. "It's great to play a role that in some way mirrors my life, because I am an American who has spent nearly two decades raising English children and making the cultural adjustments, so in that way I can definitely relate to the part and have respect for what I know that entails, from the experience I have had myself."
McGovern is also a singer-songwriter and has just recorded her second album with her band Sadie and the Hotheads. She lives in London with her husband director/producer Simon Curtis and their two children.
Robert, Earl of Grantham
Robert, Earl of Grantham, is married to Cora, an American heiress, whose money helped put Downton Abbey back on its feet. The father of three, Mary, Edith and Sybil, Robert has an uncomplicated life until a succession crisis and a surprising clause in his marriage contract cause upheaval in his family and on the estate.
Hugh Bonneville launched his acting career with London's National Youth Theatre, while simultaneously studying theology at Cambridge University. He also trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. A veteran Masterpiece actor, he has appeared in Miss Austen Regrets, Mansfield Park, Daniel Deronda, Madame Bovary and The Cazalets among others. Bonneville may also be recognized for his appearance opposite Kate Winslet in Iris.
Bonneville's frequent costar in Downton Abbey was "Pharaoh" the estate family dog, and Bonneville developed quite a bond with the yellow Labrador, Roly. "During filming I kept finding bits of sausage in my pockets, reminders of various days when I'd tried to lure Roly into pretending to be my constant, devoted companion," Bonneville said.
Bonneville calls writer/director Julian Fellowes, "the most humane of writers..." And he speaks of the characters in Downton Abbey as being three-dimensional. "They aren't goodies, or baddies; they are like all of us — flawed."
Lady Rosamund Painswick
Lady Rosamund is Robert's only sibling. She did not marry a great aristocrat, but the late Marmaduke Painswick, a banker, was immensely rich, so she has a good deal of freedom. She is devoted to Robert, but she feels it her duty to speak her mind on every possible occasion. Her interference in her familial decisions has a potentially disastrous result.
Known as Miss Moneypenny, a role she played in several James Bond movies, British actress Samantha Bond trained at England's Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. A member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, she has numerous stage credits to her name including a starring role opposite Judi Dench in the award-winning Amy's View, and the part of Lady Macbeth opposite Sharpe star Sean Bean.
Bond's relationship with Masterpiece dates back to the early 1980s with productions such as Rumpole of the Bailey and A Murder is Announced. Bond is married to actor Alexander Hanson and the couple lives in London with their two children.
Lady Mary Crawley, The Oldest Daughter
Clever, good looking and cold, Mary must come to grips with the notion that the life she imagined for herself may not come to her as easily as she once suspected. Yet, as the oldest daughter, Mary continues to work to secure a suitable husband.
A native of Essex, England, Michelle Dockery wasn't born into the high life she so often portrays on screen and stage. While training at the Finch Stage School in the United Kingdom, she worked in a variety of jobs, from waitress to a role in the advertising department of The Times of London. After graduating from England's Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2004, Dockery spent 14 months at London's National Theatre performing lesser roles before she landed her breakthrough role as Eliza Doolittle in Peter Hall's production of Pygmalion at The Old Vic, also in London.
Dockery also loves to sing and while filming Downton Abbey, she discovered that she and her on-screen mother, Elizabeth McGovern, shared a passion for music. This led to recording some tracks together and several festival appearances with McGovern's band Sadie and the Hotheads.
Dockery's other television credits include Terry Pratchett's The Hogfather, the British trilogy Red Riding, Masterpiece's Return to Cranford and The Turn of the Screw. Next year she will appear alongside Cate Blanchett in the film Hanna.
Lady Edith Crawley, The Second Daughter
Resentful of her sister Mary, Edith is good looking and less sought after, but no less ambitious. She is in a half-permanent rage that the interests of her beautiful sister are always placed above hers in any family plan.
Newcomer Laura Carmichael was working as a receptionist in a doctor's office and about to go on tour to Dubai with a production of Twelfth Night when she got a call to read for the part of Lady Edith, her first television role. She couldn't believe it when she landed the part and her parents were even more surprised. "I couldn't have asked for a better first job in any way!"
