The highly successful and much talked-about drama series Downton Abbey is now in its sixth and final season – currently airing in the UK on September 20th on iTV, and then premiering in the U.S. on Masterpiece on PBS on January 3, 2016 – and millions of devoted viewers will finally learn the fate of its beloved characters. While story details always remain tightly kept secrets, this season is sure to be full of all the usual drama and intrigue, but with the added excitement of discovering how and where everyone ends up.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, conducted while the show was still filming, actor Hugh Bonneville (“Robert Crawley”) took some time to reflect on the experience of being a part of Downton Abbey and talked about why this is the right time to end the series, having loved every second of his journey on the show, what’s made this experience such a rare treat, what it’s been like to collaborate with show creator Julian Fellowes over the years, the theme of this season, the moments that most stand out for him, and jumping right back into work by shooting Viceroy’s House with Gillian Anderson.
Collider: After having had this be a part of your life for so long, did you have a moment where you’ve realized that this was really the last season?
HUGH BONNEVILLE: I suppose when we started saying goodbye to the regular and semi-regular cast. That was strange. The first time we actually said, “That’s a wrap on . . .,” that was weird. I thought, “It actually really is coming to an end.”
Were you dreading that moment for yourself?
BONNEVILLE: No. I’ve loved every second of it, but it’s just another job. Of course, I’ll be moved by its ending, but then I’ll just be looking for the next journey.
Do you like to jump right back into work?
BONNEVILLE: The day after we finish, I’m going off to India to do a movie with Gillian Anderson (called Viceroy’s House). Then, after that, I think I’ll take a couple of months off, which is something I’ve never, ever done. I’m quite tired, so it will be good. After six years of being on this particular train, it’s time to call a halt.
What’s the movie about?
BONNEVILLE: It’s about the partition of India in 1947. It was this tumultuous period when Lord Mountbatten, and she’s playing Lady Mountbatten, was the last Viceroy of India. Their job was to get the British out of India prior to independence. Neighbor turned on neighbor, and it was a firestorm waiting to happen. It’s all about that period of history.
When you do a show that’s as successful and popular as Downton Abbey has been, you want to go out on a high note. Would you have wanted to do more seasons, or do you feel like this is a good place to stop?
BONNEVILLE: No. We were all expecting to finish after Series 1, actually. And then, it got extended to Series 3, and that’s when two of our much loved and much missed friends left. And then, it was going to be done with Series 5, but Julian Fellowes said, “I’d like to do one more.” So it’s been a series of extensions, rather than wondering how much longer we can go on for.
Julian Fellowes has said that it’s not likely he’ll ever be involved with something this successful again. Do you feel the same way?
BONNEVILLE: None of us will. It’s never happened to me before, in my career, and never will again. It’s a one-off experience. It’s a rare treat to have a cast together for six years. Crews come and go, and a few of them have been there throughout, but not many. It’s rare, in my experience, after 26 years, to have had a proper company in a show that enjoys each other’s company, and who is such a fine bunch of people and actors. To have struck a chord with people, and to have had that combination, is extremely rare.
Was it amazing to not only see how popular this show got, but also how many people talked about it and referred to it in other TV shows and movies, and are you surprised that it’s still part of the conversation?
BONNEVILLE: It’s a strange thing. It will take me several years to understand that. We’re in the middle of it, and it’s like being in the middle of a whirlwind, where you’re not aware of its impact. Until I get to the periphery, and months have gone and past, I think I’ll realize what legacy it’s left. But at the moment, it’s just an exhausting six months, every year.
What’s it been like to collaborate with someone like Julian Fellowes?
BONNEVILLE: He doesn’t come to the set, except maybe once every six weeks, for whatever reason. He’s not a producer, in that sense. But if you write him a one-line question, he’ll write you a three-page answer. He’s extremely erudite and convinced about certain trajectories of characters and story and historical points that one might raise. I could email him about a word I didn’t think was right and he’ll justify it in several paragraphs. It’s a very healthy ping pong. We’ve had a really good discussion, over the years, about Robert, but 99% of it is from him.
Has this season felt different, going into it, knowing that it’s the last one? Were you given any extra information ahead of time?
BONNEVILLE: No, it was exactly the same. You have no idea what’s going to happen until you get the script. We roughly knew a couple of the key points that were going to happen, but when I got the last episode, I turned to the last page to check that I was still alive. And I still can’t reveal whether I am or not, but at least I know. I think the big change this year is that we all know that it’s the last one, so you can’t help but to inform everything you’re doing with that knowledge.
What can you say about your storyline this season?
BONNEVILLE: I think the belly dancing scene is going to really move people. But beyond that, I can’t really say much. It’s more of the same, but it’s different. It’s what everybody always wants. It’s funny. For the last episode, you’ll need some handkerchiefs. I needed handkerchiefs reading it. It wasn’t because it necessarily moved me while reading it, but it was the experience of reading it when I realized it was the last time I was ever going to be reading one of those scripts. That was quite terminal.
Julian Fellowes has said that the last season has a theme of resolution. Did it feel that way to you?
BONNEVILLE: I wouldn’t say resolution. I don’t think it’s resolved because life is never resolved. Certain stories that you want to see resolve in certain ways are, and some aren’t, but that’s life. I suppose the theme is that it’s the end of an era. This estate has to face an uncertain future, and that’s characterized in the first episode when a friend from across the county has to sell the family silver to keep going, which so many of these estates did. These estates started eating themselves and their land because that piece of land no longer brings an income. It spirals in on itself until you ultimately have to sell the house, and that is looming on the horizon.
Are you personally satisfied with how everything wraps up?
Were there moments, over the seasons of the show, that most stand out for you?
BONNEVILLE: We’ve had an awful lot of fun off camera. As a viewer watching it, I think the episode where Sybil died was very powerful, particularly in the UK because everyone in the US had already pirated it or read about it, so there was no surprise. But in the UK, that moment when it happened, it was astonishing amongst the viewers because they didn’t see it coming. That was very satisfying to have kept a secret. And Maggie Smith’s reaction to it, when she walks across the hallway on her own, and she falters for a moment so that you see this great woman fractured and then gathering her composure, I think it speaks volumes. Moments like that were very powerful. There are a couple of good ones in there, in the final season.
Are you surprised at how many secrets you’ve been able to keep with this show?
BONNEVILLE: It’s interesting because the press mainly want to destroy a program by revealing what’s coming up. For some reason, soaps like doing that. They reveal the plot a week in advance, certainly in Britain. I don’t know if it’s the same here. That’s an interesting thing. But in Britain, the press want to kill a show by revealing what’s coming up and spoiling the pleasure, so we’ve been quite lucky that, on the whole, we’ve been able to keep some secrets. And there’s been some speculation, when someone is spotted in costume. The nonsense that I’ve read about what’s happening in Season 6 is just wonderful.
Is there anything that you’d like to sneak away from the set with, or are you happy to leave Robert Crawley behind?
BONNEVILLE: No, I’m happy leaving him there. He can hang around in 1925.
Downton Abbey is now airing its final season on iTV, and on Masterpiece on PBS on January 3, 2016.