Lesley Nicol talks to ET about reprising her role for the film and telling her story onstage in a new autobiographical musical.
Celebrated stage and screen actress Lesley Nicol is back on both as she stars in the autobiographical musical How the Hell Did I Get Here?, which has recently launched its North American tour in Chicago, and reprises her longtime role as Mrs. Patmore in the upcoming Downton Abbey sequel, A New Era. While speaking to ET, Nicol reflects on a decade of playing the cook in charge of the downstairs kitchen staff in the acclaimed British drama and what inspired her return to the stage.
Created by Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey first launched in the U.K. in 2010 before quickly becoming an international sensation, thanks to its captivating stories about the lives upstairs versus downstairs at the Crawley family estate in Yorkshire county in the early 1900s. Among the cast of characters written by Fellowes was a stern head cook named Mrs. Beryl Patmore. “A rather angry, strict kind of busy woman in the kitchen,” Nicol recalls. “She was never intended to be funny.”
Over time, however, the actress notes that Fellowes slowly started to evolve the character around her performance, especially the way she interacted with the young cook Daisy Mason played by Sophie McShera. “I fell in love with her on day one,” Nicol says. “We have the same sense of humor and we got very close, very quickly and he saw that.”
And over the six seasons of the series, audiences eventually got to see all her layers. “She’s insecure. She’s fragile. Sometimes she can be sarcastic and all of that, but that came as a result of seeing the interaction between us,” Nicol continues, adding that because of how well the character has been written, “it’s always nice to go back and be with her again.”
In this case, it’s a new sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era, that picks up nine months after the events of the first film, with Tom Branson (Allen Leech) getting married to Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton) before most of the extended Crawley family takes an excursion to the South of France where the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) has inherited a villa.
Back at the estate (“I’ll never get out of the kitchen,” Nicol quips), Patmore 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) decides to make a movie there. “That’s a whole alien world that descends on that house,” Nicol teases. “So, it’s kind of fabulous and fascinating and interesting. But then there are a few surprises in that storyline that you won’t see coming.”
“It’s absolutely jam-packed full of stuff,” Nicol says of the film. “There’s so much going on. I mean, it’s funny. I laughed out loud a lot. There’s stuff that made me cry because there’s some romance and stuff you don’t expect. I suppose that’s what I also love about it. I mean, I know what happens, but there’ll be stuff that the audience couldn’t possibly foresee.”
Until the movie hits theaters on May 20, fans can see Nicol onstage, first in Chicago at the Greenhouse Theater Center, from March 12 through April 3, and then in New York City’s McKittrick Hotel, from April 20 to May 8. While accompanied onstage by composer and collaborator Mark Mueller, the feel-good musical takes audiences on a journey through Nicol’s life and career, starting with her childhood before moving on to her time as a working actress and then touching on her breakout success with Downton Abbey.
At times, the show is really funny and at others, it’s very poignant. “This is a very personal story, but completely meant to be something that we all relate to because I’m just talking about what it’s like to be a human being,” Nicol says, noting that it will touch professional highs as well as personal lows.
Although the show will touch on personal relationships and experiences, it will also feature some anecdotes from behind the scenes of Downton Abbey, including what it was like to be on the set during the final days of shooting the series -- long before they knew they would be reuniting again for the films.
Even though she didn’t want to spoil some of the stories that will be told onstage, Nicol did tease one about the time she met Prince Charles as a result of being on the series. “And made a fool of myself,” she recalls, revealing that she was unable to curtsy in front of him because there was a dog sitting on both of her feet.
Back on the set of A New Era, she had a far less embarrassing interaction with West, who will portray the royal on the new season of The Crown. “I made him do the voice. I said, ‘Do me the voice.’ And he did it rather well, actually. And then I said, ‘Well, what are you gonna do about your ears?’” she recalls.
While Nicol had a great time on the set, she’s sure there’s a limit to how many more times she can play Mrs. Patmore again. “But I can only do it in baby steps, one at a time,” she says, before sharing that she’s up for another film. “I am pretty sure I’m not speaking out of turn if I say the cast would love a third one.”
She adds of the series becoming a film franchise, “I have no idea if this is a thing that could go on. But if there was a third, I’d think there’s a lot of cast members who would be very, very happy.”
How the Hell Did I Get Here? is now playing at the Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago through April 3 before moving to the McKittrick Hotel in New York City, from April 20 to May 8.