In the lead-up to the Downton Abbey Christmas Special, we spoke with Matt Barber, one of the show’s newest stars, about his character Atticus Aldridge.
This interview was conducted during Downton Abbey’s UK airing – we’re bringing it back for the American crowd now that the PBS season is done!
Atticus Aldridge, Lady Rose’s brand-new beau, achieved instant popularity in Downton Abbey‘s fifth season. Portrayed by Matt Barber, the handsome young newcomer to Downton’s large roster of characters is a thoroughly decent fellow, clever, confident, sweet and great fun to watch — he’s one of the most likeable additions to the show in recent years. He and his family also added another societal issue to the 1920s setting — they’re the show’s first major Jewish characters, which causes a few obstacles for the young couple on their path to happiness.
Hypable had the opportunity to speak with Matt Barber in advance of Downton Abbey’s Christmas Special, airing this week. Our in-depth interview, which we’ll present in two parts, covers everything from the show’s intricate costuming and Matt’s previous work with Downton star Michelle Dockery to Atticus’ stag party scandal and the similarities between his on-screen and off-screen engagements! Of course, what we wanted to know right away was simply: what’s that intangible factor that makes Atticus seem like such a great guy?
We recently included Atticus in a feature discussing the change in tone of “good guys” in media. Atticus arrived this season on Downton Abbey and he’s likeable, smart, earnest, truly decent and not even the tiniest bit dull. He wasn’t the innocent buffoon, and he wasn’t the secretly-horrid charmer, where you’re waiting for the other foot to drop. What gives him that genuine quality?
Matt Barber: He comes from a background of marginalism. Obviously he comes from a very privileged background, that goes without saying, and so you can always say that some people have it easier than others and they should just get on with their lives, but he also comes from this background of inherent and endemic discrimination because he’s Jewish. In that conversation with his father — it’s clearly such a major part of who they are under the surface, and presumably that means that who they are above the surface is massively informed by that.
In my experience in life, people respond to hardship, whether that’s discrimination, marginalism or other more practical hardships in their lives, by going one of two ways — either it informs who they are in a very negative way or it informs who they are in a positive way. It’s either the thing you hold against everyone or it becomes the thing that means you realize why it’s worth doing well, being nice, looking out for other people, doing all of that sort of thing.
For me, I think that’s where his goodwill and his nature comes from, that’s how he’s responded to this eternal underlying discrimination on his side. If you’re not a nice person in that kind of situation, you turn out like a kind of Thomas Barrow type. Because [Barrow’s homosexuality] it’s not a dissimilar type of thing, where essentially at that point in time, there’s something about him that sets him apart from everyone else. It has to stay under the surface, but it massively informs who he is. That’s a really good example of the kind of character that’s gone the other way and he’s got it in for everyone as a result.
And it’s funny, because people love Barrow. Every time he does something good it is so heartfelt and people really root for him and don’t want him to be unhappy. But he is completely awful while having this depth, and that’s sort of been the standard for a while now, where the go-to “interesting” characters on TV are the ones who are unlikeable, whereas Atticus is a great example of how to write a character who’s a lovely person and who isn’t boring, which is really refreshing. People don’t have to be bogged down in their own mistakes and misery in order for them to have depth.
MB: Agreed, agreed. I think that with these more positive, generous characters, there’s as much scope to explore the hardships they experience as there are for nasty characters. I think it is literally just a choice of how they respond to things. And I think that the writing in any case becomes interesting when you’re seeing people deal with difficult situations in their own lives in different ways. I think nice characters and nasty characters both become boring when either their response is predictable or they don’t really have any difficulties to deal with, because that’s where drama is, in that kind of conflict.
‘I think nice characters and nasty characters both become boring when their response is predictable.’
I’d love to see a character like Atticus dealing with really, really horrible things, because it fascinates me to see, or to explore, somebody with that sort of nature and how long he could hold on to it for. How long you can carry on with it for? Because he does seem genuine in that. He does seem genuinely generous, in terms of his life, his character, and the way he deals with other people, and it would be really interesting to see how long it’s possible to hold onto that.