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Rob James-Collier on Being Downton Abbey’s Edwardian Sex Pest and His Smoking Skills

Rob James-Collier. Photo: Getty Images

Thomas has been off his game all season on Downton Abbey. At best, he got Cora thinking O’Brien wanted to leave her position, and at worst, he outed himself to the house by kissing Jimmy. But of course, Thomas found himself on top once more, saved by Bates, and even promoted above him. Rob James-Collier, who plays the diabolical footman, said his brush with near-termination won’t have much of a lasting effect. “Saving Thomas, it’s the worst thing that could have happened to Bates,” he said. Vulture spoke with the 36-year-old actor while he was out in Los Angeles about Thomas’ lovesick arc, run-ins with his fans, and what the servants do for fun downstairs. (Or not.)

Hey. How are you?
Hi, how are you doing? I know I look like a drug dealer because I’ve got two phones right now. In England drug dealers have two phones. But this one’s for America and this one’s me English phone. I’m not going to be selling crack while we have the interview though.

That’s good. I don’t judge.
You condone the sale of crack? Sorry, where do you write for?

Vulture. We make Downton Abbey paper dolls.
You did the Thomas and O’Brien cut-out kit?

That’s us.
Can I get one of them? I’ve not got one. I want to frame it and put it up on my wall. Someone sent Siobhan [who plays Ms. O’Brien] a photo of it and I want a proper one. Can you make that happen?

I’ll do my best. But for now, I want to talk about the dastardly way Thomas smokes. Is that how you normally smoke?
I don’t even smoke! If you watch from seasons one to three, my smoking is terrible in the first year. There was a scene in season two where I took it so deep, I said a paragraph’s worth of dialogue and five lines after that smoke was still coming out my mouth. I do use it for dramatic effect, totally. Others might say it’s “Rob, you can’t remember your lines, so you take a take drag on your cigarette until the line comes into your head.” And let’s be honest: I think it looks good on screen. I need all the help I can get. It’s like having your own lighting on stage. Foggy lighting. It makes him mysterious.

Things get pretty bad for him this season.
It could be proper HBO. It’s quite gritty and dark, isn’t it? Thomas becomes besotted. Let’s face it, he borderline stalks Jimmy. He turns into an Edwardian sex pest. It’s pretty bad. But then he goes on this huge journey and he’s being manipulated by O’Brien into thinking this guy feels the same way. And he knows he doesn’t. The fallout from my kissing Jimmy was really dramatic. David Evans, great British director, he shot Sunday’s episode and he put in the extra scenes where I’m waiting in my room and Jimmy’s going upstairs to tell. It’s almost Hitchcockian in a way. Can I say cockian?

Will there be further fallout in the Christmas special?
Well, it’s quite ironic that Bates, who was Thomas’ nemesis, became his savior. But in typical Thomas fashion, rather than thank Bates, it makes him hate him even more.

Well, it’s been nice to see Thomas’ softer side this season, especially following Sybil’s death.
These servants live there for 20, 30 years, so you’re not gonna not build a bond with your employers. It’s great to see there’s an impact downstairs and it’s not just those bastards upstairs. Thomas gets quite choked up, doesn’t he? And then after he kisses Jimmy, he’s just completely distraught and destroyed and vulnerable, and you feel sorry for him. I’ve had people come up to me in the street and go, “Oh my God, Thomas made me cry last night, and I hate you for making him make me cry because I love to hate him.” I’m messing up people’s lives. There was this punter who came up to me on the tube and goes, “Listen, mate, I don’t normally watch period drama.” That’s how it always starts, and the next line is, “my missus watches it.” And then the third is, “but I’ve actually started liking it. You fucking the man, man. Last night, the tears…” and then he just walks off! And you think, This is what I do it for.

How has your life changed following the success of Downton?
I’ve been to parliament in England. We went to the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Paul McCartney was off-key completely, but I’m a massive Beatles fan, so who cares? I was there. I’ve been to South America to promote this show. I’ve swam with Great White sharks. It’s all because of this show and how people have bought into it. I just want to say thank you to everyone who watched and tuned in and loved my evil gayness.

And are you enjoying LA?
Beverly Hills is too intimidating. Everyone’s got lovely teeth, so you don’t want to smile. Everyone’s ripped, so you start working out at 4 in the morning and eating egg white omelets. I didn’t even know what that was and I’ve had three. My buns are killing.

Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna, has said the actors upstairs play Wink Murder between takes. What do the actors downstairs do?
We’re far crazier than that. We have break dance, body popping competitions on the big servants table.

This story is going to be as real as the one you told about the unicorn, isn’t it?
No, no, this is real. Jim Carter, who plays Carson, he’s an amazing breaker. We’re like, “Go Carson, go Carson,” and he’s proper break dancing. It’s true. To see this great British actor who’s done everything, a real legend, spinning on his head in between takes? What a guy. Mrs. Hughes is a popper, she goes, [hums “Push It”]. Okay, no. But we’re very loud and rambunctious. Every now and then Jim will go, “Bring it down, Rob, bring it down, you little monkey,” because I can get a bit, as you know from this interview, I can get excitable.

Downton’s Rob James-Collier Assures Vulture …