How is it possible that “Downton Abbey” has launched the prolific careers of Dan Stevens, Lily James, and Rose Leslie, while also introducing a new generation to the pleasures of Maggie Smith, Shirley MacLaine, and Richard E. Grant? Americans had been blind to Britain’s deep well of acting talent for years, but something about this window into the British class system via the lives of an aristocratic family and their domestic servants struck a chord with our otherwise inferior taste.
Lord Julian Fellowes, writer and creator of “Downton,” began his career as an actor; he played opposite Anthony Hopkins in “Shadowlands,” featured in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jane Eyre,” and even makes an appearance in the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies.” He credits this experience with instilling in him an ear for dialogue and penchant for character-driven narrative, but clearly there is something more going on. As a producer on “Downton” (including the upcoming movie) as well as projects like “The Chaperone,” he has some jurisdiction over casting. Judging by the Hollywood careers sown from his work, the Lord clearly has an eye for talent.
“I always take a great interest in the casting,” Fellowes told IndieWire during a recent phone interview. “Casting is one of the areas where I know that my scripts will live or die by who is cast in them, so I do take the greatest interest in that.”
The recent trend in Hollywood is to write your own material and parlay that into an acting career, such as Kumail Nanjiani or the “Broad City” duo. But Fellowes went the other way. While his extensive stage and screen experience influenced his writing, he also writes with a grand respect and admiration for the work of actors, which might explain how he’s been able to lure so many good ones to his projects.
“Working as an actor apart from anything else gives you a good ear for dialogue. One of the things that actors instinctively and immediately pick up when they open a script is whether the dialogue is sayable or not, and I think that did set me up to write dialogue,” Fellowes said. “I also am unashamedly a believer in actors. Everything I write is about character narrative… about the people in the story and their emotional journeys… and I think that does come from having an actor’s viewpoint.”
It was the Lady of “Downton Abbey” herself, Elizabeth McGovern, who first floated the idea for his latest film, “The Chaperone.” Set in the 1920s, the film follows silent film star Louise Brooks’ move to New York City when she was just a teenager. Based on a historical fiction novel by Laura Moriarty, the story melds fact and fiction by extemporizing the role of Brooks’ chaperone, a married woman who escorted her to New York, but about whom not much else is known. McGovern plays the chaperone, here named Norma, opposite Haley Lu Richardson’s flirty take on Louise Brooks. As for his connection to the bob-touting actress, Fellowes had one longstanding association.
“I have always been very aware of Louise Brooks, because when my mother was very young she was often mistaken for Louise Brooks because she had the same hairstyle,” he said. “So people would come up to her and say, ‘Oh, Ms. Brooks, will you sign my something,’ and at the beginning she always used to say, ‘No, I’m not Louise Brooks,’ but after a bit she got bored with that, and so she just used to sign it, ‘With all my love, Louise Brooks.’ So somewhere in various cinema museums over the world is my mother’s signature sitting there instead of Louise Brooks’.”
While the stories of “Downton” and “Gosford Park,” his most successful film, were entirely inventions of his own imagination, adapting a novel posed different challenges. “Whenever you adapt anything, you’re looking for the film. Almost any novel could yield two or three different sorts of films, and you have to at some point make a decision as to what film you want to come out of it,” he said.
He decided to focus on the trip to New York, using the novel’s other sections as bookending chapters to the film. One sub-plot he was keen to leave in involved a closeted gay man deceiving his beard. Fellowes has a brilliant way of viewing sexuality through a contemporary lens even in the strictest period dramas, as he did with the Thomas character in “Downtown.” At one point, Thomas faces potential imprisonment for having an affair with a man. Fellowes was shocked to receive letters from viewers stunned that homosexuality was illegal in 1919.
“They didn’t have any idea, and I would write back and say not only was it a criminal offense in 1919, it was a criminal offense when I was 15,” he said. “You know, this is all yesterday that everything changed, and I think it’s good that young people become aware of how far we’ve moved.”
Fellowes is under no illusions that movies can change the world — his “aspirations are more modest than that” — but he finds purpose in shaking things up, even if just a little. “I don’t believe television influences your life. I really don’t, and I don’t think we’re high priests who are making it, but I do think every now and then you have the power just to make people think a little and consider their own position, their own feelings and prejudices. … Even if it’s no more than that and you just give them a minute of pause, that seems to be something worth doing.”
He was extremely mum about details for the “Downton Abbey” movie, set to premiere in September, but said he is “very happy with the way the film turned out.” He did, however, offer some insight as to what Lord Grantham would make of Brexit. “Oh, I think he’d be a Brexiteer. No question. Though I’m not sure about [where] Cora would be.”