Let’s talk clothes. Are your costumes replicas, or sourced original pieces?
There was an article about Rose’s wedding dress being a real, sourced 1920s wedding dress, but a lot of the costumes are made for the actors. I had that riding suit, that was made top to tail. Everything I was wearing was made for me, which is just the most amazing thing in the world! It was a beautiful tweed jacket, waistcoat and breeches. Even the boots were made for me and the gloves, which was just unbelievable, the level of detail and care. And then some of the outfits are sourced as costumes too. So it’s a mixture of practical and those elements of finer detail.
For example, a lot of the girls’ dresses are made, because you’re not going to notice the difference between one white tie coat and another white tie coat as long as they fit really well, and everything is obviously re-tailored for everybody who wears it. But you’re not going to notice much difference between one dinner jacket and another, or one tweed suit and another, whereas for the girls, it was such an important thing at that time for them to be in perpetually new clothes. I was always amazed that you come on set for another day of shooting and they’re in another new dress. It’s very beautiful.
What was it like, learning to naturally embody every element of Downton Abbey’s upper class society – the training in accent, behaviour, dining, dressing? Did you find it easy to switch in and out of character?
One of the tricky things about it is that there are these different storylines going on and with the divide between upstairs and downstairs, they different locations, which means that it’s quite a bitty schedule. Staying on top of your story and the progress through it is pretty complicated – because you’re seeing different people’s storylines, you’re not always dealing with the full content of your story. You kind of move from moment to moment in their lives, so there’s a lot of stuff to fill in and imply to make sure that it progresses like it should.
‘…basically, as long as you kind of think that you’re meeting the Queen, and behave as you would if you were meeting her, you’re pretty safe.’
In terms of kind of fitting into the period, it’s funny – I suspect it’s the same with girls putting on corsets. As a guy at that period, you put on a shirt that basically feels like the front, the collars and and the cuffs are made of wood, and that immediately makes you stand up pretty straight and talk slightly differently. Then basically, as long as you kind of think that you’re meeting the Queen, and behave as you would if you were meeting her, you’re pretty safe.
I wondered if they could do some wardrobe tricks, use different fabrics or something, to make the outfits more wearable, but perhaps it wouldn’t feel as authentic for the actors? It must help inform the performance.
The only trick to make it more comfortable is that it’s a bit more comfortable by the end of the day, because you’ve been in it for a day of filming. And then the next day you’ll turn up again and if you’re filming something that’s set the same evening, you’re in white tie for two or three days. At the end of the first day it’s like “Oh phew, I’ve kind of worn this in a bit.” You turn up the next day and again it’s wooden and starched! And the starch is so strong that pushing studs through the holes, you literally have to get someone to help you put the clothes on.
It makes you really appreciate why people needed valets at that time, because you can’t do it yourself. You can’t put one of those collars on by yourself. It’s too fiddly to get the studs in and too fiddly to do it all up. You essentially need two hands on it from the other direction. And if a valet comes at the end of a time period where clothes are getting more simple, you begin to genuinely understand why they needed help dressing!
Finally, what’s been your favorite moment of playing Atticus so far?
Probably proposing to Rose, because it’s just such a lovely scene, and because it’s a really interesting scene to play as well. There’s so much to happen in such a short space of time – they have a snatched couple of minutes in which, for him, to essentially ask the biggest question of his life. What I didn’t know until I actually proposed to someone is that it is literally the most terrifying moment of your life.
Even knowing, when I proposed in real life, I knew I was proposing to the person that I wanted to, and will, spend the rest of my life with – and I knew that so much, because I had never actually thought that would be possible, in all honesty. So there’s absolutely no element of doubt, it’s the most exciting thing in the world, and it’s absolutely brilliant, until the moment when you’re literally about to ask someone, and it’s like the bottom slightly falls out of your world.
It’s the most exposed and most terrifying thing ever. So again, that’s only something I know about through personal experience. I genuinely would not have known that unless I’d actually done it myself, unless I’d done it to the person that it was right for me to do it to. And so it’s such a lovely scene anyway, but then because of the circumstances and the way the scene is written, it’s such an exciting thing to act. Exposed and frantic and positive and excitable – but massively anxious and nervy.
I have to say I really lucked out acting opposite Lily James. She’s absolutely brilliant and I think a lot of the on screen chemistry is off screen as well. We got on really well and she’s a really exciting actress to work with.
Find Matt at @MattJLBarber on Twitter.
The two-hour Downton Abbey Christmas Special premieres this Thursday, December 25, at 9 p.m. on ITV.