Despite the on-screen animosity between Lady Edith and her two sisters, Laura became very close to Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) and Jessica Brown-Findlay (Lady Sybil) during filming. "Michelle, Jessica and I became pretty inseparable on set and as most of our scenes were together, we ended up spending our spare time watching DVDs in someone's trailer," Carmichael said.
Lady Sybil Crawley, The Youngest Daughter
The family rebel, Lady Sybil Crawley is fiercely political and generally angered by injustice everywhere. Sybil exasperates both parents. She will go through the motions when it comes to the responsibilities of high society, but her true goals in life are well beyond what her parents consider the proper field.
Since nursery school, Jessica Brown-Findlay aspired to be a famous ballerina. After training for years, she was asked at age 15 to dance with the Kirov Ballet at the Royal Opera House in London for a summer season. Her dreams were shattered when a botched ankle operation ended her dancing career. Changing tracks, she got into a few acting classes and was spotted almost immediately by a casting agent.
The Downton Abbey character Lady Sybil Crawley is Jessica Brown-Findlay's second foray into television and her first Masterpiece role. Lady Sybil, Brown-Findlay explains is very forward thinking. "She's at that age where she's learning who she is and consequently she's discovering this at a time when women were becoming more vocal and less subservient."
Isobel is Matthew's widowed mother. She is the daughter of a doctor (her husband studied under her father) and she comes from the professional middle class. She embodies an entirely different set of values than those of the current Downton Abbey inhabitants, being far better educated than either Violet or Cora. Before long, she is in near constant confrontations with Violet. Isobel is intensely proud of her son.
Born in England to a former actress and businessman father, Penelope Wilton moved to London when she was young and attended the Drama Centre. Acting since the early 1970s, her first love was the stage. Among the many honors for her stage work, Wilton has twice won the London Critics' Circle Award for Best Actress: in 1981 for Much Ado About Nothing and in 1993 for The Deep Blue Sea.
Wilton has appeared in several Masterpiece productions including Country Matters, The Tale of Beatrix Potter, Wives and Daughters and Lucky Jim. Other notable film and television projects include The Borrowers, Iris, Calendar Girls, Shaun of the Dead, Match Point and Doctor Who.
Wilton was in part attracted to Downton Abbey by the opportunity to work with a personal heroine. "One of the reasons I did [Downton Abbey] was to work with Maggie Smith", Wilton said. "As a younger actress, (only slightly younger than Maggie), the person I admired more than anyone else on stage and in film was Maggie Smith, and I saw her in everything she did at The National Theatre. I wished I could be like her and now it's like working with a heroine and one doesn't have many of those when you grow older."
Matthew Crawley is a third cousin, once removed, of Lord Grantham. A practicing attorney, Matthew now finds himself heir to a large estate and is invited to move there. He eventually agrees, but only if he can continue to work. Cora is partly infuriated by this interloper and partly determined that he will marry one of her daughters.
Dan Stevens studied theater at the London based National Youth Theater and then English literature at the University of Cambridge where he was a member of the amateur theatrical club, The Footlights. Since graduating, Stevens has not seen his acting career slow down, though he did take time out to become a husband and a father. While filming Downton Abbey, Stevens recalls, "My wife and 6 month old visited the set, which was fun. Everyone loves a baby on set except for the sound department!"
Mr. Carson, The Butler
Carson is in charge of the pantry, wine cellar and dining room, and the male staff report to him. Carson has worked at Downton Abbey since he was a boy. He is endlessly nostalgic for the way things were, and consequently, he more or less becomes an agent for the Dowager Countess. His instinct is to support Lady Mary, whom he genuinely loves as a surrogate daughter.
Character actor Jim Carter has been acting for over 30 years. His Masterpiece credits include Midsomer Murders, The Way We Live Now, The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton, Cranford and Return to Cranford among others. His best-known roles include Fox in The Madness of King George and Ralph Bashford in Shakespeare in Love. Carter is married to Imelda Staunton, who has also appeared in numerous Masterpiece productions.
