Grin and Bear It
From ‘Downton Abbey’ to ‘Paddington’: Hugh Bonneville Embraces His Cuddly Side
Guys, Paddington is a legitimately excellent. And much of that is due to Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville, whose knack for playing cantankerous papas is, at this point, unmatched.
On the day after the Academy announced a truly depressing slate of Oscar nominees, it’s no small praise to say that Paddington, of all films, was one of the most entertaining movies I screened in 2014. The utterly delightful and surprisingly moving family flick, based on Michael Bond’s quirky short stories, has already played to rapturous reviews in the U.K. before the holidays, and its stateside arrival is perfectly timed to cheer up film fans still smarting from the Academy’s facepalm-inducing shortlist.
(To wit, the PG-rated movie about an anthropomorphized bear’s 97 percent Rotten Tomatoes score bests every Best Picture nominee but Boyhood and Selma—and you should already know how we feel about the Academy’s treatment of that latter film.)
This is more to marvel at the rare instance of an intelligent, heart-filled, well-made family film than it is to argue that Paddington should be any sort of awards contender in 2015 (though it did score a BAFTA nod for Best British film). And the surprise is twofold: not only is it unexpected for a family film to be this good, but also for a tenet of children’s culture as cherished as Paddington Bear to translate to a smart, modern film with its sweet and quirky spirit firmly intact.
“There’s been a lot of anticipation in that regard,” Paddington star Hugh Bonneville, perhaps best known to you as Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham, admits. “And I shared it when I first read the script.”
Remembering Paddington Bear as the first book he could read by himself when he was a boy, he ticks off the laundry list of concerns about the film adaptation: the tone of the movie, how Paddington would look, how he would sound. (That last item was of such importance to filmmakers that Colin Firth, who originally voiced Paddington, was eventually replaced mid-production by Ben Whishaw, who you hear in the film.)
“But Michael Bond gave it his blessing,” Bonneville goes on. “His first comment after he saw it I believe was, ‘I came. I saw. I was conquered.’”
Bonneville, sharing the screen with our beloved marmalade-addicted bear, is Paddington’s co-lead. He plays Mr. Brown, a risk-averse, anti-change, stodgy father of two, whose whimsically spirited wife (Sally Hawkins) cajoles him into fostering an orphaned young bear they stumble upon at London’s Paddington Station.
The veteran British thesp excels at playing the slow loosening up of Mr. Brown’s cantankerous, buttoned-up personality as his wife and children coax him into embracing the idea of shacking up with a wild animal. Of course, Bonneville has become a bit of a recent expert on the character type, having just premiered his fifth season as Downton’s relentlessly conservative Lord Grantham, a patriarch dragged into accepting the modern conveniences and moods of a new era by his more open-minded better half, Cora.
“It obviously just shows that I’m a stuffed shirt really and that my range is limited,” Bonneville jokes over a lunchtime meeting at Manhattan’s Lamb’s Club when I ask whether the bit of typecasting is an instance of art imitating life. It’s a notion that’s piqued further after, on my way out of the interview, I stumble into the loveliest of conversations with his wife, Lulu, who had been swilling cocktails at the bar while I chatted with her husband.
“My wife is extremely creative, extremely artistic, and extremely practical in a way that I’m not,” Bonneville continues, gamely. “So yes, I’d say there are parallels.”
We’re talking Paddington and Downton Abbey, two pop culture pillars respectively childish enough and stodgy enough to be, you’d think, immune to rampant controversy. And yet over the course of our conversation Bonneville finds himself defending both against my grilling on the surprising—and, in the end, asinine—controversies that have plagued them both. (From Colin Firth’s quitting/firing as the voice of Paddington to debate over the name of Downton’s dog, Isis, these are what the media aptly dub “nontroversies.”)
Here’s his response to those controversies, the difficulty of making a family film as good as Paddington, the rapturous reaction to the film thus far, settling into Downton’s surprisingly long run, and, naturally, his thoughts on why Lord Grantham is such a wet blanket.
There is such anxiety any time a beloved children’s book is adapted to a film. That must’ve been hard to deal with.
