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.