Downton Abbey, Series 2 - Elizabeth McGovern
Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) © 2011 Carnival Films, Photo by Nick Briggs for Masterpiece

As the year comes to a close, fans of Downton Abbey can look forward to Downton Abbey II, which premieres on PBS on January 8th.

The Great War brings a new era to Downton Abbey, the stately home of the Earl and Countess of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern), affecting the aristocrats and servants alike.

Returning to the series are Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley, Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley and Siobhan Finneran as the evil, scheming Sarah OBrien, Lady Grantham’s maid.

Did any of you get to the last page of the final script for Season One, where the Great War begins, and say, ‘That’s it?’

Downton Abbey,  Series 2 - Dan Stevens, TCA
Dan Stevens at the August 2011 TCA's in Los Angeles, CA © 2011 Masterpiece

Dan Stevens: It seemed like a very natural place to end things, actually. It was literally the last moment where things could never quite be the same again. And I quite like the fact that there’s not a great deal of resolution with a lot of those storylines.

Mary drove us crazy in the first season, mainly because she seemed very intelligent and then she made a couple of these really terrible decisions.

Downton Abbey, Series 2 - Michelle Dockery, TCA
Michelle Dockery at the August 2011 TCA's in Los Angeles, CA © 2011 Masterpiece

Michelle Dockery: On first reading Mary in the first episode came across as a very cold person and very much a snob, but she got lot more vulnerable. She’s an incredibly complex character. That’s what I love about her.

She doesn’t always make the right decisions and is full of regret for what happened between her and Matthew at the end of the first series. You see that in the second series that she’s still pining for him after two years. It’s hopeful that they will be together, but she finds out very quickly that he’s moved on to someone else. But that affection for him is still very much there.

Siobhan, can you talk about playing the fun, evil character? What’s that like for you? Every time you get a script, do you think, ‘Oh, no way?’

Downton Abbey, Series 2 - Siobhan Finnernan, TCA
Siobhan Finnernan at the August 2011 TCA's in Los Angeles, CA © 2011 Masterpiece

Siobhan Finneran: Oh no, I think, ‘Oh, great way!’ I love playing her. I think she’s really good fun. I think she’s funny as well as being evil. She’s slightly softer for the next series, but I have a great time playing her.

Do people come up to you on the street and point fingers, or are they pretty nice about it?

Siobhan: Well, fortunately I don’t look as much like her when I’m not playing her. People come up and say we really like to dislike your character. But I think that’s good, isn’t it? That’s a good thing.

What is the biggest difference between Matthew Crawley in Season II versus Season I?

Dan: In Season II, he’s surrounded by a lot of explosions, which he wasn’t in Series I. He’s in uniform for a lot of the time. He’s very much the serving soldier, very active at the front. It’s a bit of a darker storyline for him.

Is he a willing soldier?

Dan: Very much so, duty-bound. You know, has moments of heroic dashing across no man’s land. It’s quite a change.

The costumes on this series are amazing. Even the simplest costumes are very lavish and detailed. What is it like going to work every day and getting to play dress-up in those amazing clothes?

Siobhan: I can’t answer that. (she laughs)

Michelle: Yeah. There’s a lot of costume envy from you guys.

Siobhan: A lot.

Michelle: We’ll have two or three changes a day sometimes.

Siobhan: And I’ve got just two costumes, and they’re both black. I’ve kept my corset on just ’cause I can’t take it off now!

What’s it like for you to get to work at Highclere Castle, where you shoot the series?

Downton Abbey, Series 2 - Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) at the raiway station © 2011 Carnival Films

Dan: It’s an incredibly imposing and striking building. And it’s kind of wonderful. We have a unit based with all our trailers set up about 200 meters from the house itself. And you get into your costumes and makeup, you get ready, and then you have this 200-meter walk up to the house and you’re running the lines in your head. And it’s wonderful preparation for playing those scenes in that enormous house. It was actually designed by the same architect who designed our Houses of Parliament. It’s got the same kind of high Elizabethan feel to it. It’s really a nice place to work.

How constricting it is to be in the emotions of that era? When you play someone in 1916 and you’re from a century later, what strikes you about those characters?

Dan: One of the great pleasures of playing in period pieces is that very often the emotional intention of the scene runs directly parallel to the verbal intentions. So everything that Matthew might be saying to Mary can run very much counter to what he’s actually feeling and vice versa, and that is dramatically interesting and fun to play. It’s hopefully dramatically interesting and fun to watch as well.

Michelle: It’s like what Dan said. It’s really interesting to play those scenes where the emotions and true feelings are repressed.

Dan: It’s pretty English.

Michelle: Yes, but also in a time now where everything seems so exposed, to play in a time like that where people were much more private about their feelings and their lives, it’s really interesting to play.

Ms O’Brien seemed to have a little bit of an epiphany in the last series where she realized how evil she really was. There was a lovely moment of clarity that came at the garden party. It doesn’t look like she’s going to have a sidekick for a good portion of Series II. Is that going to affect her and how she behaves?

Downton Abbey Christmas Special - Rob James-Coller and Siobhan Finneran
Downton Abbey Christmas Special - Thomas (Rob James-Coller) and O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) © 2011 Carnival Films

Siobhan: Well, he’s her only friend. So she’s very lonely when the second series starts because he’s not there with her. The epiphany affects her, yes. I won’t say wracked with guilt because I don’t think that ever really happens, but she’s carrying quite a lot of guilt with her about what she did. But she doesn’t turn into Mother Teresa, you’ll be pleased to know.

And do you have fans send you soap as a gift?

Siobhan: No, but I would love if they did. A  friend of mine did make a Christmas card with a picture of me as Ms. O’Brien, saying “Watch you don’t slip on your soap this Christmas.” No, I’ve never been sent a bar of soap.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.