Exclusive Interview: Director Simon Curtis, Actress Laura Carmichael and Actor Hugh Bonneville on Downton Abbey: A New Era

Exclusive Interview: Director Simon Curtis, Actress Laura Carmichael and Actor Hugh Bonneville on Downton Abbey: A New Era

Honoring the past and long-held family traditions while also embracing the ever-evolving social norms and personal relationships of the present has been a cherished main story element in the acclaimed Downton Abbey franchise. That plot component is powerfully upheld in the franchise’s upcoming movie sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era, which serves as a follow-up to both the 2019 original feature and 2010s Emmy Award-winning television series.

Downton Abbey: A New Era was directed by franchise newcomer, Simon Curtis. The historical drama was written by Emmy Award-winner Julian Fellowes, who also created, executive produced and scribed the television show, and penned the first film.

Downton Abbey: A New Era begins with Violet Crawley, The Dowager Countess of Grantham [Maggie Smith] receiving the unexpected news that she’s inherited a French Riviera villa. The inheritance comes from the recently deceased Marquis de Montmiral, a man with whom she spent an idyllic week with at the villa six decades ago, before either of them was married.

After it was revealed in the first film that she’s in ill health, Violet is unable to travel to France. So her son, Robert Crawley, The Earl of Grantham [Hugh Bonneville], his wife, Cora Crawleyy, The Countess of Grantham [Elizabeth McGovern, who’s married to Curtis in real life], and several other of their family members, including their second daughter, Edith Pelham, Marchioness of Hexham [Laura Carmichael] visit the villa on his mother’s behalf. The trip sparks questions about Violet’s past, about which she remains coy.

During their trip to France, several other members of the family remain at Downton Abbey, as a film crew arrives at the estate to shoot a feature, which is being directed by filmmaker Jack Barber [Hugh Dancy]. While most of the Crawley family is appalled about the cast and crew spending so much time in the house, Lady Mary’s [Michelle Dockery] progressive and helpful nature reassures everyone that they’ll be able to overcome the challenging circumstances together.

Curtis, Carmichael and Bonneville generously took the time recently to talk about directing and starring in Downton Abbey: A New Era during individual exclusive interviews over Zoom. Focus Features will release Downton Abbey: A New Era in theaters this Friday, May 20, 2022.

Q: Simon, you directed the upcoming sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era. Why were you interested in helming the movie?

SC: Well, I’ve been part of the Downton Abbey family through my friendships and relationships ever since it began. So when the script [for A New Era] came to me, I loved it and the storylines in it, so it became an exciting opportunity for me to take part in it as the director.

Q: Laura and Hugh, you reprise your roles of Edith Pelham, Marchioness of Hexham, and Robert Crawley, The Earl of Grantham, respectively, in Downton Abbey: A New Era, after you both appeared in the first film and the television series. Why were you drawn to reprise your roles in the sequel?

LC: It’s always such a joy to be back together as a cast – we’re such great friends, and we’ve become one great, big family. So it’s not a hardship to get back together to work.

I was really pleased with I read the script. It’s great to see that Edith’s writing again, as her passion for journalism is back. .Even though she had a baby, she still wants to work.

You see a bit of that in the movie, especially when she hears about the villa in the South of France. It peaks her interest to write an article about how people are vacationing in the South of France, as it suddenly became the fashionable thing to do. So it was great to see her get back into that.

HB: It was the pleasure of getting back together with a gang of people I’ve grown to love, as we’ve worked together on-and-off over the past 12 years. Also, it was the pleasure of bringing to life Julian Fellowes’ script.

Julian created these characters, and they’ve been in his head for so long. He’s written them for us, and with us in mind. So he writes for our strengths, which brings the characters in different directions.

He’s also collaborative, up to a point; I can push on certain things, and say, “I don’t quite understand why this story’s head in this direction.” You’ll ask him a one-line question, and he’ll respond with a five-page reply.

So he’s very thorough [Bonneville laughs], and knows this world inside-and-out, of course. He’s a master of creating these stories.

He’s given Robert Crawley a fantastic story in this film. He goes through an existential crisis of sorts, that really makes him look at his life in different ways, and assess where he is. Julian explored that with warmth and compassion, like he always does.

Added to that, knowing that there’s an audience out there that enjoys these characters and stories he created, is amazing. While I don’t take that for granted, there is an audience out there that followed us loyally, so this is really a treat for them.

Q: Laura, Edith is considered to be one of the most rebellious characters of the family, but she has also evolved throughout the television series and films. Do you embrace that aspect of her personality?

LC: I do love that she’s one of the most rebellious members of the family. But I also love how her character evolves; she’s become one of the most modern and progressive characters of the show, which I don’t think you would expect from the pilot season’s first episodes.

Q: Downton Abbey: A New Era‘s ensemble cast features new and returning actors to the franchise. What was the experience like of collaborating with the entire cast to create the dynamic between all of the characters?

SC: Well, I’ve worked with a lot of the actors before. As a cast, they’ve also become a family. If you’re a director, that’s just golden, because they know each other, and the characters’ histories, so well. There’s a richness to that that I think bounces off the screen.

I also always talk to the actors about what they’re feeling. But since the [returning] actors knew their characters so well, those conversations were even more meaningful than usual.

