By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Production on the fourth season of the wildly popular British period soap opera “Downton Abbey” is under way, but show creator Julian Fellowes and some of the stars stole some time away from the set to talk about what TV viewers can expect now that two major characters were killed off in the third season finale.
Fellowes & Co. appeared recently on the red carpet at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to promote the third season as their peers contemplate this year’s primetime Emmy award nominations. The series, which airs on PBS in the U.S., already has raked in 27 nominations during its previous two seasons and won the Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries in 2011. The 65th Primetime Emmy nominations will be announced Thursday, July 18 in Los Angeles.
The Oscar-winning writer/show creator was practically beaming as he strolled the red carpet talking to reporters from around the world about the series, which has achieved both popular and critical acclaim for its depiction of Britain’s two-class system during the early part of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of a well-to-do family and its servants living in a stately country manor.
“What I love about the show, which I can’t explain, is that we don’t have an audience profile,” says Fellowes. “We play well to every group. Normally, they say, ‘this is doing well with women over 35,’ or whatever it is. We don’t have that. We have fans that are kids. We have old people. We have every ethnicity and all the religions. North and South. I don’t know why that is the case, but it’s a very nice feeling. “
Affirming its status as a pop culture phenomenon, “Downton Abbey” has been spoofed by everyone from Sean “P.Diddy” Combs to “Saturday Night Live” to Britain’s Comic Relief charity event to a cartoon in The New Yorker. Each season, the weekly hour-long drama seems to attract more and more fans.
Without giving too much away, Fellowes explains he’s written new story arcs for the cast, including suitors for the newly widowed Lady Mary Crawley, who lost her husband Matthew in a car accident at the end of last season. Additionally, he is introducing some new characters to shake things up at the manor house and some special guest stars will be stopping by.
“It’s fun to bring new people in,” he says. “But we also have all the characters that haven’t jumped ship. We have stories for all of them so all the old favorites have their moments.”
Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Grantham, was on hand for the promotional event, wearing an elegant navy blue cocktail dress. She recalls the past season where she became both a widow and a new mother as a “real roller-coaster” for her character.
“She has been through the mill,” says the pale brunette beauty, adding, “I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel for her, hopefully, in the presence of a new suitor. We’ll see what happens.”
A nearly bald Rob James-Collier, who plays bad-boy servant Thomas, says he is excited that while he will miss Siobhan Finneran (who played his partner-in-crime/co-worker Miss O’Brien) he has delighted to have a new maid to manipulate.
“Mr. Carson (played by Jim Carter) has brought onboard a lady who Thomas knows something she wants to keep secret about her background,” says James-Collier. “So he hoodwinks and bamboozles her. He’s obviously got a hold on her. He knows her secret, but we don’t know (yet) what it is. She’s his eyes and ears upstairs. Any hints of gossip, scandal, anything he can use for himself, she’s there as a spy upstairs for him. I’m sure it all will come out in the wash what the secret is but we’ll have to wait and see because I haven’t been given that script yet.”
Joanne Froggatt, who plays likeable maid Anna, is wearing a little black Missoni dress and Louboutin heels (a far cry from her frumpy servant attire on the show) for the event. She explains that she is a bit jet-lagged, having flown in from England the day before.
“We’re just over halfway through filming season four,” she says. “I’m back to work as soon as we get back home. We fly back tomorrow.”
The petite blond says she has come to realize not to be surprised by the developments the show has taken in its three seasons.
“It’s ever-evolving, ever-changing—that’s the process in every job,” she says. “It’s great to get new people in and new stories. It just opens new possibilities to see new storylines and things, so it’s great.”
Dockery says fans of the series will be pleased to see the characters go through new and interesting new crises and triumphs.
“Edith (played by Laura Carmichael) goes through an interesting journey,” she hints. “The beginning of the fourth (season) is very much about Mary’s kind of move, coming out with her grief. But it’s like it is every year. It’s about the whole thing. It’s about every character and what they’re going through. Matthew’s death has affected every single character in the house. (Manservant) Molesley is now out of a job, so it’s interesting to see what he goes through as a result of that storyline.”
Though James-Collier’s plotting Thomas got his comeuppance last season when he nearly lost his job after making a pass at a male co-worker, don’t expect him to be completely reformed in season four.
“It just made him take stock of his life,” the tall, blue-eyed actor says. “You can’t keep railing against the system. He could’ve gone to prison if he’d been outed in that way. There would have been the loss of reference and he’d never be able to work again. Because of that, somehow he got a promotion out of it—God knows how that happen—he kissed someone who was asleep against their will—and he ends up becoming the under-butler. How does that work? But he’s gotten where he wants to be, or near enough to where he wants to be, so I think he’s a bit more chilled out this year. He’s basically Thomas on Valium. (He chuckles.) He’s slightly less sinister. But he still has his spies. You don’t want to cross him because anyone who does has to pay the price.”
James-Collier says fans seem to have mixed feelings about his character’s arc in the last season.
“They thought he came out with a real dignity,” he says, smiling. “My favorite line is when Mr. Carson calls him ‘foul’ and Thomas responds, ‘I’m not foul, Mr. Carson. I’m not like you. I’m not foul.’ That resonated with people that he wasn’t ashamed of who he was. He’s quite modernistic in his thinking. I’ve had some people come up to me lately and say, ‘I hate (Thomas) even more now.’ And I go, ‘Why?’ And they say, ‘Because you made me cry for him, which makes me hate him even more’.”
It’s all in a day’s work, though, for the young actor, who is the father of a young son.
“Julian (Fellowes) is doing his job,” he says of the plot twists and turns. “I’m just saying his words. The rest of it looks after itself.”
For Froggatt, whose celebrity has gone global with the success of “Downton Abbey,” the experience has been humbling.
“I don’t feel like a rock star but it’s lovely that we always get a warm reception,” she says. “ We do genuinely get a positive reception from people, which is just fantastic because it doesn’t always happen. I’m just really grateful for that; I think we all are that people have taken us to their hearts. “
After killing off Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and writing out Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) last season, we had to ask Fellowes, is anyone safe at “Downton Abbey?”
“I don’t want to give anything away,” the scribe says with a chuckle. “I think with what happened last season, it was much more interesting than just having everyone happy. I know there are lots of people that would prefer it to be less interesting and happier, though.”