The New Faces Of Downton Abbey: A New Era | FilmInk

Set in 1928, Downton Abbey: A New Era heralds the much-anticipated cinematic return of this global phenomenon, reuniting the beloved cast as they go on a grand journey to the South of France to uncover the mystery of the Dowager Countess’s (Dame Maggie Smith) newly inherited villa.

With half the cast sunning themselves on the Riviera, Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary Crawley holds the fort at Downton as the aristocratic family seat reluctantly opens its doors to a film crew from the Silent Era. Naturally, the “downstairs” characters are delighted by this new development while “upstairs” must grin and bear it as a necessity given Downton’s crumbling disrepair; this new influx of film money will pave the way for the future.

Directed by Simon Curtis from a script by award-winning Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, this new iteration was filmed during the pandemic, and hopes to offer an incentive for pandemic-weary audiences to return to the cinema. Reuniting all the series’ regulars – beloved over six seasons and one previous film – Downton Abbey: A New Era also welcomes a trio of newcomers in the glamorous form of Laura Haddock and Dominic West’s fabulous movie stars, Myrna Dalgleish and Guy Dexter, with Hugh Dancy playing the silent film’s director, Jack Barber.

FilmInk chats to Downton’s new faces…

Dominic West and Hugh Dancy in Downton Abbey: A New Era.

How was it to be newcomers on this set?

Dominic West: “I was totally terrified. It’s so iconic when you go up there and see the old castle which I didn’t know was real, actually. My first scene was with most of the family, and it was terrifying. I couldn’t get my lines out. I couldn’t remember them. I was blushing. I was sweating. I hadn’t really experienced that before, not since I was starting out, so that was initially quite frightening. But it’s an incredibly good group of people who all know each other really well, so it quickly relaxes you, and everyone’s having a laugh really.”

Laura Haddock: “It was just the best set to be welcomed onto. They’re all great and they know each other so well and it’s really friendly and silly and mischievous. But Hugh Bonneville [Lord Grantham] said to me, ‘This is one of the most relaxed sets, Laura. It’s great here. Julian Fellowes is really easy going, and if you ever want to ad lib or warm up the script or whatever, you can. He’s really encouraging of that.’ So, obviously, I’m sat next to Hugh at a big dinner table with the whole cast thinking this is quite alright and that must be true. And so, in the next take, I just added little bits and bobs. But Hugh was an absolute joker because that is not how this set works. You do not ad lib. He was so naughty, and set it up as being a really relaxing environment, and then I was on tenterhooks…he was very naughty!”

Hugh Dancy: “The experience was great from start to finish. I didn’t know what it was going to be like because, obviously, almost everybody else has been doing this for a long time and I knew they would be a tight-knit group. But they welcomed us with open arms and it was very easy.”

Michelle Dockery and Hugh Dancy in Downton Abbey: A New Era.

How did you find the chemistry between your director character Jack Barber and Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary?

Hugh Dancy: “Michelle and I and Simon, our director, had an hour or something and we just quickly read through our scenes and I said, ‘Oh, you’re going to do it like that?’ And then we were filming it. It’s pretty much laid out in the script. Julian’s scripts are really tight. Everything you need is in there, and then you just hope you can bring something else as well.”

How was the filming of the film within a film, and how surreal is it to be at the centre of two crews – one real and one fake?

Laura Haddock: “It was silly at times and really fun. We did get the giggles a lot.”

Dominic West: “The old technology was quite interesting. I loved it. It was fascinating how the sound man is the most important person in the room, including all the stars and everything. And it was hilarious, the whole sort of meta thing, when you’re self-referential. I remember when I first read it, I thought this was Julian’s chance to sort of vent his spleen about whatever different actors he might have worked with.”

Laura Haddock: “And Maggie Smith has a great line in the movie where she says, ‘Why would you want to be an actor? I’d rather work down the mines’, or something like that. It’s just so funny being stood on a set, all of us actors, with Maggie Smith saying that to you, whilst being an actor playing an actor. So there are lots of fun, little twisty moments like that.”

Kevin Doyle and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey: A New Era.

How was it playing a director, while being directed?

