Downton Abbey: A New Era is a movie that is essentially divided into two parts. In it, several members of the Crawley family visit the French Riviera to try and uncover why matriarch Violet (Maggie Smith) has been left an enormous villa by a recently deceased marquis, while the rest remain at the titular estate and try to keep out of the way of the production crew that’s hired out Downton as the set of its silent film.
Between locations, it manages to juggle a crazy amount of characters, with almost all of its cast reprising their roles from the show and its big-screen predecessor, and newbies Hugh Dancy, Dominic West and Laura Haddock joining in on the fun – and boy, is it fun.
Offering up a whole bunch of laugh-out-loud moments, writer Julian Fellowes – who created the original series – proves he’s just as adept at splitting sides as he is splitting plot lines. And according to its stars, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Raquel Cassidy, and Dancy, all of whom Total Film recently sat down with, that was evident from their very first read-throughs of Downton Abbey: A New Era’s “very funny” script.
During our chat, the foursome also talked about the delights of filming a film within a film, Lady Mary’s “lovely” relationship with Dancy’s new character Jack Barber, and how envious the actors who had to stay in the UK were of those who got to sun themselves at the Villa Rocabella for 10 days…
TF: As actors, what was your favourite part about filming a film within a film? I thought Kevin, you could start us off, because your character Molesley was the most excited about the movie being made at Downton.
Kevin Doyle: It was learning about how it was done. I hadn’t realised how precarious the business was and how quickly it changed from the world of making silent movies to the need to change them into talkies. That was part of it I hadn’t realised – how desperate things were. There’s a sequence in the script, certainly, where your characters, Michelle and Hugh, go to the cinema, and it was a silent film, right? There’s an enormous, long queue to see the talkie. I hadn’t realised that aspect of film history, so that was fascinating. Watching them doing the film within a film was just such a joy to watch, too, actually. Watching Dom and Laura “doing the acting” was just so gloriously over the top.
Were there any particular challenges with the film stuff? I remember Simon Curtis, the director, saying that he would sometimes mix up pretend crew members with real ones, and things like that.
Michelle Dockery: Ha! That’s brilliant. Sometimes when Hugh yelled cut, I would get confused as to who was saying it, the real director or Hugh. So that was quite funny at times, and not knowing what equipment was the modern equipment and what were props. Some of it actually looked quite similar, didn’t it?
Raquel Cassidy: Some of it’s moved on massively, hasn’t it? It’s shrunk, whereas some other things haven’t moved on at all.
Doyle: I love that the sound was recorded on a record player. That was wonderful.
Downton has always had its lighter moments, but I was really struck by how funny the film was. I laughed out loud a lot. Did that stand out to you guys when you read the script? And I was wondering, Michelle, were you particularly tickled by the fact that Mary’s voice and posh accent became a part of the plot, without giving too much away, as you must have had so many people over the years say, “Oh, you don’t sound anything like Lady Mary.”
Dockery: Definitely. That part of the story was really surprising and really funny. I mean, I think you’re right, when I read the script for the first time, I thought, “This is the funniest I’ve ever seen Downton get.” I mean, you know, there are moments in it that are funny, of course, throughout the show. But this is very funny, and I personally love all this stuff with Carson and him being so reluctant to change, and how much he hates the house being invaded by actors and crew.
It’s just really amusing seeing the characters being forced into something that they’re maybe not comfortable with, but Mary sort of embraces it. I think she quite enjoys it. She always does that thing where she’s like, “Oh, god, how do I get myself these things?” and rolls her eyes, and then she actually really enjoys it. I love that side of her, when she sort of pretends she’s so over it but she loves it! It’s something very different for her. Jack and her have this connection very early on and they become, like, these brilliant business partners. She almost becomes like a producer on the film and it’s a lovely relationship, and something quite new for Mary, so I love that.
I’ve heard over the years that things can often get quite giggly on set. Did you struggle to keep a straight face with all the jokes that were in there this time around?
Dockery: I mean, it’s always hard to keep a straight face with Maggie [Smith] because she’s so funny. She’s as witty as Lady Violet. So, yeah, there were definitely some moments. Kevin always really makes me laugh. It’s often the biggest challenge of Downton, trying not to giggle.
Cassidy: It’s so playful too, isn’t it? You’re always looking for that… thing. So if you’re on the edge of giggling, it’s probably because you’re really doing it, you know?
Hugh, you’re the newbie in A New Era. What was it like joining the family?
Hugh Dancy: It was very easy to be the newbie. They were very generous and they really welcomed me in.
Most of your scenes are with Michelle as Mary, but if you could have worked with another of the original cast members, who would have been your number one pick?
Dancy: Lucky enough, I had a scene or two with Maggie, so I ticked that box, so to speak. I worked with Hugh [Bonneville] a long time ago, a couple of times, and I would have loved to have had a couple more scenes with him for old time’s sake.
Raquel, while these guys were making a film at Downton, you were shooting the more mysterious side of the plot in the French Riviera, what was that like?
Cassidy: It was absolutely stunning, really beautiful, but also a lovely way to end the shoot because we had to be locked down in this gorgeous hotel, which had a view of the sea. We had our own pool and, you know, cast and crew all together for 10 days just hanging out together? It was really gorgeous. Yeah.