There’s been a lot of anticipation in that regard, and I shared it when I first read the script. There were people saying, “The bear doesn’t look like that. He wouldn’t sound like that. He doesn’t do this or that,” which I completely understand. But Michael Bond gave it his blessing. His first comment after he saw it I believe was, “I came. I saw. I was conquered.” A lot of people said that the bear should look like the toy bear that was created as piece of merchandise. And I understand that. But if you go back to the first book that drew from, the drawings from the lady who did the original illustrations are very much like the bear we created. And most importantly the spirit of the bear is there in the movie, I think. And that’s what I was most concerned about.
What convinced you that the spirit would be there and that this wouldn’t be some bastardization of a children’s classic?
Two things, really. First of all the fact that it was David Heyman [producing it]. If anyone could bring a much loved children’s character to life with dignity and respect and not mess it up then it’s David Heyman, after his work with Harry Potter and everything. And really [writer and director] Paul King, who I met outside David’s office. And within 30 seconds I realized that he really is Paddington Bear. Every ounce of him is as cute and optimistic about life, with a slightly odd take on it.
That’s a great way of describing Paddington.
He’s able to see the best in events and not see that the world as dark and dangerous and all that, which of course makes you as a viewer or a reader want to protect him. So while people were originally concerned about the film, it’s a real sense of “I told you so” with the reaction that we’ve had since the film opened in the U.K. People are saying, “I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it. I’m 30. I’m 50. But I really did.” And more to the point, the bear that I knew is there and intact and should be seen.
It’s really hard to do a kids’ film like this and not make it too schmaltzy.
As a parent myself, I’ve gone to movies out of duty with my son thinking, “This is going to be ghastly, or it’s really not aimed at the grownup.” But this somehow dismisses any idea of age barriers. I remember watching it first with a kid of 5 here and a granny of 75 there who were both getting the same jokes.
Between Paddington and Downton, there seems to be a pattern of you playing the more conservative, more uptight husband with the free-spirited wife and kids to coax you out of your shell. What does it do to an actor to realize you play that role so well?
I don’t know. It obviously just shows that I’m a stuffed shirt really and that my range is limited. [Laughs]
Are you a stuffed shirt?
Not really. Downton has put me into a certain arena. I’ve done plenty of costume and period dramas in the past. But it’s the first time that a character or show that I’ve been in has made such an impact around the world. So people will think forever that I have a Labrador always at my side. As you see, I don’t. Maybe that was in David Heyman’s mind when he thought, “We need an actor who’s in that territory, who can probably loosen up if he’s asked to.” And as you know by the end I’m virtually Liam Neeson, saving the day.
Yes! Even in the Downton premiere, in that fire scene, you’re an action hero.
Action hero! Oh yeah yeah. In my dressing gown, no less.
But that dynamic between Robert and Cora, and Mr. and Mrs. Brown, that we were just talking about—do you have that with your own wife?
My wife is extremely creative, extremely artistic, and extremely practical in a way that I’m not. So yes, I’d say there are parallels. Sally Hawkins’s character is an artistic visionary. Cora is the great lady of spontaneity, who comes from the American tradition of grab it and run, where Robert’s from the tradition of you’ve got to polish what’s there and conserve it and move with great caution into the future. So yeah, there’s clearly some parallels there. Maybe there’s some archetypes there.
What’s it been like to promote things like Paddington and Downton in two waves, first with the British press and then weeks or month later all over again in America?
Frustrating. Quite frustrating. It’s no secret that we would’ve loved PBS to do same-day premieres. It would destroy piracy at the moment. It would make our interviews less oblique and full of code. But it’s understandable. PBS has made its point that they need it to go in January for their reasons and it’s never harmed their figures.
But it’s not just two waves of press. It’s two waves of answering to debate and backlash and controversy.
Well, I never forget the moment in Season 3 when Sybil died and we had absolutely managed, with all credit to our PR team, to keep it absolutely under wraps. The sense of loss and the sense of shared experience that was palatable and potent and tangible among the viewership in the U.K. the next day was really amazing. Those days are almost all gone now, because of staggered release, unless you’re in the right country at the right moment. Those watercooler moments are fewer and farther between—and they’re immensely valuable and special when they happen.
Yeah. Americans who caught wind of what was going to happen with Sybil felt robbed.
