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From Ted Lasso to Downton Abbey, Jeremy Swift Orbits Around ‘Formidable Women’

Photo: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

Jeremy Swift has been a veteran actor across the pond for well over four decades, perhaps most familiar to Anglophiles as Spratt, the deadened butler with secret journalist talents in Downton Abbey. Add a pair of spectacles and a giddy smile, however, and you get a transformed Swift as Higgins in Ted Lasso, who’s finally free from the tyranny of his bosses to serve as Richmond’s unencumbered director of football operations. (And, of course, one of the four Diamond Dogs.) Mr. Popularity is thriving!

Season-two Higgins has been a joy to see pal around the pitch, even if he doesn’t have an office and continues to spill his pens everywhere: He’s found respect and camaraderie among his “football” colleagues, and, as this week’s holiday episode confirms, has a fabulous home life with his sons and wife, so much so that the majority of Richmond’s players want to spend Christmas with them. Vulture was keen on chatting with Swift about this new era for Higgins, with some deviations about Royal Albert Hall and the Emmys.

This is embarrassing, but I didn’t realize until about a week ago that you played Spratt on Downton Abbey. Your physicality for both characters is so distinctive.
Very true. It was costume-orientated. With Spratt, I had this waistcoat that was like a corset, really. I was kind of starched for breath and it bled into the character. [Laughs.] Because everything was so tight. It was practically like wood. You have to screw-in some buttons into the coat. I learned how to do it myself and I would still be squeezing myself in every time, or else someone else would run their hands down my entire body and it’s like, Let’s not go there. But yes, they’re so different. They both work with formidable women.

When I was brought on for Downton, I was invited onto it because I worked with the director a few times before. They just wanted me for one episode, and they just kept bringing Spratt back. I was told by one of the people working on the show, “Head butlers are quite often avatars of their owners. They echo their characteristics.” Spratt, like Dame Maggie’s character, was pushy and about no bullshit. [Laughs.]

I don’t remember Spratt ever smiling. Higgins radiates sunshine.
See, I love that, because I love characters. That’s what I love to do. It probably doesn’t help my career, but I personally love that people don’t recognize me from one thing to another.

Who’s the more iconic boss: The Dowager Countess or Rebecca?
Oh, wow. We’ve only had two seasons of Ted Lasso, so give Rebecca a chance. Dame Maggie? She’s pretty iconic. But she’s not just formidable. The Dowager Countess measures everything out and she’s a towering family figure who problem-solves for everyone. That’s a great characteristic to give her. She’s not just a twitchy, negative character. She’s somebody who processes stuff and leads the family to a better place. Rebecca will do that as well. She’s finally won over by Ted, as are other characters, including Higgins. She’ll get there and sort everything out.

Now I’m dream-casting who Maggie should play in Ted Lasso’s third season.
Ted’s granny, maybe? She can debut a new accent.

Walk me through the day you found out about your Emmy nomination. That is such a wonderful accomplishment!
Eventually I did celebrate in a few ways. I had a belated birthday party recently, just over the past weekend, due to all of the lockdown restrictions in England. A lot of the cast joined and just kept chanting, Emmy nominee, Emmy nominee!, which was hilarious and embarrassing at the same time.

But for the actual day, my manager called to tell me. I was shocked. Something came up on my timeline a few weeks ago about how four of our Ted Lasso guys might get a supporting nomination, which would be the first time since Modern Family. I really don’t know much about the Emmys and statistics, so that was the only thing I knew going into the announcement. I wasn’t really in the running otherwise. [Laughs.] I never expect to be nominated for anything at all. But, yes, my manager called me when I was trying to get some tickets for a music show in London. She told me our show got nominated, and then I got nominated, and I didn’t know how to process it. I was a bit teary, then baffled, then tired, all in about two seconds.

Did you still get your concert tickets?
I wanted to go to the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall. I try to go every year and see something a little bit modern or a premiere piece. Mark-Anthony Turnage, somebody like that, or a 20th-century composer. But I never got to book the tickets because I spent the rest of the morning going like, What, what, what! Emmys, Emmys, Emmys!

I think Royal Albert Hall can give you some free tickets given the circumstances.
I hope everything is free for me from now on.

I get the sense, now that Higgins is freed from being a sycophant to Rebecca and, before that, Rupert, he’s finally able to be the man that he’s always wanted to be at work. Who is this new Higgins we’re seeing?
He’s somebody who’s finally empowered and trusted. Because there is a longer story, really, before the first season, about the compromised things that he’s had to do for Rupert. We hadn’t been given a timeline for that, but it must’ve been quite a lot of years for poor Higgins. It had such a negative effect and built up such a rage in Rebecca. He’s in a really empowered place now. We’ve seen, at home, that he’s loved and respected by his wife and children. And vice versa. That’s possible for him, but it just hasn’t been possible in the workplace. That happens to a lot of people, though. They’re very smart and level-headed, but they may have to deal with somebody who’s very difficult as their leader or boss. He’s the Higgins at work that he’s always wanted to be, absolutely. He can be the person that he is at home: advisory, a mentor, a listener. Be involved in some important decisions. Make strange sounds at the back of his throat. Do some strange physical comedy. [Laughs.] That’s why I love the Christmas episode.

