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The British Are Coming: 'Downton' Does Midtown

The cast of the hit series 'Downton Abbey' offers a sneak peek of the third season in New York

Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, in 'Downton Abbey'
Nick Briggs
December 13, 2012 11:30 AM ET

Most people still have to wait a good three weeks before the aristocratic Crawley family and their loyal team of servants return to American television on January 6th at 9 p.m. on PBS. Yesterday, an audience of lucky Downton Abbey fans got an early taste of what's to come in the Emmy-winning British series' much-anticipated third installment. The first 20 minutes of the season premiere were screened at the Essex House in Manhattan, followed by a Q&A with cast members Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Joanne Froggatt (Anna), Rob James-Collier (Thomas) and Sophie McShera (Daisy), and executive producers Rebecca Eaton and Gareth Neame.

Without divulging too much of the new season's juicy story lines, Downton enthusiasts can count on plenty of drama, as well as an abundance of salty quips from Violet, the Dowager Countess, in the first episode alone (last night's audience roared with laughter every time Dame Maggie Smith opened her mouth or gave a side-eye glance). It's Spring 1920: Bates is still in prison, preparations for Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley's wedding are in full swing, Lady Edith continues her (desperate) search for that special someone, and pregnant Lady Sybil and her chauffeur-turned-journalist husband, Tom Branson, have arrived back at Downton. Just in time for Lord Grantham to receive some devastating financial news.

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The Q&A portion of the evening got off to a celebratory start, with Eaton reiterating the day's earlier news that Downton had received three SAG Award nominations (for the ensemble, as well as individual nods for Smith and Michelle Dockery, a.k.a. Lady Mary). But there was no loss of amplified enthusiasm as the night wore on, as a steady stream of eager Downton fans approached the microphone to delve deeper into the lives of their favorite upstairs-downstairs characters and their willing alter egos. Carter was so bemused by the lack of inhibition in the audience that about 30 minutes into the conversation, he joked, "If we were in England, they would just be plucking up the courage to ask the first question by about this point." When the actors were asked if there was one thing they would change about their characters, Bonneville, resplendent in a Lord-Grantham-circa-2012 gray three-piece suit and hot-pink tie, deadpanned, "I think for Robert, because of his allergies, he has to spend a lot of time in Barbados." The charismatic James-Collier, whose sharp wit quickly dispelled any suspicion that he shared attributes with the conniving, dastardly footman he plays on the show, was hilariously matter-of-fact in answering how his life has changed since Downton's success: "I bought a new car. It's a little bit faster than me older car."

One woman's question about what the cast members would give their respective characters for Christmas elicited some clever responses – ones that only hardcore Downton fans could appreciate. McShera: "Shampoo." Carter: "Two freshly polished footmen." Froggatt: "A Baby Bates." James-Collier: "A boyfriend." Bonneville: "A new dog bowl, for Isis." And for those wondering what becomes of all the discarded costumes as the seasons move from the 1910s to the 1920s, fear not: James-Collier revealed that the form-fitting olive-colored pants he was sporting were in fact a "recycled pair of Lord Grantham's slacks."

The cast members and producers were careful not to reveal anything too spoiler-y, but unlike Seasons One and Two, which spanned multiple years, Season Three, in Carter's words, "slows down. The stories come back much more within the house," after the fast-paced movement of WWI. James-Collier hinted at a sentimental story line for his character: "If you keep watching, you might shed a tear for poor old Thomas in Series Three. You might see a softer side." The actor did disclose that we "get to the crux of [Thomas'] sexuality," and that Thomas comes face to face with the homophobic attitudes that were commonplace in 1920. "He's not ashamed of who he is," said James-Collier. "There's a great line when he says, 'I'm not foul, Mr. Carson. I'm not like you, but I'm not foul.' And he holds his head up high. He's really modern in his outlook, and I'm proud of who he is."

Another thing to look forward to in the new season is the addition of Hollywood icon Shirley MacLaine to the Downton family. MacLaine plays Martha Levinson, Lord Grantham's brash, American mother-in-law. "[We needed] somebody who was going to give Maggie Smith a run for her money," explained Neame of MacLaine's casting. But the Academy Award winner was no match for Downton Abbey's resident villain. James-Collier talked about how MacLaine singled him out on set as "the evil one," approaching him with "a quiet menace" and demanding to know why his character was so mean. His response? "Hello, Shirley. Nice hat." Well-played, sir.

While Downton Abbey has turned a nation of Yanks into Masterpiece-addicted Anglophiles, the British cast members remain staunch fans of U.S. TV shows. "I'm glued to Homeland," said Bonneville, who also expressed affection for Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. James-Collier sang the praises of Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, and McShera voiced her fondness for Girls.

And if there is still doubt in anyone's mind that Downton Abbey is officially a worldwide phenomenon, look no further than Jim Carter's recent cycling trip through Cambodia. The baritone-voiced actor arrived at the temples of Angkor Wat, dressed "unpleasantly, in Lycra cycling shorts and shirt. Ninety-odd degrees of heat, high humidity, pouring with sweat." A group of Chinese tourists still managed to recognize the straitlaced butler in his modern-day gear, squealing,"Mr. Carson!"

Mr. Carson may not approve, but we certainly do.  

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