From comedy to costume drama, nothing seems beyond Hugh Bonneville. The Londoner tells Frank Grice about his break in acting, and how he loves playing the Earl of Grantham
Who is Hugh Bonneville? A perpetually posh and privileged reflection of the drama school’s upper echelons, or a humble, surprisingly down-to-earth actor who enjoys his craft and the opportunities it has given him? Thankfully, he’s the latter, but when wearing Lord Grantham’s immaculately polished shoes in Downton Abbey, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
‘I think Downton Abbey’s success still surprises a lot of people, not least when you consider how frightfully working class most of the cast are,’ Hugh chuckles, as we begin our exclusive interview with the 49-year-old Londoner. ‘It’s an enduring period drama that does what so many of the others don’t do, and invites you in. It’s not drawn out and difficult to follow, and it takes in subjects and emotions that we can all relate to. I guess it’s as near to a soap as a costume drama could be, but it works. And I think it will go on working for a good few years yet.’
Bonneville is obviously a big fan. It is, after all, the show that has truly put him on the world stage. The wildly successful costume drama, created by Julian Fellowes, features a dream ensemble cast. And despite the jovial protestations of his fellow cast members’ background, a good few come from the world of theatre, Bonneville included.
His pedigree for depicting the upper classes shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Growing up, he moved from London to a school in Sherborne in Dorset, then to Cambridge University, before returning to London to study acting at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Joining the National Youth Theatre, he graduated to the National Theatre and eventually moved to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1991, the year after he first appeared on our screens in the ITV drama Chancer, with Clive Owen.
Throughout the nineties, Bonneville had a steady stream of primetime TV appearances, as well as small parts in movies such as Notting Hill and Mansfield Park, but from the break of the Millennium, the actor’s upward ascent has been spectacular.
‘I guess I do have more choice in what I do these days, but I still regard myself a jobbing actor; I still fear the quiet spells because they can come at you quickly and you have to stay brave when there’s little work around.
‘I’ve said it before, but Notting Hill was a big break for me. I approached the audition a different way – almost with a touch of arrogance, and it worked. You certainly need to have a mindset that is excessively positive and confident, otherwise where’s the incentive for the casting director? That can be difficult because inside you’re worrying about paying the bills, but it’s an act… appropriately so, you might say!’
It seems that slice of arrogant confidence has been evident in some of Bonneville’s other auditions, given that he’ll be appearing in The Monuments Men with Matt Damon and George Clooney – about a crew of art historians who try to recover stolen works of art from the Nazis before Hitler destroys them – and a live-action film based on the children’s beloved Paddington Bear books. Both are tipped to do well at the box office.
Away from Highclere Castle, Bonneville likes to reflect on a happy time growing up around the vast open space of Blackheath.
‘Is there anywhere really like it in London?’ he asks. ‘There is such freedom and so much air to breathe in.
‘Of course, the capital has changed a lot since I grew up around south east London. The house we had in Blackheath was old and rather sinister. The whole place creaked and I was pleased when we moved out, although I did miss the Heath.
‘I like going back there – I like just driving through Blackheath. It’s a rare spot in London where you feel you’re in the countryside. But I still adore the throng of central London – you’re surrounded by every part of culture, everyone pushed together in this cauldron of life.’
Hugh, who now has an immaculate home on the West Sussex and Hampshire border, says he heads back to Greenwich Park when he can and remains passionate about the Thames.
‘I don’t think any capital city can rival our river. Its stretch through London takes in an incredible amount of history, industry and social change, from the docks to Parliament to modern apartments and the parklands of west London. You take a trip along the Thames and think “we really are the luckiest of people”’.
So back to Downton, and with its fourth run hitting our screens in September, the show enters the 1920s – a decade where decadence created a heady mix with sophistication. The cast have been shaken up and there is a new feel to the house which is suitably reflective of what the twenties offered.
‘Time must move on in these dramas but I think Julian has been careful not to alter stuff too much. You want to tweak a winning formula without changing it completely. It’s a fine line, but I think he has trodden it well.’
Series three notched up nine million viewers for ITV, culminating in a Christmas special that left Lady Mary Crawley a widow with a new baby. While she deals with her grief and goes about finding a new husband, we are promised a couple of potential suitors – ‘gorgeous new men’ as Bonneville describes them.
There will also be the show’s first black character, a jazz singer, and the New Zealand operatic performer Dame Kiri te Kanawa comes to the house as well. Viewers will be delighted at the return of American actress Shirley MacLaine as Cora Crawley’s outspoken mother, Martha Levinson, and someone set to cause a stir in the series finale is fellow American Paul Giamatti as her son, Harold, billed as a ‘maverick playboy’. Another addition to the cast is ex-EastEnders star Nigel Harman, playing a new valet.
‘There is so much detail and I do look forward to seeing the final cut. I usually watch episodes a few times and, thankfully, these days, am well beyond the point where I hide behind the sofa every time I see myself wandering into shot!’