Hugh Dancy: “It was confusing and interesting because Simon [Curtis], was directing me as a director. He was also directing his own wife, Elizabeth McGovern, so it was all a complicated swirl. I particularly enjoyed, while playing a director, watching him giving notes to his own wife. I thought: That’s interesting, and complicated. But I loved it. I actually don’t have any massive ambition to be a director, which is a question that actors get asked sometimes. I happen to like being an actor. So acting as a director was just enough for me.”

Were you thinking about any particular director when you were playing your character?

Hugh Dancy: “I wasn’t and, if I did, I probably wouldn’t say. But I wasn’t because that style of directing was so different. Particularly at the beginning when there’s no sound; we’re making a silent movie. I did particularly enjoy those scenes where, as they would have done, I was standing behind the camera and just narrating the thing and shouting at the actors, ‘Kiss her!’ and so on.”

How did you get on with the actors who were playing your actors, as it were, that you were having to direct? Did you develop a separate kind of relationship with them because of that?

Hugh Dancy: “Dom and Laura? No, I did not…my screaming at them and telling them what to do did not bleed over at all. I don’t think that would wash with either of those people…not at all!”

The movie within a movie is fun to watch. What research did you do into the silent movie era and moving into the talkies, as we see in this film?

Dominic West: “I didn’t really know the period much at all in terms of Hollywood. I always thought a lot of actors of my vintage, when we went from England to America, that we were pioneers in that way, starting out on American telly and all that. And, of course, it was not true at all. They were doing that right from the start in Hollywood, and there’s a brilliant book by Sheridan Morley called The Hollywood Raj about all those English actors like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. My character is based on Roland Coleman, and all these English actors who went out to Hollywood and made their names and were huge in the 20s and 30s. But with many of those early actors, you’ve never heard their names, because they’re largely forgotten. And I found that quite reassuring that most actors are forgotten quite soon after they’ve been these massive stars. It was a really interesting period, and I didn’t know how much Hollywood was indebted to English theatre and music hall and vaudeville and all that. I knew about Charlie Chaplin, but it’s a fascinating period: the birth of Hollywood and how much the Brits had to do with that.”

Laura Haddock and Michael Fox in Downton Abbey: A New Era.

Laura, your character of icy movie star Myrna Dalgleish is perhaps the most complicated because she is unlikable at times. How did you approach that?

Laura Haddock: “Behind the scenes, she’s going through an enormous amount. So I held on tight to the reality of this woman’s life, which looked very different from the life that she had. And I wanted that change to be quite significant, like when she has the conversation with Anna Bates [Joanne Froggatt] and has some home truths told to her. Then you start to break down a person and realise that everybody is so multi-layered, and then that offered up a space where she could speak and tell the truth and have a really honest conversation about how terrified she was. When people are scared, they often ramp up whatever their particular emotional response is to a situation, and hers was being demanding and diva-ish and rude. And that’s what she was leaning into because she was scared.”

Did you research any actresses transitioning from the silent pictures into the talkies?

Laura Haddock: “It’s really tricky to talk about without really going into the minutiae of it, because it’s very intricate, and there’s a real play on finding her voice. That was a big thing throughout this whole filming process with Myrna. It was my headline – finding her voice – and I think a lot of actresses went through this at the end of the 20s. There were actresses whose first language wasn’t English, so moving out of silent movies into a different era of filmmaking was almost impossible; it was terrifying. Myrna feels like she has a little bit of impostor syndrome, which made her even more forthcoming and bolshie and outspoken. But her being outspoken was the thing she was most terrified of being, so it was a real double edged sword with her. So the journey I went on in finding her voice was really interesting. How you sound is how you feel on the inside. It affects everything, about where you’ve come from; what your past is; what your story is. It affects everything.”

Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Carmichael in Downton Abbey: A New Era.

What was the best new skill you learned playing your role in this film?

Dominic West: “Gambling? Wielding a croquet mallet maybe? I didn’t have to do much except swan around and try to look nice. I’ve been doing that for thirty years!”

Laura Haddock: “Balancing that wig on my head? I had a very tall wig.”