TF: Were the rest of you jealous that half of the team got to go out to France, while you had to stay in the UK?
Dockery: I was very envious of those beautiful views and the pictures they would send us while they were there looked gorgeous.
TF: Oh, guys… you were dropping photos on the Downton WhatsApp?!
Cassidy: It’s got to be done, hasn’t it?
Dockery: Oh, I wanted to see. I wanted to sort of feel like I was there, so I told them to send me pictures. We should have gone for a holiday, actually, and just joined everyone.
Cassidy: I think if it hadn’t been for the fact that we were locked down as cast and crew. I think there was a chance that, for that last weekend, they would have got us all together and that would have absolutely been the icing on the cake. We’ll have to wait for the next movie.
Dockery: In the Bahamas.
So, the family and some of the staff go to France to try and learn more about Violet’s history, and why she’s been left this lavish villa. It’s interesting that this film is called A New Era, and yet is very much about the past. There are lots of mentions of Mary’s late husband Matthew and Sybil, and other moments from the series. What was it like to revisit all that through the script?
Dockery: I think [writer] Julian [Fellowes] always likes to remind the audience you know, of those characters that were so integral to the story. I think it’s very true to life, isn’t it? The past sometimes informs the present, and I think it’s something that he does in every story actually. It’s like you never forget them.
Dancy: It really speaks to family, doesn’t it? You move forward. You can move into a new era, or a new part of your life, but the past is always with you.
While some of the gang go off to France, Mary is left in charge of the estate, what does her time flying solo teach her about herself? I love the parallels here between what’s happening to Mary in the present, and what was happening to Violet in the time period that the others are trying to piece together. Did you feel daunted being the only member of the Crawley clan at Highclere Castle?
Dockery: Yeah, I did. It was really different this time around for me because you know, normally, I do a lot of scenes with Laura Carmichael and Hugh and Elizabeth [McGovern]. But I figured that that’s how it would feel for Mary. So it was sort of right that, you know, she has kind of left to deal with all of this – again, something that she rolls her eyes at, but actually I think she quite quite enjoys it. Everyone leaves and then she can just control everything and do what she likes.
I think she’s really embracing her responsibilities and she’s a very different woman from the person that we met at the beginning, in series one, and she’s enjoying that role.
I don’t want to give too much away but there’s a moment towards the end of the film where the Downton staff get to experience how the other half live. How fun was that to shoot?
Doyle: It was really great. It’s the first time in 12 years that I’ve managed to sit at that table. Normally I’m sort of stood behind it, so it was lovely.
Cassidy: It was funny because the characters are dead excited about it but, I think, we as actors were dead excited, too. There were definitely some parts where there was no acting required. It was really delicious and it was towards the end of our shoot together. Hugh sent a beautiful picture of us as we’re waiting to come on. It was just really exciting. The sense of play in that scene is really reflective of how we were all feeling.
Now, Kevin, Molesley is often the go-to comic relief but he’s no bumbling fool. He became a schoolmaster in the series, and he turns out to be quite the gifted screenwriter in this. If you were to make a third film, what surprisingly useful skill would you want it to reveal he has?
Dockery: Champion figure skater!
Dancy: Heavyweight boxer.
Doyle: I’m kind of batting for the next project to be Downton on Ice. I’d like to see that. There could be a lovely dream sequence. You, Michelle, and the ghost of Matthew? Reunited on ice?
Dockery: It’d be beautiful!
Doyle: Or a comic scene in the kitchen with Mrs. Patmore trying to cook an egg on ice.
Dockery: You heard it here first.
There’s a lovely scene in one of the France sequences where Phyllis finally opens up about her feelings for Molesley. What do you think it is about him that she loves so much?
Cassidy: Oh, my goodness. I mean, well, from the beginning he was her knight in shining armour. He’s a truly noble human being. I think she, you know, she loves his mind. He is intelligent, and he cares about things and has enthusiasm for life and the world. I think she’s seen by him as well. It’s quite easy to not see Phyllis Baxter because she is very much a team player and she wants to help other people do what they do, particularly Lady Cora, but he sees her. To be seen and to see someone as beautiful and noble as he is? That’s kind of what dreams are made of.
Much like the first film, A New Era wraps things up neatly but open enough that more story could be told. Would you be keen to do a third one if the opportunity arises?
One last question. Given the plot of the movie, I wanted to ask what some of your favourite films about making films are? So there are things like Singin’ in the Rain, Ed Wood, The Disaster Artist…
Dancy: Living in Oblivion. Everybody’s in it. It’s kind of an indie movie about making an indie movie specifically, so they’ve got no money, it’s a disaster from start to finish. It’s hysterical.
Doyle: The Player? That’s a good one.
Dockery: There’s one that’s coming out now that I really want to watch. It’s about people shooting something during COVID. It’s on Netflix, and it’s meant to be really funny?
TF: The Bubble?
Dockery: That’s it. The Bubble. I’m really interested to see that!
Downton Abbey: A New Era is in UK cinemas now, and will be released in the US on May 20. If you want to see what other titles are due to come out in 2022, then check out our list of upcoming movies, and get planning those future cinema trips.