BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – You could never tell by looking at this dapper Englishman who plays the stalwart Earl of Grantham on “Downton Abbey,” but when he was 7 years old Hugh Bonneville hurled a sledgehammer through the family’s kitchen window.
It was not indicative of things to come, Bonneville insists. “I’m not prone to temper tantrums. I used to be a bad sulker. We’re not a shouty family, and nowadays I can forgive, but I don’t forget,” he says. “I’m a Scorpio. If you have a go at a Scorpio, they can get you back sometime,” he laughs, easing into a wing-chair in a hotel meeting room here.
The occasion of the sledgehammer was prompted by his older sister’s teasing. “She was annoying me. So I chased her through the garden, and she went back inside, shut the kitchen door and went, ‘Nah, nah’ through the kitchen window. And I saw a sledgehammer and popped it through the window. Cut to my dad chasing me round the garden and I got a big smacked bottom. That changed my life. That was a big lesson.”
Bonneville has been acting for 26 years, but it took the mysterious alchemy of an absorbing script, astute producers and the dream cast of “Downton Abbey” to elevate him to star status. That doesn’t really matter because, like every actor, Bonneville says he still worries where the next job is coming from.
“‘Downton Abbey’ is a hugely popular show and I love it, but it will end at some point and then I need to find work. We’re all waiting for hire,” he says.
He didn’t always want to be an actor. At one point, Bonneville desperately longed to be a lawyer.
“For a long time in my late teens I thought I wanted to be a barrister, a lawyer. I even went so far as to shadow a barrister in the courts for a few days and ended up getting so excited about it and thinking where do I sign up? The best advice I was given by this senior lawyer – he said, ‘Look, you haven’t even gone to university yet, just calm down and come back and see me in four years time and I’ll bet you won’t want to be a lawyer.’
“I said, ‘No, I will. I WILL.’ He said, ‘Just go and have some fun, and do your plays.’ That was the best advice, because I realized that really what I was enjoying was the theatricality of the courtroom. I would’ve been a terrible advocate thinking on my feet. I can improvise in a rehearsal situation, but when someone’s liberty is at stake or a point of law – I saved the legal profession from a lot of headaches.”
The phenomenal success of “Downton Abbey” surprised everyone, and fans are hotly awaiting the premiere of Season 3 on PBS stations tonight (Channel 17 at 9 p.m.). “I’ve not been in a show that’s had the impact ‘Downton Abbey’ has had around the world,” says Bonneville, 49.
“But the work is the same discipline, and I have the same approach to the work as I do with any other project. For the show to have it hit in a way we all find overwhelming, in a lovely way, is quite humbling, really. Because most of the time it doesn’t happen.”
He says it has changed his life in a peculiar way. “Getting through customs is harder now. They think, ‘Oh, you think you’re so-and-so,’ so they give me a bit of a hard time. They check far more thoroughly than ever before. Just coming here yesterday at Heathrow they had to empty everything out of my bag. It’s great because I found a pen I’ve been missing. It’s a privilege to be so thoroughly searched,” he grins.
While he’s no daredevil, Bonneville admits that he loves the challenge of performing a role to which he feels inadequate. “But that’s thrilling when you’re sent a script or invited to audition for a project and you think, ‘I can’t do this. It’s outside my range, my compass.’ And when they say, ‘Well, you’re going to play the part,’ you get terribly nervous. And then you raise your game. If you do manage to do it with any degree of credibility, then you think, ‘Maybe I have gotten better.’
“A couple of projects I thought, ‘No one is going to cast me in this.’ ‘Daniel Deronda,’ Tom Hooper, who directed ‘The King’s Speech’ directed that and cast me. I loved it because it wasn’t the sort of part I played before. Similarly in ‘Iris’ with Kate Winslet. I thought it was way out of my league and ability. I didn’t pull it off, but it’s something I’m proud of. So occasionally something comes along where you think, ‘Oh, I can’t do this.’ And they’re received OK and you think, ‘Well, maybe I can.’”