Hugh Bonneville is one of our best-known actors. He talks to Nick Ahad about the National Youth Theatre, Downton Abbey and Paddington.
Some celebrities arrive with what is euphemistically known as ‘‘a bit of a reputation’’.
These reputations can make a journalist a little wary pre-interview.
Then there are reputations like Hugh Bonneville’s and you arrive for a chat with nothing but optimism about your time together.
I can confirm that Bonneville is every bit as lovely as they say he is – and they do say that.
Whether he is playing good sport Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey or Mr Brown in Paddington, the father who learns how to love life courtesy of a little bear, Bonneville always seems to bring to his roles the spirit of a ‘‘chap’’ who will most often be found saying ‘‘jolly good show’’ in response to almost anything.
Which is exactly how he comes across in real life.
We are ostensibly here to talk about a new scheme to help disadvantaged young people gain a foothold on the ladder of a career in theatre, but Bonneville is happy to spend a good while having a meandering chat about his own acting career.
So we begin at the beginning. His first film credited film role was Frankenstein, the 1994 version directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Robert De Niro as the creature.
He is a little surprised I have raised this role.
“I played Robert De Niro’s right leg,” he says, a little incredulous but clearly amused that this is considered part of his oeuvre.
“It was my first film role, I was in Ken Branagh’s Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the time I was trying to write a movie for Ken. He said ‘look, if you’re writing a movie, you should be in one so you can see what making one is actually like’, so he gave me one line in Frankenstein. I played the right leg of the creature that makes up Robert De Niro, so I can say I make up a quarter of De Niro.”
With such an eclectic CV, beginning with that right leg, Bonneville is a hugely recognisable figure, and thanks to the benevolence he brings to any role he plays finds that people who approach him do so with the spirit that they are saying hello to a friend. When he was filming Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, playing Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, he was recognised in the least likely of ways.
“I was in a roadside shack in the middle of India and this little lad came up and said ‘You’re Mr Brown’. A little lad from an Indian town. You never know where people are going to recognise you from,” he says. “I’m just delighted that some of the shows I’ve done have had an impact on some people.” Modest with it too.
Bonneville studied theology at Cambridge, but has said previously that a career in the clergy was never on the cards. His teenage years with the National Youth Theatre (NYT), an organisation whose alumni include Dame Helen Mirren, Daniel Craig and Chiwetel Ejiofor among many, many others, set Bonneville on the path to acting stardom early on.
Now he is hoping to open the door to the NYT for other young people with a scheme called NYT Auditions Access Fun. It encourages budding actors aged between 14 and 25 to apply to receive a free audition in 10 areas of the country that have been identified as lacking in arts provision. Following a letter from a South Leeds-based drama teacher, who told the NYT that drama was removed from the curriculum at the school where she teaches, the scheme has chosen South Leeds as one of the 10 areas where it will run free workshops early next year to encourage young people to apply to the organisation.
“The National Youth Theatre was a really formative part of my teenage years. I have become very aware of how the arts are being sidelined and access to things like NYT are being diminished. I wanted to do something with the NYT to reach out to areas of the country that feel they are out of touch geographically or economically, or people who feel that things like the theatre and the NYT are not for them,” he says. “We are a nation of storytellers, we communicate through imagination, through dance, performative arts, acting, we tell stories to each other to understand each other and we reduce that experience at our peril. This fund is a drop in the ocean in truth, but there is a bit of money there available to reach out to students who have the talent and passion but may lack opportunity.”
See? He really is a thoroughly decent chap.
It is this ‘‘decent chappery’’ that Bonneville has been asked to mine in several of his roles since his debut as De Niro’s right leg.
Oddly enough, you didn’t see him in Four Weddings and a Funeral. I know, I was surprised too; and it turns out I’m not alone in being convinced I did see him in the British movie behemoth. “Just yesterday someone was quoting Four Weddings at me. I think it’s because I was in Notting Hill, which is basically same plot, just a different cast,” he says.
Have I mentioned that Bonneville is a thoroughly decent chap? He even provides an interviewer with perfectly crafted segues. As he mentions Paddington 2, it makes sense to ask about his role as Mr Henry Brown, the patriarch of the family who take in the itinerant Peruvian Paddington Bear, in the wildly popular movies.
“I grew up with Paddington as my great friend,” he says. “My dad used to read the books to me and then as I got older I would read them myself. I am immensely proud to have been a part of it. Making the films was immensely hard work, a nightmare actually, but the end result has given so much pleasure to so many people and that is wonderful.”
We do, of course, need to squeeze in something about Downton Abbey. The movie version of the Julian Fellowes cultural phenomenon is shrouded in secrecy, but September 2019 has been confirmed as a release date.
“It picks up a few months after where we left the TV series, but in reality it is three years since we were all in a room together. It was a testament to the fact that we all really did enjoy each other’s company and working together that it was possible to get everyone back in a room together again.”
The truth is, if they are anything like as charming as Bonneville, it’s not a huge surprise they would want to spend time together. His reputation is fully deserved.
For more information about the NYT Audition Access Fund log on to www.nyt. org.uk
Those who receive the Audition Access Fund will receive a free preparation workshop on March 6 before the audition on March 15. Both the workshop and audition will be held at the Cockburn John Charles Academy.