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Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville on Knitting, Shirley MacLaine, and His Homeland Addiction

Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham in the hit period drama Downton Abbey, says the upcoming third season (premiering Sunday on PBS) will be tougher than ever on His Lordship, as he’s forced to contend with such horrors as the dawn of twenties, a chauffeur turned son-in-law, and the possibility of moving out of his castle and into a mere mansion. (And does he redeem himself for last season’s dalliance with that harlot housemaid? Depends on whether or not you consider losing a fortune the best way to make it up to your wife.) Vulture caught up with Bonneville in Los Angeles last month (a.k.a. that special time before our holidays were ruined), and he described season three as a return to form for the show and told us about the pains of period authentic food. 

Should we discuss Homeland? You tweeted that you marathoned most of this season during the flight from England.
Homeland, yes! Downton Abbey has been going up against Homeland in the U.K., and I had a loyalty to watch Downton, so I backed all the episodes up on my iPad. Rupert Friend is a fantastic and wonderful addition to it, and I’m a big fan of Damian Lewis and David Harewood. It’s great to see them all flying the flag.

Any big shocks?
It’s interesting, isn’t it? After season one, you thought, Well, where else can they go with this? But it’s been great. The last I saw, Rupert was sent to take out Damian. Shocks so far? The episode with the tailor, that was brilliant. Really well controlled.

Well, you’ve got a few more episodes to go, so let’s move on to your knitting, which has made headlines in the U.K.
No, no, no, no …

You’re not into knitting?
I was introducing this charity event, and I mentioned that many, many years ago I used to do tapestry on set, but I haven’t done it in fifteen years and that becomes “Hugh Bonneville Is Obsessed With Knitting.” I do have a tapestry that I started for my sister-in-law as a wedding present, and her child is now graduating [laughs], so I’ve been kind of slow. My wife occasionally thrusts this sorry-looking bag at me and says, “Finish the bloody thing.”

This third season, which PBS sent to journalists in advance, feels like there was a deliberate decision to tone down the melodrama from last year.
Yes, the tone of season two was about the effect the outside world was having on the house. Downton lost its identity. But with the war over, there is a sense that everything has quieted down, and the focus is back on to the characters and the world you knew in season one. But of course, it’s all shifted. Nothing can be the same again.

That’s Robert’s main hang-up, poor guy.
He’s a bit of a dinosaur. At the end of season one, you felt that he was a man that while conservative by birth, was liberal in outlook and compassionate and had one eye on the future. But the time you get to season three, he clearly wants everything to stay in 1912!

Well, Downton goes broke, so that makes sense.
Yeah, bless him. He spends a lot of the season with his back against the wall. I had a lot of people going, “What a jerk!” to me. “God, what a git!”

Give me your best Shirley MacLaine story.
Just sitting at the dining table in between takes, listening to her and Maggie Smith talk about Lawrence Olivier, Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder … And Shirley’s ability to be talking about the price of milk one moment and the spirits in the room the next. [Laughs.] She walked into Highclere Castle [where Downton is filmed] and said, “Yes, I can feel the ghosts here.” Her passionate beliefs in reincarnation, which she talks with great openness about, I think it’s great. There was also a wonderful scene where she’s singing at the piano and glides over to talk to Maggie, and watching them rehearse that was one of the funniest things I’ve seen. It was toned down for the actual take, but, oh, they were improvising madly.

In those dinner scenes, is the food you all are eating period authentic?
No, no, no. We have a special cook who does the food on set, and she learnt a lesson early in season one when she served up some fish dish. By two in the afternoon, it was rank. That first season, we didn’t have electricity in the house, so it was all hot candles and blacked-out windows and camera lights, and the fish was just, Oof. Quail was the other one. That got very smelly. They’ve been more cautious about the food that’s served in these long dinner scenes since then.

How fussy is Julian when it comes to those details?
Last season, I remember I had four if not five costume fittings over one waistcoat because Julian and the costumer couldn’t agree on the color tone. One said it would be pure white, and the other one said it would be cream. He is absolutely meticulous about it. When we do ADR for the background of a cocktail scene, he has scripted all that dialogue we’re saying off-camera. What’s happening in current affairs? Who’s been to the shops that day? He’s written all of it. The audience won’t even notice it or hear it, but if the odd word slips through, he makes sure it’s all in the correct context.

I did love the drama over having the wrong dinner attire.
On Homeland, you’ve got someone about to blow up the vice-president. In Downton, it’s, “Where are the dress shirts?!”

Do you enjoy any of those old formalities?
It makes me giggle all the time when the ladies leave the room to have coffee and the men stay to have port and cigars and tell blue jokes. It always makes me laugh. It’s not as though I hanker after it, but I find it amusing because you just wouldn’t do that these days. And I love the staff not knocking before they enter a room otherwise the family would spend the entire day going, “Come in. Come in. Come in.” They melt into a room and speak when there’s an opportunity.

Julian has said he doesn’t want the show to go on forever or even to season ten. What do you think will become of Downton in the end?
They could lose [the house]. After the World War II, the major estates really did collapse. It will be interesting to see what he does with next season and if indeed there will be a fifth, how far he’ll take it.

That’s still a ways off. I would hate for them to lose the house!
Well, they may have to! Who knows?

Photo: Getty Images