Mrs. Hughes, Housekeeper
Responsible for the house and its appearance, Mrs. Hughes is also in charge of the female servants. There are three people in Downton who all believe they are head of it — Mr. Carson, Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes. Mrs. Hughes is probably right. She is unsentimental but moral and decent.
Phyllis Logan hails from a small town in Scotland, and is a graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Her big break came when she was cast as the lead in the film Another Time, Another Place, a role for which Logan won numerous awards. With a substantive list of film and television credits to her name including Secrets and Lies, Shooting Fish and Silent Witness, Logan has appeared in the Masterpiece productions And a Nightingale Sang and All the King's Men.
Of her Downton Abbey character, Logan says, "She can appear austere and firm but she has a bit of a heart — she's not a complete old bag!"
John Bates, Lord Grantham's Valet
An ex-soldier, John Bates knew Robert during the Boer War. He arrives at Downton Abbey to take the position of valet, but Bates was wounded in the war and it has left him lame, which makes him both defensive and fiercely loyal to Robert for giving him another chance.
Born to a Scottish mother and Irish father, David Coyle (Brendan is his stage name) lived in Dublin and London during his youth. With no thought of an acting career, Coyle worked in his dad's butcher shop after leaving school. It wasn't until his father died that he sought a change. Inspired by a Shakespeare production that he'd seen in school, Coyle contacted an Irish aunt who he knew ran a theater company and was soon enrolled in drama school in Dublin. Coyle has since been seen in many television dramas including North and South, Lark Rise to Candleford and on Masterpiece in Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act and Jericho.
Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes knew Coyle would be perfect for the part. "I wrote John Bates for Brendan. I knew he had the capacity to suggest a character's bitter and painful past without doing much to indicate it," Fellowes said. "Above all, he never asks for sympathy as an actor, and consequently he gets it. My wife Emma had the idea of Bates being lame and I saw at once that this would enhance the character because it would make him more vulnerable and yet give him even more reason to reject sympathy."
O'Brien, Lady's Maid
O'Brien is a watchful, vengeful, malign spinster. She has sacrificed all thoughts of family and hearth to advance in her profession and now she is lady's maid to a countess, in a great house, which should make her happy. But it does not, because nothing will. She may seem to flatter Lady Grantham or Lady Mary or any of them, but ultimately she will always follow her own interest.
Siobhan Finneran made her acting debut in 1986 in the comedy film Rita, Sue and Bob Too! She's appeared in a number of British television series, including Coronation Street, Dalziel and Pascoe and Peak Practice among others. She has also appeared in the Masterpiece production The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard.
Finneran's role as O'Brien, Lady Cora's maid, is a departure from the comic characters for which she is best known. But like others in the cast, Finneran jumped at the chance to work with director Brian Percival and writer Julian Fellowes. "Brian Percival and Julian's brilliant script made me want to do it. I met with Brian and within ten minutes I remember thinking, 'I hope I get this job because I really want to work with him,'" Finneran said.
Mrs. Patmore, The Cook
Mrs. Patmore is in charge of the kitchen and kitchen staff. She does not accept that Mr. Carson has jurisdiction over her, nor, most of all, Mrs. Hughes, and religiously defends her rights and privileges, against all comers.
Since graduating from London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama in the early 1970s, Lesley Nicol has been a fixture in the British drama and comedy scene. But before her foray into film and television, she was a well known as a stage actress, appearing in numerous musicals and plays on the London stage.
In Downton Abbey, Nicol plays the highly-strung cook Mrs. Patmore, "It was a dream job for me. Julian has given Mrs. Patmore some funny lines and also some lines that show her vulnerability," Nicol said.
Thomas, First Footman
Thomas thinks he is a fine man and that most of his fellow workers know nothing. An unsavory character, Thomas is always on the lookout to move up or out of Downton. His natural ally in the house is O'Brien. They are both entirely self-interested, but loyalty is probably beyond him.
