Even within the societal constraints of the era, Downton Abbey’s Joseph Molesley (played by Kevin Doyle) has always wanted more. A peripheral “downstairs” character since the series premiered in 2010, he has transformed from a sad sap of a butler to a goofier sap of a footman to an assured schoolteacher with a knack for encouraging reason and curiosity. (But also getting drunk at a ball if the situation calls for it.) And finally, Molesley is rewarded. He deserves it! In Downton Abbey: A New Era, his scriptwriting aptitude draws the attention of a visiting Hollywood director, who offers him a cushy gig to keep adapting plays into films. It’s the only time Molesley has been presented with an offer of a decent and prosperous life, and he grabs onto it immediately, taking the big payday and proposing to Baxter, the lady’s maid he’s slowly pursued for years. “How should a man feel,” he tells her, “if all of his dreams have come true?” You get the sense at the end of A New Era that Molesley might become the most important character out of all of them.
Vulture spoke to an enthused Doyle about Molesley’s evolution, the “profoundly moving” moments along the way, and why he’s still shocked his character became a fan favorite.
If we were doing a complete Downton Abbey character power ranking, I feel like Molesley comes out on top at the end of this film.
I would agree with you. He certainly does come out on top. His life takes an enormous turn. I remember the director saying to me when we were shooting the last few scenes of the film, “His life changes completely in about five minutes of screen time.” He’s absolutely right, both professionally and privately. It’s satisfying for the audience to see as well. It’s been an absolute gift of a part to play.
Julian Fellowes previously described your portrayal as being in the same tradition as Charlie Chaplin or Robin Williams. Do you like that sad-comedian type of assessment?
Oh, gosh. I was chuffed to bits when he said that because I’ve never had that kind of feedback from him. When you’re preparing a role, you don’t really think about it in terms of, I’m going to be a bit like Charlie or Robin. I don’t analyze roles in that way. I try to respond as honestly as I can to the text and try to serve it as best as I can.
The Dowager Countess even defends Molesley’s honor in the film by calling him a “great favorite.” When did you realize he had endeared himself so much to both the audience and the Downton characters?
Quite late, to be honest with you. To start off with, you have to remember how he became employed in that job. I was originally contracted to be in a few scenes throughout a few episodes in the first season. The producers and writers weren’t thinking about anything long term. Molesley’s role was to introduce Matthew Crawley and his mother to the world of service and to ease them into the Downton world as their butler. Matthew was particularly uncomfortable with that. Molesley was a differently written character; he took himself very seriously for a while. I don’t think he was a well-liked character. I made the mistake early on by going on social media to read comments. I didn’t mind, because that’s the way he was written, but viewers weren’t kind to me starting out.
What did you find yourself reading?
He made moves on Anna when Mr. Bates was off doing something. People turned against him for that. He also tried to wiggle his way out of serving in the war. I assumed that would carry on. But after Matthew died, you saw the impact that had on Molesley. Suddenly, there was no reason for him to be at Downton. Even Mr. Carson was like, “You’ve got to bugger off now; there’s no role for you.” He went through a bit of hardship. I wonder if that was the beginning of his turn. I think it was two or three years ago, around the time of the first movie, when many people told me I was a fan favorite. Like, really? I wasn’t aware of it at all.
I feel if Maggie Smith called me a “great favorite,” in real life or a fictional setting, it would be a highlight of my life.
Yes, and it was for me. I don’t know if you remember, but I put myself through torture in the first film with that wildly uncomfortable scene in front of the king and queen when they visit Downton. Molesley makes an enormous faux pas during that dinner scene. Maggie was very kind and complimentary to me on that day and said some very sweet things to me about my performance. If nothing else happens in my life, I’ll take that.
There was a scene from the original series that somewhat predicted his pivot into screenwriting: when he began teaching at the local school and told the children that they shouldn’t give up on learning because he never did either. Still, did it surprise you that he enthusiastically stumbled into this career?
It’s something Julian has explored all the way through the show — that fight against predetermined lives. You see it with Lady Edith upstairs, for instance, being told to get married and have kids and live a quiet life in the country. She was like, No, I want more than that. And downstairs you have people struggling with being told that their lives are going to be limited and they shouldn’t get their hopes up for anything more. Molesley is clearly a bright man, but he’d never been allowed to let his intellect and talent, for what it was, flourish. You get the sense of what his ambitions are. I remember filming the scene when he was offered the job as a teacher in the series, and I found it profoundly moving. Really profoundly moving. I struggle not to weep thinking about it because it sums up what so many people must have experienced in that era, the struggle to be something other than what you’re expected to be. Molesley’s father would’ve been in service all of his life, and despite likely having higher hopes, he wasn’t allowed to. It was the Molesley generation that you began to see social change. That’s something Julian has always wanted to explore.
I think “profoundly moving” is a perfect way to put it. And, admittedly, it’s more affecting to watch the downstairs characters have wins compared to their upstairs counterparts.
Absolutely. You even see it with the struggles Thomas has and the life he wants to live. New horizons begin to be possible. That’s partly why Downton has been the success it has been. You can recognize the struggles that these characters endured. Funny enough, I was in New York a couple of days ago, and I was having difficulty getting to my gate. I was very delayed. And this woman came up to me, having recognized me for the role. And she goes, “Sorry to bother you, but I have to tell you a story. The struggles that Molesley has had really struck a chord with me, and it helped me in my marriage.” I won’t expound further to protect this woman’s privacy. When she said that, it stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t think about trying to catch my flight anymore. I’m glad I was able to help in some way through my character.
Molesley and Baxter’s proposal scene was perhaps the film’s loveliest moment. Can you tell me what it was like to shoot that?
It was really delightful because it was a culmination of six or seven years of gradual courting. It was always very tiny steps forward in their relationship. I hadn’t appreciated until I read the script what the reason was for that glacial progress. As Molesley explains, he felt he had to have the right circumstances to offer a proposal of marriage. And five minutes before he proposes, it was like he won the lottery.
One of the final things he says is, “who knows what will happen and if I’m any good at it.” Do you think he’ll be successful with writing? What do you envision for his future?
Oh, I have absolutely no idea. I suspect he wouldn’t want to travel very far from Downton. I was talking to Raquel Cassidy earlier today, and she also said she didn’t think Baxter would want to leave service. I imagine that they kind of stay where they are and carry on with life but in slightly more comfortable circumstances than they envisioned. In a way, we’ve been saying good-bye to these characters for six years now. I thought it was the end when the series ended. I thought it was the end when the first film premiered. I even thought it was a perfect ending when Molesley became a schoolteacher. If it goes further than this, I’d love to leave it up to the audience’s imagination with how those characters live their lives. What happens to Thomas in Los Angeles? What happens to Daisy in married life? What happens to Molesley and Baxter?
I’d rather see Molesley in Los Angeles, to be honest.
Okay, I’ll talk to Julian about it.