Me too. There was an interesting comment that Higgins’s wife gave him in that episode, which was “you’ve become quite popular” with the players. I’m curious how you think Higgins has evolved throughout Ted Lasso so far, or even what he was like before the start of the show. What’s changed in him? How did he get so popular now?
Ted has bonded him with the team. I think that starts in the middle of the first season, where he helps adjust Dani Rojas into Richmond, and we also saw that Higgins was working with Ted behind Rebecca’s back to help the team. All of the men were in the woods together making that bonfire and burning stuff. That was a big bonding thing with the team and it evolved from there. What’s funny is that, as Higgins says at the beginning of the Christmas episode, he’s been offering this holiday dinner for quite a while but very few players have taken up his offer. It’s really surprising and touching to him when he has a houseful of guests.

Do you think there’s any secret darkness within Higgins?
Of course it’s not up to me, and I do suggest things to the writers. They go, “Ha, okay, thanks Jeremy,” and they’ll come up with something much better. I don’t know if there’s darkness so much within him, but perhaps there’s some backlash from that whole time with Rupert. Higgins was kind of a pimp. Does his wife know about that? We don’t quite know. I think within himself, though, he’s not a dark guy. I don’t think the writers would want that, primarily because he’s an elder and more of a stable character. He’s not going to suddenly have a midlife crisis and want to become a cage-fighter or climb Mount Everest dressed as Scooby-Doo.

That’s some very specific imagery.
That would be great. Maybe season seven. [Laughs.] But with a lot of the other characters struggling and looking for romance or stability this season, that’s why the Higgins family is there. They provide such a nice balance.

What suggestions have you made to the writers about Higgins?
In the first season, I had said something to Bill Lawrence along the lines of, “What’s happening with this guy’s background? Does he have a really angry wife just lurking outside the grounds and yelling at him all the time?” Then they brought in my actual wife, Mary Roscoe, who plays my TV wife. When I got the episode I totally got it. Big family. Loving relationship. Perfect. I planted a seed and they went in a much smarter way with it.

Should I assume you suggested that Mary play your wife?
I didn’t, actually. I could’ve lied and said I did, but I’ll be honest with you. What happened was my wife had auditioned for an earlier role in season one; the woman who bargains for Jamie Tartt at the fundraising auction. Her character’s name was Old Lady. I told her, “We’re getting there in age, but I don’t think you’re gonna get that part.” [Laughs.] So, yes, she didn’t get that one, but she read for a few other parts. We kind of forgot about it, but a few weeks later Bill came up to me and asked if I’d worked with my wife before, and if so, did we get along. “Interesting question, yes. We met on a job decades ago.” And he told me he’d love to give her the role of Higgins’s wife. I was trying to play it cool, like, Oh yeah, whatever, catch you later. But inside I was like, Oh my God, this is amazing! That’s how it happened.

A depressed, unemployed Higgins playing the bass in season one was one of my favorite moments. Do you actually know how to play?
It was me playing, yes. I’ve had lessons for five years on the bass now. That came about because I told Jason Sudeikis that I played the bass. We were bantering during a lunch hour and he said, “What happens when he retires? Maybe he goes away for a bit.” And I said, “Oh, no, I think he’ll actually grow a Rasputin-length beard and play music.” Jason was cool with a jazz beard or a goatee, but nothing longer. [Laughs.] So I told him that I love jazz and play the double bass quite well. So that’s how the scene ended up there. They really amped it up. He told me to make some loud jazz sounds.

What’s your Premier League team of choice?
Well, here’s the thing: Me and Nick Mohammed don’t know anything about football or follow it. But if I had to, it would be Middlesbrough, because I’m from the northwest of England. Second choice, Liverpool, because it’s a nice city. But I’m stressed to care.

Okay, I refuse to end with such a football-negative comment. What’s your dream Royal Albert Hall show?
Unfortunately, they’ve disbanded and haven’t played for ages, but it would have to be Roxy Music.

Oh my God, you’re kidding.
I said the wrong thing, didn’t I?

Not at all, you’re talking to a megafan here. I was blaring For Your Pleasure before I signed into our Zoom.
Oh my God, I wish we started talking about this earlier. They are my whole life and have been for 50 years. I’ve seen them several times back in the day. Eddie Jobson has given us the greatest electric-violin solos of all time. Next time you’ve got to insist on interviewing me so we can just talk about Roxy, okay? I know tons.

Ted Lasso’s Jeremy Swift Orbits Around ‘Formidable Women’