Hugh Bonneville on Future of ‘Downton Abbey’: “It Might Be the Right Time to Stop”

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Downton Abbey: A New Era, Focus Features’ second feature spin-off from the phenomenally successful TV series, jitterbugged its way into cinemas earlier this year.

Bringing back the original ensemble of regulars, plus a few new additions in Dominic West, Hugh Dancy, Laura Haddock and Nathalie Baye, the film — directed by Simon Curtis — ramped up the high-society hi-jinx, with sumptuous weddings, luxurious trips to the south of France and the rather meta inclusion of a silent era Hollywood film being shot in Downton itself.

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To celebrate the launch of A New Era on home entertainment (it is being released on Blu-Ray and a collector’s edition DVD on July 5), The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the lord of the manor himself, Hugh Bonneville, who discussed rumors of Downton Abbey returning to TV and why he thought that the latest film was a “good note” to conclude the Crawleys’ lengthy and illustrious reign. (Some sections of the interview include spoiler alerts for readers who haven’t see the latest movie.)

Related video: Hollywood comes to 'Downton Abbey'

Moving to another beloved franchise in which he has a starring role, Bonneville also talked about Paddington, revealing why he thought that Dougal Wilson, the newly-announced director of the third film, possessed all the “right flavors” to “look after the bear from Darkest Peru.”

With two Downton Abbey films under your belt, how have you been enjoying Downton in feature form compared to it as a TV series?

Obviously, the mechanics of it are still very much the same. But I think there’s this sense of scale, which was captured particularly in the second. The second film really did feel like a movie to me, because [cinematographer] Andrew Dunn was able to really point his camera on that, particularly the French skyline, and it really felt very sumptuous. There’s a tiny bit, only about 30 seconds in the film, where we go out on a boat off the coast, and I remember saying to [director] Simon Curtis that it served absolutely no narrative purpose at all, and he said, no, but it’s actually one of the most important scenes in the film because it gives the audience a sense of place, and it really looked magnificent on a big screen. And I also think the story just got a little more substantial somehow than the first movie. The first movie was great, with the King and Queen coming to stay and all sorts of shenanigans going on, but from my character’s point of view, there was a lot more to get my my teeth stuck into this time.

[SPOILER ALERT]

A New Era did see the sad death of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. You obviously knew that it was coming, but was it still quite emotional? Did you do anything special?

Actually, there were three farewells, because there was the death scene, there was the last scene in the dining room, which was significant because it was always such a monstrous part of the filming schedule every time we came to it, and then we have her final shot, which was a very small moment in the hallway and not significant, but nevertheless her departure from the film. So like all good royalty, she got a good three-day send-off.

And did you do anything with Maggie off-screen.

I think there were three sets of Champagne. But after the death scene, which was my last scene with Maggie, we went and had a glass in her dressing room. And I was able to reflect on the fact she’d been my mum, on and off, for 12 years, and that was quite remarkable, especially to have a legendary actress like that involved in our show. I can remember when I was first offered this show by (executive producer) Gareth Neame, it was before anyone was cast, and I said, “who are you talking to for the mother,” and he said Maggie Smith, and I said, “well, good luck with that, because that’s not going to happen.” And the rest is history.

[END OF SPOILER ALERT]

I’ve heard from a good source that, following the success of the films, NBCUniversal and production firm Carnival are talking about bringing Downton back as a TV series. Is this something you’ve heard of? Have they asked you whether you’d be interesting in returning?

My god, I hadn’t heard that one. But I suspect, if there is, it would be a reboot. An origin story or something like that. I mean, there’s clearly an appetite for these sorts of shows. Bridgerton has been a magnificent success. So if you can capture the younger generation to enjoy people in frocks, then go for it. But yeah, I think it’d be immensely unlikely that we would be brought back as a cast. It’s seven years since we did the TV show. Returning as we did for those two films was really lovely, but I think there’ll be a whole new generation, like Star Wars spinning off all over the place.

But if it were to happen, would you be interested?

I literally hadn’t thought of it. I have no idea. I’d never say never. I’d do anything for the right money.