Rob James-Collier happened on his acting career quite by accident. One day, he filled in for an actor who had failed to show up for a film shoot directed by a friend. Intrigued by acting, he found a coach in the phone book and went to acting classes once a week after work. Within months he had an agent and his first role in the BBC's Down to Earth.
In Downton Abbey, Rob plays the unsavory character of the first footman, Thomas. "I had this idea in my head of how I would like to play Thomas, but when I turned up on the first day, Siobhan Finneran [O'Brien]...said less is more and let the lines speak for you, which was great advice. What could have been a pantomime villain is now hopefully quite understated but still hits the mark," James-Collier said.
Anna, Head Housemaid
The highest ranking of the lower female servants, Anna feels she may have missed her chance at marriage. She is clever and resourceful, a thoroughly sympathetic character.
Joanne Froggatt began her acting career as a member of a youth theater group. She has proven herself to be a versatile talent with numerous theater credits and diverse roles in British television shows such as The Bill, Coronation Street, Spooks and Life on Mars.
Froggatt enjoyed her role as Anna, the head housemaid in Downton Abbey. "I love playing her; she's a really great character to work with — genuine, honest and soft hearted, but she sticks up for herself too," Froggat said.
Daisy, Scullery Maid
Daisy is at the bottom of the heap. Daisy's mother was a true Victorian and Daisy is one of eleven children. Daisy is constantly in the firing line with Mrs. Patmore and develops feelings for Thomas.
Sophie McShera has been acting professionally since she was 12, when by chance she was sent along with four other girls to London to audition for The Goodbye Girl. She had spent the summer watching the American television show Saved By The Bell, which helped her pull off an American accent for her audition. Before she knew it, she was on stage at The Palladium in London and touring the country. Afterwards, she went on to perform in theater in the West End and had several small roles on British television.
Downton Abbey is McShera's first period drama. "Downton Abbey is so different from what I've done before, I'm loving it. ... I did etiquette training and learned a lot about Edwardian society," McShera said.
William, Second Footman
William, the second footman, is a fool. Given this, Thomas has no hesitation in using William to do half his own work. William has a crush on Daisy but she isn't interested in him as she is quite taken by Thomas.
In the span of just a few months, relative newcomer Thomas Howes has gone from appearing in the British children's television series Chucklevision to one of the most talked-about dramas, Downton Abbey. Although he lacked the extensive experience of his co-stars, Howes didn't shy away from making suggestions for a couple of his scenes — suggestions that writer Julian Fellowes incorporated into the script. A pianist, Howes also talked Fellowes into allowing him to provide background music in a number of scenes.
Gwen is essentially an ambitious girl. She works as a housemaid because it is the only profession open to the daughter of a farm worker, but she has big plans. She is the natural rebel of the female staff, albeit in a quiet way, and this makes her a natural ally of Sybil.
After training at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Rose Leslie made her award-winning television debut in the BBC series New Town. Downton Abbey is her second television appearance. Leslie notes that her work in theater helped her prepare for the role of Gwen. "I was in a theater production where I had to speak with a northern accent which lasted about six months. ...We toured the country with it last year. So together with rehearsals, I've been speaking with a northern accent for nearly a year. It's been really easy to just flip in and out of it because I am so used to speaking with it now," Leslie said.
Robert's new, spirited Irish chauffeur, whose political ideologies aspire to a more modern society. Driving Sybil to a political rally, he discovers they have a meeting of minds, and with his encouragement, Sybil puts her beliefs into practice. However, Sybil's newfound enthusiasm leads her into danger for which Branson later feels responsible.
Irish actor Allen Leech studied drama and theater at Trinity College Dublin. He is probably most recognizable to American audiences for his role in the television series Rome. This is not the first time Leech has worked with Downton Abbey writer Jullian Fellowes. Leech appeared in the 2009 film From Time to Time that also starred Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville.
Funding for the series is provided by Viking River Cruises and Ralph Lauren Corporation, with additional support from public television viewers and contributors to The Masterpiece Trust, created to help ensure the series' future.
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