“Gosford Park,” Robert Altman’s 2001 murder mystery that scored seven Academy Award nominations (and won Best Screenplay for Julian Fellowes), boasts a cast of British acting royalty, from Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren to Eileen Atkins and Derek Jacobi. But it was the sole American in the cast, Ryan Phillippe, who helped the film even get made, according to a new Town & Country oral history of the film’s making.
Phillippe, fresh off the success of “Cruel Intentions,” was a last-minute addition to the cast, replacing the previously announced Jude Law, whose departure threatened the film’s financing. “Jude Law was going to play my role. He was going to be pretending to be an American who was discovered to be British,” Phillippe recalled. “He dropped out, and ‘Gosford Park’ was about to fall apart because they needed that financing relevancy. Jude had more than I did, but I had enough to secure the financing if I took the role. So even though you’ve got these unbelievably pedigreed, knighted and damed actors and actresses, in the film market their value wasn’t enough. I’m a relatively small part of the movie, but at that point I was the piece they needed.”
The film, which launched “Gosford Park” creator Fellowes’ career, was a typically loose Altman affair, with actors perpetually mic’d and ad libbing throughout the weekend party that served as the film’s setting. And Altman even tossed in a sudden story change, making Atkins and Mirren sisters late in the filming process. That seemed to work, since Mirren was later nominated for Oscar.
As was Maggie Smith, whose performance in the film served as a precursor to her Emmy-winning turn on Fellowes’ “Downton Abbey.” But despite her tart performance, she and the rest of the cast made sure to make Phillippe feel welcome.
“At first I felt out of my depth with these esteemed actors,” Phillippe told Town & Country. “But some of the people in the cast were disarmingly cool, like Michael Gambon. I remember just hanging out with him, going to get lunch with him in his convertible. There’s certainly that reverence and respect you’re going to have for Maggie Smith, who incidentally would flirt with me occasionally. She’d say, ‘Ryan, come over and sit down next to me for a minute.’ It was very sweet.”