While it went down very well with critics, Downton Abbey: A New Era hasn’t done nearly as well at the box office as the first film, the success of which I think took a lot of people by surprise. Do think this has to do with the pandemic or is this all the fault of Tom Cruise and Top Gun: Maverick being launched so soon afterwards?

No, it’s definitely not dear old Tom. It’s definitely the pandemic and the way we watch movies. And also, you’ve got to bear in mind that the first one was a runaway success. It was the biggest hit that Focus (Features) had ever had in America. It beat Brokeback Mountain at the box office and took nearly $200 million worldwide, which was staggering for a show like this. And so for the second one, I don’t think anybody, least of all Focus, was expecting it to do nearly as well. And then you add into that the brutality of the pandemic and the fact that we have, unless you’re going to watch a tentpole movie, started watching films in a completely different way. But I would say that when we went to the London premiere or the premiere at the Met in America, or even just my tiny little local cinema, seeing something in a collective experience and watching it with a group of people is remarkable, and that is why theater and film will never die.

There’s only been two films, but the Downton Abbey features are already being described as a franchise. I think everyone is expecting a third installment. Do you know if Julian Fellowes has sat down to think about where the story could go, or have you had any thoughts?

I suspect, on a practical level, it’s run its course now. I think that was a good time to quit. I don’t know. I’m never gonna second guess the future, but did think for a while, actually, yeah, why not, let’s keep going. But I do think it could get a bit thin. I think the second film was such a joyous one and such a good note on which to end the story. And it does feel like it can end. There’s still open doors in it, but I think it might be the right time to stop.

I’d lose my job and would never forgive myself if I didn’t ask about my favorite franchise of all, Paddington. The wheels of Paddington 3 finally seem to be moving, with a new director in Dougal Wilson and a title in Paddington in Peru. Are you excited that it’s finally happening?

Well, I was told it was going to start this year, and then it wasn’t, so I’m taking it all with a pinch of salt. But Dougal is a wonderful director, and the commercials that he’s done are so gorgeous. (From) the John Lewis ads to the one for the 3 mobile company, which I just love. So he’s got all the right flavors within him and his spirit that I can tell he’s going to look after the bear from Darkest Peru. And from the sounds of it, he’ll even be taking the bear to Peru. So yeah, allegedly it’s all going to fire up next year, but then I’ve heard that before.

Have you seen a script?

I did see an early draft. But they said it was very early and they were nowhere near there yet. So I’m sure it’ll be refined and refined and will be worthy of its predecessors and an honor to (Paddington creator) Michael Bond, I hope.

The first Paddington movie was a masterpiece, and the second arguably the greatest film ever made. As one of the most important characters in the films, do you feel the pressure and worry that Paddington 3 has so much to live up to that if it doesn’t follow that trajectory, then there’ll be disappointment?

No, I don’t feel the pressure. I think StudioCanal do. So, more fool them, if they bugger it up! I just turn up and say the lines. It’s easy for me. And then I can talk about it as if I made it.

Despite having seen it so many times, there are still scenes in Paddington 2 — such as the ending when Aunt Lucy arrives — where it’s difficult to not tear up. Even though you were there, do you ever find yourself getting emotional watching it?

No, I don’t. Not on that one, because it was really hard work and a lot of the time felt like it was having teeth extracted. I absolutely recognize that it’s a masterpiece, but I honestly didn’t think it was going to be. I remember saying to Paul [King, director], this isn’t going to work. And how wrong I was and, as you said, it’s about the best film ever made. But it was a tough gig, because Paul worries away at each scene. We reshot several scenes because he wasn’t satisfied, and luckily he had a producer with the genius of David Heyman to say, ok, we’ll do that. So the reason it is as brilliant as it is is because of Paul King. And obviously the amazing animations and collaborators as well, but really, if he’d settled for second best, it would be a second best film. But he really cared and really, really worked, and his imagination never stopped. I’d hate to be his wife because his imagination is constantly on the go.

And finally, a question uniting both subject matters. Who do you get stopped more for on the street, Lord Grantham or Henry Brown?

Actually, it’s sort of 50/50 really. Although I can confidently say among the under 8s it’s usually Henry Brown.

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