Robert James-Collier plays Thomas Barrow in Downton Abbey. Outside of that show, he is perhaps best known for his role as Liam Connor in the long-running British soap Coronation Street, in which he starred from 2006-2008. He has also appeared in the West End stage version of Calendar Girls and the 2011 film Mercenaries…
Q: How early did Julian Fellowes tell you about your character’s sexuality?
A: I knew from the get-go that Thomas was gay. I knew that from the audition. With the series, you didn’t know how he was going to broach that subject and why he was so aggressive towards everyone. I made a decision as an actor that it was his sexuality that was making him lash out. Thankfully, in the later series Julian wrote that back-story in and we got to show people why Thomas is Thomas, which I thought was important.
Q: Do you think the show is quite liberal despite the conservative backdrop?
A: The characters’ reactions to Thomas’ homosexuality is quite liberal. But talking to the historical advisor, he wasn’t a one-off. There were lots of gay men and women around then, just as there are now. They were tolerated because everyone had to get on to work together. You wouldn’t necessarily get the massive homophobic reaction that you might expect at the time, even though homosexuality was illegal. It was accepted and brushed under the carpet because if it were made apparent it might sabotage the reputation of the house. In many ways, they allow Thomas to fit in. There were deep thinkers back then, and liberal thinkers. It’s not just modern-day society that is liberal.
Q: Do you take a lot of pride in being part of the phenomenon that is Downton Abbey?
A: I’m proud of the fact that Downton Abbey was born in a recession, at a time when ITV had dropped a lot of drama programmes. And I know that because I was out of work at the time! You were worrying as an actor because there seemed to be a leaning towards reality TV and celebrity documentary. It’s cheaper than drama, and you think as an actor, ‘What chance have I got?’ But then in the middle of all this, they got an Oscar-winning screenwriter in Julian Fellowes, a two-time Oscar-winning actress in Dame Maggie Smith and a pool of great British talent and they decided to do that on an ITV show in the middle of a recession. To get it green-lit was a feat in itself and then its success helped to show execs and financiers that period drama, which is the most expensive sort, can make money and be profitable for your channel. In a way, it was a game changer. From that we got a spate of people making great drama. There’s been a real growth of drama on TV even though back in 2008 we were wondering if there was anything left in this game any more. So to be a part of that, something that helped light the touch paper, was brilliant.
Q: From your experience on such a huge show as Coronation Street is there a concern that people will struggle to disassociate you from your character in Downton, long-term?
A: Yeah, totally. You leave one iconic show and join another, thinking it might be a one-season show and it becomes one of the biggest shows in the world. As an actor you know it’s not going to be easy for people to leave that association behind, especially because of the type of character that Thomas is. He is gay and is, essentially, the bad guy for much of the show, so a lot of people within the industry can only see you as that. They might not be in a rush to see you as a heterosexual love interest, for example, because they worry whether the audience can see past that. That takes time. For me, I need to take my time and not just take the first job offer that comes along. It was the same with Coronation Street. I didn’t work for 15 months; I turned a lot of stuff down because they weren’t the right roles to take me away from what I’d done before. You need to do something completely different. That’s why I waited for Thomas after Coronation Street, and thankfully he came along because the wolves were at the door!
Q: Your Downton character has had a great journey; that must be very rewarding…
A: I’d have been happy if it’d remained like it was in the first season, where he was the bad guy and we didn’t see why. But I’m so glad that Julian told his story, not because he was gay — that’s not a big story these days. But he was gay at a time when it was illegal and against God. You would go to mass and be told that sodomy meant you’d burn in hell. These things inform why Thomas is why he is and there’s a lot of drama there to tell his story. We’ve seen the result of why he is like he is, but it’s great to tell the audience why there is nastiness and bitterness. In Season 6 he is like a tragic hero. Can Thomas finally become comfortable with what he is and who is, and if he can’t do that then what’s he going to do to address that? With Thomas, he goes to extremes. As we witnessed in Season 5, he is injecting himself. We go on this tragic journey with him.
Q: What was it like during your last day on the Downton set?
A: There were lots of man hugs, back slapping and me trying not to cry. I was trying to be stoic, saying, ‘No, I’m not crying. It’s just the dust in Ealing Studios!’ The crew were in tears as well, and they have it really hard. We actors just swan in for a few minutes a day!
Q: What would be some personal highlights from your time on the show?
A: Dancing with Dame Maggie Smith in the first Christmas Special was an epic moment. I did a business degree and didn’t take my first acting job until I was 28 and there I was at 35 dancing with a two-time Oscar winner! If someone had told that I’d be doing a waltz with Dame Maggie — and that I’d stand on her toe in one take and that she’d give me a funny look — I’d have said, ‘No chance!’ She’s a film icon. But it happened and it was a massive standout moment for me. I also loved all the stuff we did during the War because I got to research the period. I was quite naïve about that time. We touched upon it at school but I’d never researched WWI properly. It was fascinating to learn about it and you really understood that sense of loss. I’d never realised that we lost 40,000 men on the first day of the Somme, the worst casualties in British military history. You’re like, ‘Wow!’ You then feel the onus to do the fallen justice, on both sides. It made me appreciate everything I’ve got in my life a whole lot more.
Q: What was the reason for starting a more conventional career in marketing before you began acting at 28 years old?
A: It’s a good question. I don’t know. I was an intelligent lad, my brother and sister were in academia, and acting was never something that was put forward to me as a viable option at school. I wasn’t really interested either. I was more into sports. But when I was doing marketing, working in the industry and hating it, I was watching The Office going, ‘Oh my God! That is my office! I can’t do this for the rest of my life.’ I remember watching Pete Postlethwaite in The Homecoming, the Harold Pinter play, at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and I had a weird feeling in my stomach. Looking back at it now, I realise I was jealous of the actors on stage because I wanted to do something freeing like that. I didn’t know it then. A few years later, someone who was doing a performing arts degree asked me to step in because an actor had fallen out. It was a rainy Sunday, I didn’t get paid, but I loved it. I thought, ‘If I could do this and get paid, that would be fantastic!’
DOWNTON ABBEY SERIES 6 IS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD ON 16TH NOVEMBER, COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES (UK)