LC: It’s always a joy to work with the returning cast because we all know how fun it is, and that we were all going to have a really nice time on this job. It was also great to welcome the new cast members. Alex Macqueen, who plays the sound engineer in the film storyline, gave one of my favorite performances in the film, as he steals his scenes throughout the movie.

HB: Like I previously said, we’ve all become close over all these years. I think the fact that we all came back for a second movie is an inkling that we all like each other. There’s no point in doing something, no matter how well paid you are, if you can’t bear everyone else you’re working with.

So that’s not only a testament to our casting director from the outset, Jill Trevellick, but also the writing, as well as the mother hen nature of the producers, who kept us all in good spirits.

Also, reuniting with Elizabeth is also always a treat. We have a great shorthand and rapport, as we do with all of the cast members.

It’s always a treat to continue exploring that relationship, especially since we were able to dig a little deeper into it in this film. We were able to assess their lives a little bit more, and work out who they are and what they mean to each other.

Their marriage was deftly drawn by Julian in this film, as he got to explore it in a new way in this episode of the saga. I also think he did so with great humility and passion, as both Robert and Cora are at a crisis point. This is an indication of the strength of their marriage, as they’re able to confide in each other in the way that they do.

Q: Laura and Hugh, Downton Abbey: A New Era was directed by franchise newcomer, Simon Curtis. What was your experience like of collaborating with him in developing Edith and Robert’s arcs in the the drama?

LC: It was such a joyful experience; I loved working with Simon. He’s been married to Elizabeth [McGovern] for years, so he really understands the show in a way that few directors do.

He brought so much to the project, and he’s such a fantastic filmmaker, so I think audiences will be so impressed by what he’s done with it. He weaved everyone’s story together so perfectly, and got the tone just right, so I think he did a really great job.

HB: I’ve worked with Simon in the past a couple of times. He’s obviously a great friend of the show because he’s married to Cora in real life, Elizabeth McGovern. So he’s been hanging around like a groupie on the set, on-and-off, for the past decade. [Bonneville laughs.]

So I thought he made perfect sense to direct this film, and he was quite good. He has a lot of experience in his own right as a filmmaker and producer. So his knowledge of, and affection for, filmmaking and actors is utterly bewitching.

Like any film, the tone cascades down from the director. His journey on set is just adorable, and his passion and affection for telling stories is tangible. He also wanted to make sure that we were all having a really good time. While he was going over the shot lists, he gave everyone quizzes to keep us entertained. [Bonneville laughs.]

Q: Downton Abbey: A New Era is not only set on the titular British estate, but also in the South of France, where the Dowager Countess recently inherits a villa. What was the process like of shooting the the follow-up in both locations?

SC: We wanted France to be as different from Downton Abbey as possible. So [for the villa,] we chose a lovely, airy house with glass walls and white paint that overlooks the sea, to make it as different from Downton as you can imagine.

LC: It was great; I loved it. To be able to get to go to these beautiful places was such a treat; it really didn’t feel like work most of the time. So I was lucky to be part of the cast that got to travel to France.

HB: Taking the characters away from the beautiful property of Downton Abbey itself, and go to another property [that’s] in the South of France was a real treat, obviously, both as an actor and as someone who likes traveling. [Bonneville laughs.]

But [the film’s] a gorgeous adventure, both for the characters who travel to France and those who stay in the house. The characters who go to France explore a whole new mystery that’s going on down there. Meanwhile, the characters who stay at Downton Abbey explore a whole new world when the film crew comes to visit. So overall, this story is an escapist treat for all of the characters.

Q: With the film being set in both the titular estate and Violet’s newly inherited French villa, what was you experience like of collaborating with the feature’s cinematographer, Andrew Dunn, throughout the production?

SC: Well, I chose Andrew Dunn because he had done Gosford Park, and I wanted this film to be a cinematic experience akin to that. We talked about things like, “Oh, we’ve never seen that angle before,” in an effort to make things feel fresh. But like me, he’s mostly interested in capturing the emotion on the faces of the actors.

Q: With Downton Abbey: A New Era being a historic drama, what was the experience like of also working with the feature’s costume designer, Anna Robbins, to create the looks for the characters?

SC: We had a genius costume designer who knew what she was doing. She knew very specifically what people were wearing during that time.

She especially had a lot of fun making the costumes for the trip to France. So you see Lord Grantham in a blazer, looking quite different than usual.

Also, the film within a film featured fantastic costumes from the past, because it was set about 40 or 50 years before the events of our film. So it was also fun getting the actors all dressed in those costumes.

LC: I love the costumes on the show; it’s been such a treat to watch the times – and styles – change. When we went back each season, we’d see the changes in the new era, which was amazing

This [film] was certainly the most modern, especially in terms of the fashion. I think the fact that we go to the South of France, and the characters have a different experience, the costumes were able to go a lot further.

Q: What was the process like of paying tribute to fans of the show and first movie with this new sequel, while also appealing to new audiences?

SC: Well, we basically tried to do the best we could with every scene and hope that it lands. So we hope that everyone can enjoy this film.

Check out more of Karen Benardello’s articles.

Here’s the trailer of the film.

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