'Downton Abbey: A New Era' Cast Talks New Characters and New Locations (Exclusive)

Creator Julian Fellowes’ upstairs/downstairs franchise returns with a delightful new movie -- and several new faces. 

Following the box office success of the first film about the upstairs/downstairs saga created by Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey is back with an anticipated sequel. A New Era not only reunites the beloved ensemble cast, but introduces new characters and new locations that helps expand the world of the franchise as it enters into the modern era. 

Picking up nine months after the first film, A New Era kicks things off with Tom Branson (Allen Leech) getting married to Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton), helping to secure the Crawleys’ fortune and fate at Downton. But the wedding is far from where this story ends.  

According to Fellowes, executive producer Gareth Neame “was very keen to get [the characters] out of their comfort zone, or at least some of them,” he says, before adding, “But I’m very much of the opinion that Downton Abbey, the house, is one of the main characters in the story.” 

“So to balance that, I wanted a real sense of invasion of the 20th century coming in against this established way of life,” Fellowes continues. And as a result, with the family all back together at the Yorkshire country estate for the latest nuptials, incoming news about a movie production and an inherited villa sets two parallel stories in motion. 

And it’s not long before the cinema world descends upon Downton under the stewardship of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) -- much to the chagrin of Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and others -- while much of the extended Crawley family takes refuge in the South of France, where the previously unknown property passed to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) is located. 

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For Robert, “the idea of actors and actresses sprawled all over his drawing is actually horrific,” Fellowes says, teasing some of the tension that arises at home before his character and others set off abroad. 

This, of course, leads the family, as well as some of the personal staff including the dedicated Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), on a grand journey far from the usual comforts of Downton. But what leads to culture shock for Carson is greeted with fancy and interest among the rest of the family who are eager to soak up the French Riviera. 

And this change of place, which was filmed on location, allows the movie to embrace vibrant and colorful fashions as well as the Mediterranean decor not often seen in the franchise. “So, we wanted a light, airy white-walled house to contrast the very specific architecture of Downton,” director Simon Curtis, who took over for longtime Downton Abbey director Michael Engler, says, referring to the villa in question. 

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“We were lucky,” Bonneville says of getting “to shoot in this amazing villa. It was beautiful.” 

“It’s as beautiful as it appears onscreen,” says Laura Carmichael, who returns as Lady Edith. “It was such an amazing location, so we were also pinching ourselves.”

As a result, “everything just felt different,” Curtis says, with Leech adding, “It opens up the world.” And in more ways than one.   

While the Crawleys have to contend with revelations about the Dowager’s past offered up by the widowed Madame Montmirail (Nathalie Baye) and her son, Marquis de Montmirail (Jonathan Zaccaï), the new characters that make the largest impact on the family are the ones back at Downton. 

“A whole alien world that descends on that house,” says Lesley Nicol, who returns as Mrs. Patmore.

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Back at the estate, the head cook and the rest of the staff must contend with the invasion of a film set -- and its stars, Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) -- after director Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) gets permission to make a movie at the aging manor. 

“It’s also lovely to have some fresh blood, as we call it,” says Joanne Froggatt, who reprises her role as Anna, with Phyllis Logan, who plays Mrs. Hughes, adding that West “was very entertaining.”

“Apart from being outrageously handsome, he’s got a very naughty twinkle,” she adds. 

Among them is Mary’s unfazed embrace of the modern world that many in her family are turned off by. And within that is the fact that the movie industry is going through a major change itself, as it transitions from silent films to talkies. 

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“It was a history lesson,” Kevin Doyle, who returns as Molesley, says of the movie-within-a-movie subplot.

“That’s right. We learned a lot about silent movies and making silent movies,” Dancy adds. “It was fun to bring that into Downton and shake up that world a little bit.” 

And the silent film’s presence leads to some unexpected revelations for many living upstairs and downstairs as well. “So, it’s kind of fabulous and fascinating and interesting,” Nicol teases. “But then there are a few surprises in that storyline that you won’t see coming.” 

Downton Abbey: A New Era debuts in theaters on Friday, May 20. 

--Reporting by Rachel Smith and Stacy Lambe