Yahoo! TV Q&A: 'Downton Abbey's' Rob James-Collier on Season 3, Shirley MacLaine, and what makes Thomas so evil

Dave Nemetz
Yahoo! TV

As the ever-scheming footman Thomas on the hit British import “Downton Abbey,” Rob James-Collier plays the type of malicious villain who just needs an old-timey mustache to twirl to complete the package. (He stole the family dog, for Pete’s sake!) But we’re happy to report that in real life, James-Collier is charming, funny, and even (gasp) sort of likable. (Don’t tell Mr. Carson we said that.)

In a phone interview last month, the 36-year-old British actor told us about his wild driving adventures in Los Angeles (“I nearly killed a few people. Completely accidental… I apologize, a mad Englishman’s driving around”) before giving us a tantalizing preview of “Downton” Season 3, including a “heavyweight slugfest” between Dame Maggie Smith and newcomer Shirley MacLaine -- and a surprising display of vulnerability from Thomas.

Last we saw Thomas, his business venture went south and he was forced to return to Downton as a footman. Is he humbled at all going into Season 3?

You’d think he’d be a lot more humble and lose a bit of arrogance, but no. [Laughs] I’m afraid not. When we arrive back at Downton Abbey, he’s still the same old Thomas. He’s now operating as his lordship’s valet, because [Mr.] Bates is in prison. He’s got to the top of the tree, which is where he’s always wanted to be. So you’d think he’d chill out a bit and be a bit nicer to his fellow man. But no, he doesn’t, because a new footman comes in who’s a nephew of Miss O’Brien.

[Thomas] sees him getting special treatment from Mr. Carson and getting promoted to footman really quickly. Thomas had to work really hard to get where he is and never got any breaks, and this guy, as Thomas perceives it, is getting favoritism and he resents that. He sees him as a threat. And in his typical way of thinking, he says, “I’m going to annihilate that threat, by hook or by crook.” So he sets out to make him look silly and inadequate in his role, which then sparks the fires in Miss O’Brien. What you get, which carries all the way through the season, is this sort of one-upmanship between them. Instead of being allies, “smoking allies,” as I call them, they turn on each other. It starts out as little jokey things, but develops into something quite more sinister, and results in Thomas being completely destroyed, and as vulnerable as the audience will ever seen him. And it’s all at the hands of Miss O’Brien.

[Related: 'Downton Abbey' Season 3 Preview: The Cast Reveals What's to Come]

Yeah, we’re definitely used to seeing Thomas and O’Brien plotting together, but now you’re saying they’re at odds?

Yeah, and it’s great to see that progression, because we love what we call our “smoking plotting scenes.” And they’re quite true. You’ll get that at a lot of workplaces, because you can’t smoke inside. So people bond on their smoking breaks outside, because they’re always in each other’s company. That’s how it started with those two, I think. It was great seeing those two work together like a pack of hyenas.

But as something progresses, I just don’t think you can always have them doing the same thing. So it was great that [creator] Julian [Fellowes] chose them to turn on each other. And it really is like a battle of evil wills, if you will. But for me, O’Brien’s always been the cleverer of the two, so I think she’ll come out on top, hands down.

Thomas definitely comes off as a villain, but we’ve seen other sides to him: his attempts to have a relationship with another man, his fears during the war. Will we see more of that in Season 3: like you said, a more vulnerable side to Thomas?

Yeah, I’m so chuffed about this season; I’ve really been privileged with the storyline that Julian’s written for Thomas, because we actually get to the crux of his sexuality. We really get onto the layers of what it must’ve been like to be a homosexual man in Edwardian times, when it was illegal and against God. I mean, this is a guy who, if his sexuality is discovered, his career’s over with. No references. Your life’s over. You’d essentially starve to death because you’d never get work again. There’s a stigma that comes with it, in those times.

And for me as an actor, that just gives me a sense of why Thomas is like he is. He’s very acerbic, he’s very bitter towards his fellow man, he’s very protective, he never lets anyone in. It’s because he’s got this huge secret, and he’s got no one to express it to. There were no gay bars in Edwardian times. I keep pitching to Julian there should be a spinoff series where Thomas opens the first Edwardian gay bar. [Laughs] But he’s not having any of it.

But there were no gay bars; there was no Internet where you can reach out to like-minded people and discuss. You couldn’t tell anyone. And if you did, it’d be a huge risk; you’d have to read signals and gamble that this person is who you think they are. So to have no way of expressing this thing, no chance of falling in love and meeting someone, with religion and society telling you you’re hideous… no one understood that. So I just think if he’s a bit bitter towards his fellow man or a bit arrogant, he’s just angry at life. Because he’s not doing anything wrong, he’s not hurting anyone, yet life is persecuting him just for being how he is. I think that’s a cruel situation to be in, and I think maybe that sheds a bit of light on why he is like he is. That’s my actor’s rationalization for it, anyway; he could just be evil incarnate. [Laughs]

Obviously, “Downton Abbey” is a big hit in the U.K., and it’s a big hit here now, too. Do you guys feel that when you come here, how much America loves the show?

