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The Cast of Downton Abbey Reverses Their Signature Roles

Castmates Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Joanne Froggatt, and Sophie McShera flip the script on their traditional roles to welcome September’s much anticipated Downton Abbey movie.

At a stuccoed country house location in the middle of West London, the world of Downton Abbey is being turned upside down. “Oh, I could get used to this,” says Sophie McShera, a.k.a. kitchen maid turned cook Daisy Mason, as she lounges on a velvet sofa in pink organza Dolce & Gabbana, while a toned-down Elizabeth McGovern, a.k.a. Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, serves tea. “I’m usually carrying trays and wearing a gray sack!”

Next door, in another ornately appointed room, Michelle Dockery, a.k.a. Lady Mary Crawley, has stepped into the shoes of her trusted lady’s maid, Anna Bates, while Joanne Froggatt, the actress who plays her, ponders which designer shoes to wear. “After so many years of playing Lady Mary, it was fun to switch roles and play a maid for Bazaar,” says Dockery. “Anna waited on Lady Mary so faithfully over the years—dressing her, mending her clothes, and brushing her hair. It was nice to be able to wait on Jo for a change.”

Playful giggles ring out around the set. After six seasons, three Golden Globe Awards, 15 Primetime Emmys, and a Guinness World Record (for the most critically acclaimed TV show of all time), these Downton girls are loving every minute of their “school reunion.” It’s fun, they say, to swap their usual roles. “We know our characters like old friends,” says Froggatt, laughing at the memory of stepping back into the very same maid’s outfit she thought she had taken off for the last time four years ago as she prepared for filming. “The real challenge,” adds McGovern, whose real-life regal poise does not disappoint, “has always been trying to keep the characters fresh.”

One year on from where the series left off, Downton Abbey promises to give us everything we want, and more. “I think of the movie as ‘Downton Plus,’” says the show’s writer and creator, Julian Fellowes—“bigger, better, brighter.”

It is 1927, and a royal visit to Downton is in the offing. But when a letter is received announcing the imminent arrival of King George V and Queen Mary (grandparents of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II), the household—still dealing with the aftereffects of the Great War—is thrown into a panic. Will Lady Mary, now in charge, manage to persuade Carson, the family’s beloved butler (played by Jim Carter), to come out of retirement for the grand event, and will he alone be enough to ensure that it goes off without a hitch?

“If anything, we had even more fun making the film than we did making the series,” says McShera, who is as close to Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), or “TV Mother,” as she calls her, off-screen as she is on. “We all just laughed all the time.” Particularly amusing to the “downstairs” gang were the perks of a cinematic budget. “One day we found ourselves shooting a scene in this amazing wine cellar,” McShera recalls. “We knew there was a wine cellar because we’d always talked about it on the show, but none of us had ever actually seen it!

Brushing up on their serving etiquette was one of the main challenges for the downstairs cast—remembering which scone you put on which tray when you said which word, says McShera. While upstairs, all of the spoken and unspoken rules of the large banquets had to be recalled.

“There were a lot more big, grueling set pieces for the movie,” says McGovern, herself an American who, by virtue of her real-life marriage to an Englishman, the director and producer Simon Curtis, has spent decades adjusting to English ways. The main issue for her was mastering an extremely deep, dramatic curtsy for the king and queen. “It was very Royal Shakespeare Company,” she says. “And challenging for my hips.” Thankfully for the cast, Major General Alastair Bruce, the royal equerry in charge of historical accuracy and etiquette, was on hand to advise on every tiny detail: which door to open, which fork to use, which chair to sit on and how.

The greatest luxury of making a movie, as opposed to a TV series, is that of time. “When we were making the series, two hours of TV would be shot in four weeks, whereas on the film we had nine weeks,” explains Froggatt. Combined with the efforts taken to elevate Downton to the big screen—more lighting, more extras, more elegance—that meant they had several hours between takes every day just hanging out with old friends.

“We are like a big family,” Dockery says. For her, the high point of filming was when she and her onscreen sister Laura Carmichael (Edith Pelham, Marchioness of Hexham), with whom she “grew up” in life as well as in art, chose to travel together to a new location shoot by train, rather than in separate chauffeur-driven cars so they could “share a bottle of wine and a laugh” along the way.

For the show’s producers, Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge, the biggest hurdle was reassembling a cast whose post-Downton careers, almost without exception, have gone from strength to strength. Just today, McGovern will head straight to London’s West End from the photo shoot, where she has been starring opposite Matthew Broderick in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Starry Messenger; Froggatt recently wrapped up the second season of Liar, the critically acclaimed British series that first aired on SundanceTV in 2017; and McShera will appear opposite Dev Patel in the upcoming movie The Personal History of David Copperfield. Meanwhile, Dockery is about to complete filming on the Apple TV+ adaptation of William Landay’s crime thriller Defending Jacob, in which she stars alongside Chris Evans.

“Happily for me, the task of coordinating availability bought me time to get the script right,” Fellowes says. “Film and television are entirely different beasts,” he adds. “With a series you can stretch story lines over several episodes—Mary’s got a new boyfriend, there’s trouble on the farm, Daisy’s bought a new hat, and so on—but with a film you need a kind of unity. Not only must each and every story line be resolved within a two-hour time frame, you also have to come up with a central event that’s going to affect everyone.”

With the arrival of the royals and their entourage, there will also be new characters to enjoy. JimCarsonCarter’s real-life wife, Imelda Staunton, joins as Lady Bagshaw, while Simon Jones (Brideshead Revisited) and Geraldine James (The Jewel in the Crown) take on the roles of King George and Queen Mary, with David Haig (Killing Eve) as their butler.

“There is a very, very high level of expectation to meet, manage, and satisfy,” says Fellowes, with more than a hint of trepidation. But enough time has elapsed for audiences to feel ready to be reunited with the characters they have come to know as friends. And three years on from Donald Trump’s election and the U.K.’s Brexit decision, a warming dose of Downton may just be the tonic we all need. “There is a certain dependability about Downton,” notes Fellowes, who does not rule out the possibility of a follow-up. “In a world that is lacking in certainty, I hope that, for the price of a cinema ticket, viewers will get two hours of comfort and reassurance in return. A bit of a rest from the whirlpool. If we have managed that—and I dare to hope that we have—then I think we will all feel that we have succeeded.”

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