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15 September 2012

Downton Abbey: An interview with Ed Speleers (Jimmy Kent)

Jimmy Kent
(Ed Speleers)
© ITV
What’s it like for a newcomer joining a hit series?

“The first day was like a first day at a new school,” says Ed Speleers. “But luckily everyone’s been very welcoming here. My character arrives a few episodes in, so it’s not like I had a rehearsal period or a read through to really get to know everyone. I literally had to arrive in the middle of the scene in the day and hit the ground running. It meant I didn't have any time to think too much, and actually I think that that’s the only way you can approach it: you just get on with it. There are a lot of big personalities here - great personalities, but they're big personalities. And it’s Downton: it does have a big name.”

Speleers, whose break came when he was cast in the lead in 20th Century Fox’s 2006 fantasy epic Eragon, plays Jimmy, a new footman.

“Jimmy is a very ambitious young man who has come into the house having worked at the Dowager Lady Anstruther’s house and obviously done quite well there. He’s vying for the position of first footman. He comes into it as a bit of a mystery man - no one really quite knows who he’s into; what his turn-ons and turn-offs are as such. But as the series develops he gets himself into a couple of sticky situations.”

Jimmy quickly grasps that to get along below stairs he will have to contend with Thomas, just like everybody else.

“He actually realises that in order to succeed he’s got to keep in with Thomas, because Thomas is directly above him and a valet is what Jimmy aspires to be.”

But there’s one other thing.

“He doesn't know what the viewers know, and have known for the last two series - that O’Brien’s a conniving so-and-so.”

Jimmy’s appearance is both a problem and a bonus – all of the girls fancy him the minute he walks in. But that doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it might today. Speleers says that a handsome man in the 20s would have seen himself differently to now.

“It’s something that Alastair Bruce [Downton’s historical advisor] talked about quite early on actually – the idea that men at that time, if they were regarded as a handsome fellow, probably wouldn't appreciate it in the same way as a modern man would. It might even make them a bit uncomfortable, which I thought was an interesting take. I’ve tried to make it more about the fact that he’s coming in for a job interview and he’s really nervous about that. He’s oblivious to the fact that there might be a couple of women staring at him.”

Speleers says that once he was cast his first priority was to get up to speed on matters of etiquette, status and of course history.

“Carson is my God basically, so although Lord Grantham effectively employs me the man I really want to impress at all times is Carson. Alastair Bruce has instilled that in me. But the other thing he’s taught me is the idea that it’s 1920 now, so my character would certainly have fought in the First World War. He wouldn’t dwell on it but it’s there ticking over in the back of his mind – he has seen people die and that’s a much more serious thing than making sure that the silver’s polished properly.”

Speleers needed physical, as well as mental training for the role. Deportment matters at Downton.

“Alastair said I’ve got a bit of a waddle. So he got me marching, properly marching, all day, just marching up and down. I’ve also found the costume helps. It may get bloody hot, but every time this suit goes on my back instantly straightens up.”

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