The costumes are fantastic. Any favourites? Like Laura’s incredible blue coat that you arrive in?

Laura Haddock: “Oh, yeah. Love that blue coat. We really wanted Myrna to stand out and be a completely different colour palette from the other women in the film, and so we played with those ice blues, lilacs and pinks; just kind of popping all of that and then with her very peroxide, blonde hair as well. It was a very contrasting image. Anna’s team built a lot of those dresses from scratch so I went in for hundreds of fittings, just tweaking and building with all bustles and corsets. I think one of my costumes had about seven or eight layers of skirt and bustle and bracket and dress and corsets.”

Dominic West: “It was just heaven, but there was more because Guy is from Hollywood where they had relaxed all the formal English Edwardian look, so I was all in beige/camel and lovely creams and just those wonderful cricket whites and stuff. I loved that. What a gorgeous time.”

Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey: A New Era.

What effect do you think your character has on some of the characters that we know so well from Downton Abbey? Because obviously this is a bit of a change in mood when a movie is being made?

Dominic West: “Yes, very much so. I sweep all of them off their feet! They’re astonished at the glamour which they’re used to in a sort of English way but they’re not used to the Hollywood glamour. That’s what our two characters bring to Downton. It’s a whole new world and slightly more relaxed and a more democratic glamour that, certainly for my character, has amorous results and implications. I don’t know what I can say really? But he falls in love and it’s really exciting and quite unexpected…”

What were your most memorable moments from this set?

Hugh Dancy: “The thing that really struck home for me was, because of the timing, it had been a while since I’ve worked at all. It had certainly been quite a long time since I’ve worked in England on this kind of a project, in period costume. And obviously it doesn’t get much more iconic than this. It was incredible to find myself in the side drawing room, when we weren’t even filming, with all these people who, in their own rights, are iconic as these characters that I’ve admired for decades honestly. And then I realised that they were all just gossiping and playing games on their phone and showing photos of their kids. It was really moving for me honestly, and very moving to feel part of it.”

Laura Haddock: “There was a general sense of everybody being so grateful to be back at work. And, for us, schedules can get really tough sometimes and you can get a little bit whingey at times about the intensity of the schedules but, on this job, we were so grateful that we could have worked for hours. Just to be back at work, with sets all up and running. Yes, we had all the COVID rules and regulations, but you would do anything to get back to making a film again because we hadn’t done it for so long. So we just all came back together and we were on a high, just like kids at drama school, rehearsing a play and putting it on and everyone’s gonna come see it. It was nice to feel that giddiness again because you can take it for granted but actually, what we do is so much fun.”

Dominic West: “For me, it was working with Maggie Smith. I sat next to her around that famous table for two or three days and got to chat to her and listen to her hilarious jokes and sly remarks. And, at one point, she says that she’s gonna throw in the towel. She said, ‘That’s it. I’m not going to do it anymore.’ And I said, ‘What? Acting?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, no more acting.’ And I said, ‘Theatre as well?’ And she said, ‘I’m not doing theatre either, and this will be my last job.’ That was incredibly emotional. And actually, I was in the scene that she shot last in the show and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m witnessing history here.’ And it was incredibly emotional and I was talking to her afterwards in the makeup trailer and it was very moving that this great, great actress wasn’t going to act anymore. And then I went back the following week, and I said, ‘It’s so sad that Maggie is not making any more films.’ They said, ‘That’s nonsense! She’s booked another film! She starts next week!’”

Lesley Nicol and Sophie McShera in Downton Abbey: A New Era.

Why do you think audiences love Downton Abbey so much, and are anticipating this new film so much?

Hugh Dancy: “For people who have been following the series for so long, it’s reassuring, right? It’s something that they’ve known for longer than this pandemic, and that’s meaningful.”

Dominic West: “Coming after lockdown, I sort of look nostalgically back at the early 2000s as an age of innocence almost – before Trump and COVID and Ukraine and everything. It’s so nice to have this family from that time come back to you and sort of give you a hug and say, ‘Everything’s going to be alright.’”

Downton Abbey: A New Era is released in cinemas on April 28. Click here for our review.

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