‘I was really surprised when I got the script’ - Allan Leech talks playing the hero in Downton Abbey movie
Irish actor Allen Leech tells Paul Whitington about catching the acting bug at school, making his stage debut aged 16 alongside Frances McDormand and why he loves the LA lifestyle
Like some elaborate, irresistible confection, a soothing balm for frustrated Brexiteers, Downton Abbey swishes gracefully into a cinema near you this weekend, bearing more tales of kindly nobs, harmless misunderstandings and pathetically grateful servants.
Though the TV series finished four years ago, nothing much has changed at the fusty Yorkshire estate, whose staff and owners are excitedly preparing for a visit by King George and Queen Mary.
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Downton's nostalgic vision of a racially homogenous, redoubtably harmonious Britain in which all shoes were shined and everyone knew their place must be a pleasing fantasy for fans of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, but in fairness to the show's creator, Julian Fellowes, he has always tempered patriotic sentiment with investigations of more controversial themes, such as bereavement, marital breakdown and the plight of gay people in 1920s Britain.
Fellowes even tackled the dreaded 'Irish Question' via the dashing conduit of Dublin actor Allen Leech, who made his debut in season one playing the chippy Irish chauffeur, Tom Branson. As Tom ferried Downton's owners to garden fetes and other vital social engagements, the War of Independence raged across the Irish Sea: he was a republican, and not shy about sharing this inconvenient truth.
Through the series, Leech's character has experienced more than his fair share of ups and downs, but he's still knocking around Downton, and in the movie takes on a major and at times heroic role.
"He does, yeah," Leech, 38, agrees when I meet him in London's Corinthia Hotel - later that day, he announces that his American actress wife Jessica Blair Herman is expecting their first child. (At the end of our interview, he beams broadly and says: "I don't know when you're publishing this, but my wife's pregnant, and we're going to reveal that on the carpet later, so keep it under your hat.")
"Before we got the script, the one thing I really wanted to see was that he would get an opportunity to do something, because he had faded a little bit into the furniture in towards the end of the TV series," he continues.
"I was really surprised when I got it, because I hadn't expected I'd have quite as much to do. When Hugh Bonneville read it, he rang me and said 'you have more plots than an allotment'."
Without giving too much away, Branson may find love again, and perform an unexpected heroic service.
"I'm a bit worried though - you've seen the film, he does this thing at one point, and I mean I did have a little think about it, because I don't know how it's going to go down at home!" says Leech.
"Julian said it's not really about the royals, he does it for the family. That's what he always says."
For Leech, reuniting on the shoot with long-time cast members like Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter and Maggie Smith was special. "Because we've enjoyed the show's success together, there is that sense of family, which is really lovely. But as Jim Carter says, we are like a family but the great thing is we only have to be around each other for 12 weeks at a time."
Twelve weeks doesn't sound like loads of time to shoot a complex feature film, but Leech says it was plenty.
"When you know the characters so well, you're almost hitting the ground running, it's like putting on an old pair of shoes, there's a comfort there, an understanding, so you just go straight into it."
Downton Abbey's success has been astonishing: by the end of its TV run it was achieving per-episode viewing figures of 10 million in Britain, it's been sold all over the world, and in America it's absolutely huge. But Leech and the rest of the cast had no sense of this at all when they started making it.
"I remember Jim Carter saying at the end of the first series 'we'll see you on the next gig', as in definitely not another series of this. I think it just caught the zeitgeist of the time, with austerity and all, and people just wanting some kind of escapism."
Leech had even less expectation than the rest of the cast, having been brought in late on to audition for the role of the chauffeur. "I had done a movie with Julian called Time to Time, weirdly enough with Maggie and Hugh in it as well, and when I came in to read for Downton the character was called John Branston, he was from Yorkshire, he was just a chauffeur. But when I auditioned, Julian went, 'I have an idea', and he changed it to Tom Branson, and made him a socialist and an Irish republican. It gave the character this whole extra level."
Leech is well aware of how much he owes the show. "I've never had an experience of success in my career like Downton, it's massive here, it's massive in America, and it has opened all sorts of doors for me. Like, the producer of The Imitation Game said to me, 'I didn't know who you were, but my wife's a huge fan of Downton', and it was the same with Bohemian Rhapsody. I'm very grateful to the show for what it's done for me, and that's one of the reasons why coming back to do this film was really special," says Leech, who moved to Los Angeles three years ago.
"I love LA," he tells me. "I lived in London for 12 years and I kind of felt like I wanted a change after Downton, and it is a big change, but I have to say I love the lifestyle."
Raised in Killiney, in south County Dublin, Leech became obsessed with acting after playing the Cowardly Lion in a school production of The Wizard of Oz.
"I had this moment where I realised this was what I wanted to do. And a lady called Maura Cranny, she saw that I had a real love for it and did private classes with me in (St Michael's College) on a Wednesday with a friend of mine, we used to do duologues and all that, and it was amazing, and she was RADA trained, and she taught me all the classics in a way that no child of 12 or 13 is getting.
"After that I just loved it so much and then I wanted to go into college, and Dad and my Mom said, 'Look, as long as you get a degree...'; they were understanding, but you know the age-old thing of something to fall back on if the acting doesn't work out. So I did drama and theatre studies. But I kind of always pushed for it, it was always something I felt really passionate about."
Leech was just 16 when he appeared onstage with two-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand in a Gate production of A Streetcar Named Desire. "I didn't really understand who she was," he says, "but doing that show at that point in my life was such an amazing experience. Liam Cunningham played Stanley, and John Kavanagh, who became a great mentor of mine, was also in it.
"When we were at the Golden Globes a few years back for The Imitation Game, and she was up for Olive Kitteridge, the Downton cast were there as well, and I said, 'should I go up to her?' and they said, 'yeah go on'. So I went up and I said, 'Ms McDormand, you probably don't remember me', and she was like 'Allen Leech'. Then she turned to her husband, who's one of the Coen brothers, and said, 'Look, it's our boy, whenever we watch Downton we're like, there's our boy'. That was so cool!"