We were immensely proud of having kept that secret and the impact that it had. Sad as it was, but it was a really powerful moment in the show. But of course it’s diluted by the time it gets here and even more diluted elsewhere in the world. So for my money, the sooner those broadcast windows are closed or narrowed, the better for everyone. Plus, it must be exhausting to hear the same stories time and time again in interviews.
Does it surprise you that Downton is as much of a watercooler show as it is in the States, that people are passionate enough to create a scandal out of things like Anna’s rape storyline last season?
It’s been interesting, because a storyline like that is not uncommon in a soap environment or other types of shows. But people were very vocal about it because “it does not happen in Downton.” “It’s not allowed to happen in Downton.” Well, the only person who says what the rules of Downton are is Julian Fellowes. It’s been fascinating, the way the characters are invested in by the audience. I heard people saying that they’d never watch that show again because, “That disgusting thing should not happen in Downton Abbey.” But while it’s not pretending to be a reflection of real life, at least the show occasionally latches on bigger themes, bigger issues. The way that people are that passionate about it is what’s most surprising. It means that we’ve done something right because people care about it.
Five seasons in now, what do you make of where Lord Grantham is going? It’s not that he’s a villain, but he’s an obstacle for moving forward to the future. Last season he seemed to be stifling Mary. There was the little dalliance with the maid. What do you make of all that?
The thing I always hang on to, because when I read the scripts I share those same thoughts: “Hold on, where he’s going now? Is he just a complete idiot? Is he being so reactionary that he’s going to stifle everyone around him?” So I’ve always been cautious about that. But you will always find that there’s a redemptive thing that will happen ultimately. I always know that Julian is going to look after his characters. You think you know them, and then he will do something to flip it or give you a new perspective. Robert, just when you think he’s a complete dinosaur, a complete shmuck, he does something to redeem himself.
So in the final episode we’ll see him dancing the Charleston?
He doesn’t go that far. But something does happen, there’s some nice beats where you think he’s not so bad.
After five seasons when you look back on this, what’s going to be a cherished moment that you will tell your grandchildren about?
I will look back on it in the same way I look back on Notting Hill, which is one of the happiest things I’ve ever done. It was my first exposure to a big movie. I look back on that now and realize that it meant certain things for me, in the same way that I will look back on Downton as being a really satisfying chunk of time spent with amazing people that gave me amazing opportunities to do other projects like Paddington, which again I will look back on as a really special film that I think will last the test of time.
You actually can tell how diligent and careful they were when making Paddington to make sure it was done right, down to Colin Firth bowing out when it wasn’t working.
There’s an interesting passage to that, because we rehearsed with Colin Firth and he did a lot of fantastic work on it. They became aware mutually that it wasn’t the right fit. And I thought he was incredibly gracious in the way that he handed it over to Ben Whishaw. I still look at him as the godfather of the bear, but he would’ve sounded too mature for the bear in the movie. And Ben’s voice is spot on for that vulnerability and also that confidence and bouncy inquisitiveness. But yeah that could’ve been a car crash. It could’ve been a PR disaster. It could’ve been the end of the movie. All the cynics could’ve said, “Well we were right. And they’ve moved the date. And they’ve changed the bear.” But actually after all those naysayers the proof of the pudding is in the eating and a lot of people are getting stuffed on it.
It must be an interesting experience to be working on Paddington and Downton, which are two properties where fans are so passionate to a rabid level. They harp on the smallest details, whether it’s adding a little darkness to Paddington or the Downton controversy over whether Isis the dog was going to be killed.
It’s crazy. And it’s a delicate area. I am religious about not spoiling stories. And I have not on my website or anywhere discussed that. I just said that there is a story involving the dog, which some people took to mean that it was a reaction to world events. And anyone who thinks that is bonkers, because it shows complete misunderstanding about how TV shows are made.
This storyline involving the dog was discussed and developed a year before filming. The scenes involving it were filmed in April/May. And the full horror of what this terrorist organization didn’t become apparent until the summer of this year. Yet people think that because of what was happening in the world when the episodes aired in the U.K. and the storyline involving the dog kicked off that it was actually being done there and then, that the stories were being written and filmed the day before. It’s a reaction that I didn’t think needed clarity because it showed a great naiveté to think our storylines were being affected by world events. They’re not.