By David Hennessy
Internationally phenomenally successful Downton Abbey is back and The Irish World was there at the recent launch to chat with the cast. Here’s out chat with Rob James-Collier who plays Thomas Barrow.
Risking life for high quality drama
“He was coming at me with an axe,” fame is supposed to have its price but not quite like the dramatic/humorous story Rob James-Collier who plays underbutler Thomas Barrow.
When asked where the most unusual place he has been recognised is, Rob answers without hesitation: “Homebase. I was buying a bit of 4 x 2 plywood, geezer’s come over, skinhead. I thought: ‘Here we go, it’s going off’. He’s got an axe in his hand. I didn’t know at the time Homebase sold axes, I thought he was coming at me with an axe. It turns out he was a huge fan of the show and he was buying the axe because it was reduced. He had a wood-burning stove and he was simply buying the axe to chop his wood and he wanted to come over to say he liked the job I did on the show.
“I’ve misread the situation, gone into karate stance. Well lets it this way, one way or another: I took the axe off him.”
Laughing beside the actor previously known for playing Liam Connor in Coronation Street is Dublin actor Allen Leech whose answer to the same question, which includes a taxi driver jumping out his car to say hello outside Jakarta Airport, can’t compete.
Rob asks Allen: “Did he have an axe?”
“No,” Allen answers.
“Thank God for that,” Rob concludes.
Although there was no axe involved, Rob says he put himself in serious danger in the filming of the first episode of the forthcoming series where it is his character Tom that rescues Lady Edith from a fire in her room. Although Allen laughs while he tells another dramatic story: “There was one take where I wasn’t allowed to go over it when it was at full height for insurance, which he (Allen) is alluding to, but there were times when it was at a candle’s height and I stepped over those flames, yes me, and then I stepped back over them with Laura Carmichael who plays Lady Edith. It was exhilarating. It was close, the closest to death I’ve ever been to. My ankle got singed on one take but I just thought I’ll carry on. Why? Because we’re making high quality drama.”
It is obvious from the moment you meet them that Rob and Allen are very much the jokers in the pack. No laughing matter is the situation of Rob’s character Thomas is homosexual which rules out any possibility of his happiness as he is forced to deny himself: “I think what we see is him finally confronting the fact that he’s been outed. He was actively trying to pursue the life of a homosexual male, more power to him, very modernistic. But society is gradually wearing him down and this year we see him reflect on himself and think: ‘Can I ever truly be happy? I can’t do this anymore so what am I going to do?’ It’s quite a sad story, hopefully well played.”
Conniving and vindictive, it is this inner conflict that goes a long way to explaining why Thomas is like he is: “Society has condemned him. Society has said he is twisted and a freak of nature so he’s not going to have a nice attitude towards society because he’s done nothing wrong and yet he’s condemned. He projects society’s hatred back towards society and that’s why he’s alienated and that’s why he’s an outsider and that’s why he is the way he is. Quite rightly, I think. I can’t blame him for it anyway. I can empathise, I hope people will this year.
“He openly told him (footman Jimmy Kent) he loved him and Jimmy said, ‘I can never be what you want me to be’, and we have a lovely scene where Tommy says: ‘I accept that, can we at least be friends?’ So he’s already exposed himself. When someone tells you to your face that they could never love you, you know you’ve got to give up the ghost. What we see (in this series) is Thomas’s nice side in that he is willing to forego his feelings and help Jimmy get into bed with Lady Anstruther, and there’s just that moment when Jimmy goes, that you see Thomas wishing it was him Jimmy was coming to. What a lovely thing for him to do.”
Rob’s character was originally only meant to survive one series. Could he have ever foreseen that it would still be going strong? “We would have been pretty big headed if we had actually thought this was going to happen. We’re still talking about his show five years later, new regions like China are watching it now. Of course we are massively surprised.
“We have to go to America in December to promote it. They love our history, they’re fascinated with that anyway. Hollywood royalty is in it. Dame Maggie Smith has not been on any British telly for thirty years yet she chose this show to come back. They (Americans) want to know why Dame Maggie Smith is in this show, it must be good. Julian Fellowes, Oscar-winning writer: Why has he written this? That’s what tuned them in because of the subject matter as well.
“If there’s one thing Julian does well, it’s class, that’s his bag. The Americans are obsessed with it, ergo it has a chance even with the significant drag factor of both mine and Allen’s performances dragging the show down, it still had enough buoyancy to get up there. I’m fishing for a compliment there for both of us, don’t leave me hanging.”
When it is raised, Rob takes the opportunity to clear up an earlier misquotation. A publication quoted Rob, who never attended drama school and worked as a labourer before finding fame, as saying it was harder for working class actors to get a break: “I was misquoted, that was taken out of context, taken to the press complaints commission and all subsequent articles pulled off. Never happened. It’s really unusual for the press to take someone out of context and misquote, isn’t it? Those things were never said. I’m sorry to disappoint.”
But Rob doesn’t appear to be one bit wary of the press despite the experience: “No, have you seen me going around here? We’ve been giving nothing but love to the tables, made you laugh, I proposed at the last table. That’s anything but wary, that’s needy if you ask me. I came across needy.
“Not at all, why blame the rest of the press for one person’s misdemeanours? That’s the way I look at it.”
A joking Rob later reveals what it really takes to get ahead in the business when high profile actors who have failed to land Downton parts are mentioned: “You know what their problem was? They didn’t sleep with the right people. I did. Thanks for getting me in the show.”
Rob lifts his hand for Allen Leech to give him a high five. “Thanks for sleeping with me,” says Allen.
There has been a lot of press about the new child actors playing including the one playing Allen Leech’s screen daughter Sybil who he has described entertaining. Asked if Rob also helps keep the kids amused, Allen answers: “He’s useless.”
Rob retorts with mock indignance: “They’re not my kids. They’re not my on screen kids, nothing to do with me.”
Allen reveals: “Sometimes I see them lovingly come up, tug on his coat tails and he’ll literally flick them off, send them careering across the room.”
Rob concludes: “You’re not in my character’s storyline ergo, do one.”
Rob is immensely proud of his Irish connections: “My mother’s Irish, she’s from Donegal right at the top Buncrana-way to be specific. I used to go over every year as kids and I still go over every couple of years, see some of the family and hang out there. I love it, it’s beautiful over there.”
Downton Abbey returns to ITV at 9pm on September 21.
For our full feature where we talk to Allen Leech, Sophie McShera, Hugh Bonneville, Brendan Coyle, Raquel Cassidy, Lesley Nicol, Jim Carter and Michelle Dockery, pick up the September 13 Irish World.
Watch the series trailer here: