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PBS Masterpiece

How to Dad Like a Lord: Hugh Bonneville on a Decade of ‘Downton Abbey’

"Fatherhood is a responsibility and you duck it at your peril."

For nearly a decade, the most well-mannered father on television has been, unfailingly, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. As the patriarch of Downton Abbey, Lord Grantham has dealt with about every headache a father can imagine. I mean, let’s get serious, his daughter had an affair with a dude who ended up dead in her bed, and that was just season 1! From grappling with his legacy in a changing era to being forced to become a progressive father in the 1920s, Lord Grantham has represented a kind of proxy for fussy, but loving dads everywhere. Now, after six seasons of Downton Abbey, the Edwardian drama has hit the big screen with newly released Downton Abbey film, out now from Focus Features.

I caught up with Lord Grantham himself, actor Hugh Bonneville just before the launch of the film. Because I knew Bonneville was a father in real life, I wondered what it was like for his son, growing up with Downton Abbey. Bonneville’s son is 17 now but would have been a lot younger when the show debuted. Was his son a fan? Bonneville’s response was wry and brilliant.

“What did your father do for a living when you were young?” he asked me bluntly. I told him my father was a photographer. “And did you enjoy going to photo-shoots?” he quipped. I told him I did not. That, it seems is what the world of Downton is like for a working actor’s child: Just something that takes dad away for awhile.

Throughout our chat, Bonneville was wise, kind, but like his Downton alter-ego, incredibly precise and confident. Here’s what he told me about how to dad like a Lord.

When you started Dowton Abbey almost a decade ago, did you suspect you’d still be playing this character ten years later?

Well, I could be facetious and say ‘It was in my contract that I had to be in a hit’ but, obviously you always set-out with the best intentions, and lots of shows get by, but they don’t strike a chord like this one has. We are still searching for the real reason why it struck a chord. Here we are ten years later and its taking fire in a whole new form. But, my first experience of the project was reading the first script — there was no cast attached — but the characters lept-off the page with their own distinct voices and their own distinct heartbeats. And I wanted to know what happened next. But I got the last page, and there wasn’t another chapter for me to read, yet. And, I think that the experience that I had, was translated to the screen and therefore to our audience. 

 Throughout the show, your character is always having to become more progressive, sometimes against his will. For you, what is the applicable parenting lesson we could all learn from Lord Grantham?

I think it’s all about his manner in life and how that’s connected to his manner toward his children. There are mistakes made, of course, but he has a certain way with his behavior. I mean, you expect him to blow a fuse. Or, throw his daughters out into the snow, on a couple of occasions. But, what he always seems to revert to is a great sense of tolerance and compassion. And I think that’s true of all the characters, actually — compassion in most of them, and certainly in Julian’s [Fellowes] writing. Just when you think my character is about to find out some horrible truth about his daughter, and that surely this is going to be the end of the road, he actually always ends up accepting the mistakes. I remember him saying to Mary: “Go off to the wild west and find a cowboy and bring him back and shake us up a bit.” I find that really touching, he has an understanding that his generation is very different than the next. 

How much do you relate to Lord Grantham as a parent yourself?

Well, I have a son who is 17 and he’s a pretty remarkable lad and I learn from him nearly every day. He has a very able mind, far more able than mine! And he has a lot more wisdom than I had at that age. But of course, he has to have his own life experiences; so I hope that I can help him there, but we all have to make our own mistakes. As long as you are there as a safety net as a parent, as long you are there as a support and not a dictator; as long as you are there for whatever happens to this person you brought into this world, that’s your responsibility and you duck it at your peril. 

What advice would you give to new parents about what’s in store for them?

We find our parents annoying in your teens, but as we all know, we’re biologically wired to need our parents, but also wired to kick away from them. Kids need to get out of the nest. But parents might need to be ready to rebuild that nest. There are going to bumpy times, and there are going to be time as parents where you feel outside of the loop. I remember telling my parents “You don’t understand. You were never 15!” But of course, they were. But, the vital thing, I remember thinking this the moment my son was born: I will be here for you for the rest of my life.

Downton Abbey is playing in theaters now