We kind of had an inkling when the first season got nominated for seven Emmys. We were just all taken aback. We knew it had a great chance in England, because it’s a stellar cast of British actors: Dame Maggie [Smith], Hugh Bonneville, Jim Carter, all these legends. And we had Julian Fellowes writing it, so we knew it had a massive chance in England. But what we didn’t know was how it would go crazy worldwide. I just got back from South Africa promoting it; some of the cast are going to Sweden; it’s huge in Australia, all over Europe. My friends sent me clips of me on “Downton,” but dubbed in Italian. And let me tell you, the guy who plays me in Italian has a deeper, sexier voice than I could ever hope to have. [Laughs] It’s brilliant. Yeah, it’s gone all over.

And in America, the impact… particularly the second season, when I think it became the most Emmy-nominated British show ever. It just wasn’t expected. But I think America has always had a love affair with English history. Because you’re quite a relatively young country, and you’ve been fascinated by our history because it goes so far back. Obviously, back in the colonial days, England had a presence here, rightly or wrongly… we won’t go into that. [Laughs] We’re kind of ingrained in your psyche.

I think there’s a fascination with that bygone era, the glamour, the opulence, particularly upstairs. But this is a period drama that shows you both sides, upstairs and downstairs, and they realize these are normal, everyday working people that have the same conflicts and issues that they have. Even though it’s a hundred years ago, people still fell in love, they fell out of love, people didn’t like each other, all that stuff.

And we’ve got the two heavyweights. Maggie’s much loved in Hollywood; she’s a two-time Oscar winner. Julian won the Oscar for “Gosford Park.” So these guys have got collateral in this town. They’re respected and part of Hollywood royalty. So that’s helped the show massively, to have those two big names. And now to have Shirley MacLaine in Season 3, another American icon legend… it’s just superb for the show. We’re just flattered that she came across to our little show on British TV. It’s superb to have her.

[Video: Watch the First Ten Minutes of 'Downton Abbey' Season 3]

With the show being so popular, do you ever have any big-name stars coming up to you saying they’d like to be on the show?

Gareth Neame, our executive producer, said there’s been a lot of offers of these big stars wanting to come on the show and do a cameo. But quite right, they’re very wary of it turning into some kind of sideshow. They’ll only let them on if they’re right for the role.

Shirley MacLaine plays Elizabeth McGovern’s mother; she’s this rich, eccentric American woman. Can you think of anyone better to play that part? [Laughs] She was perfect casting. Yeah, it’s great that she’s Shirley MacLaine, but she’s on the show because she fits that character. It’s not like, “Let’s get the biggest American name we can find and try to crowbar her into the show.” Downton’s under pressure; they might have lost all this money because his lordship made a couple of bad investments. And she’s the protector of Cora’s money, so she quite rightly and legitimately comes into the storyline.

And what a whirlwind… her scenes with Dame Maggie are unbelievable. It’s like a heavyweight slugfest: two screen icons slugging it out, one-liner after one-liner. Julian’s written brilliant scenes for them, and they were thrilling to watch live. It’s just like, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m here.”

So you got to be in scenes with the two of them?

I was privy to one. I was going to be filming the scene after, so I snuck in and had a little look on the monitors. Normally, there’s a little bit of whispers, people pointing at the screen about a costume misplaced or a light or something. But it literally just went deadly silent. People just sat back, crew and cast, and just admired this history taking place. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. You could hear a pin drop.

Thomas has been such a hateable character. Have you ever had a run-in with an angry viewer who wanted to take a swing at you?

No, no. [Laughs] Because it doesn’t matter if you play the villain; they love the show. Just because you’re attached to “Downton Abbey,” they love you anyway. A lot of people tell me they love to hate me. Because Thomas does all these horrible things, but he has these funny one-liners, too. But no, not any outright hatred or death threats. The great thing about doing period drama is people know it’s not real, because you’re in Edwardian costume and there’s no iPads. [Laughs] So people get that you’re an actor. But I do get some “boo, hiss” jokey stuff. I was out in London at a coffee bar, and there was a man with his kids who said, “Oh look out, children, there’s that nasty footman.” That kind of banter. But when I went to pay my bill, he had already paid for it. So it’s kind of cool, things like that.

Get a sneak peek at "Downton Abbey" Season 3 right here:

Season 3 of “Downton Abbey” premieres Sunday, 1/6 (check local listings) on PBS.