WARNING: This story contains major spoilers for the Downton Abbey movie. Read at your own risk!
First, we loved to hate Thomas Barrow. Then, we hated to love him. And now, after years of misfires and dangerous missed connections, Barrow finally gets a story line where we can root for him unabashedly.
“He’s been through the mill so many times,” Rob James-Collier, who has portrayed footman-turned-butler Thomas Barrow for six seasons on the series and now the Downton Abbey movie, tells EW. “For him to finally have a culmination — it was a lovely moment.”
He’s referring specifically to the kiss that Barrow receives near the film’s third act with a member of the royal household — a romantic victory years in the making that is earning gasps and cheers from audiences (and instantly roiled up fan interest when teased in the film’s trailer). “It’s such a beautiful, heartwarming scene,” he remarks. “Hopefully they’ll meet again, but the question is left wanting. I loved the fact that he got a happy ending.”
More than that moment of joyful respite, though, Downton Abbey finally gives fans a look at the secret gay sub-culture of 1920s England. “He discovers there’s a whole world where they can dance together, kiss, talk freely, and be themselves,” James-Collier says of his character’s onscreen journey. “That changed the narrative for Thomas. He hadn’t been privy to that world before and the fact that he finds it through a moment of serendipity and we explore his response to that was lovely to play.”
As an actor, it also marked a chance to complete an evolution for Thomas that’s been brewing for some time. “He’s flipped in the series from being the de facto bad guy to [exploring] why he’s the bad guy,” he reflects. “[Audiences] root for him now, and it’s gone from a hate of Thomas to a love as the audience have understood why he is how he is and that’s all rooted in his sexuality.”
Though he also admits that he sometimes misses just getting to be bad for the fun of it. “The devilment’s gone out of him,” he notes. “He was incredibly ambitious, which is why he would do anything to anyone to get to where he wanted to be, and I did love that level of ambition. He was ruthless. But now he’s at the top of the tree — he’s the butler, so he doesn’t need to be scheming any more.”
For James-Collier, Barrow’s story line is an example of what Downton Abbey does best, giving viewers the opulence of the upstairs world while still dealing in the realities of life for the working class. “I’m glad [writer] Julian [Felllowes] chose to have this edgy counterpoint in Thomas’s story line,” he stresses. “‘You’ve got this fantastic opulent world and beautiful ballrooms and people’s costumes, but this is what it’s like for the everyday guy on the street. And this is what it’s like if you were gay in them times. It’s a great reminder of how harsh life could be back then for people in service and for people who were homosexual. It grounds us and reminds us how far we’ve come.”
Though the kiss and moment of romantic bliss has everyone talking, it’s the sequences leading up to that which forced James-Collier to dig deeper into his role than ever before. While enjoying a night out, Barrow discovers a secret jazz club for gay men before a police raid leads to his arrest and threatens to derail his entire life. He found invaluable resources in famous indecency cases like the one leading to the imprisonment of playwright Oscar Wilde, as well as the diaries of gay men working in service that were recommended reading by the film’s historical advisor.
“That was a tremendous tool to access the past, but it’s down to me as an actor to put myself in Thomas’s shoes,” he muses. “It’s not to try and recreate someone who’s left his thoughts in a diary, but to respond to Julian’s writing and put my spin on how I think Thomas should react in a certain situation.”
However, when it came to tapping into Barrow’s unbridled joy at discovering a space where he can be himself, James-Collier says there was little to no acting involved thanks to the production design team. “I love that scene because there’s a childlike sense of wonder in Thomas; he’s absolutely gobsmacked,” he explains. “The dancers, the music, the details down to the furniture were absolutely fantastic. There was no acting required, I was like, ‘Wow, this looks amazing.’ I just love that we got that almost childlike quality of Thomas, and we saw the naïveté of ‘Wow, I didn’t know this could exist.’ It’s beautiful.”
The brief moment of wonder is destroyed quickly by a police raid, which proved a different challenge in trying to express the extreme stakes. At the time the film is set, being arrested for what was then termed “gross indecency” could lead to life imprisonment; at the very least, it could permanently ruin your life. “When you see him get chucked in the back of the van, he is this harrowed man because what’s at stake is his livelihood,” James-Collier adds. “If he gets caught and exposed, he will never be able to work in service anywhere again.”
But it’s also Barrow’s bravery and chutzpah that James-Collier connects to, manifested here in his decision to step away for the royal visit when Carson (Jim Carter) is recalled to oversee the royal visit when Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) feels Barrow isn’t up to the job. Barrow reacts strongly to it partially because his identity makes him more defensive by nature. “He can be a bit more paranoid than the next man,” he reflects. “Because he has to live a life behind closed doors and keep his true self and identity inside. He’s quite guarded and maybe a little bit more suspicious of people, so he sees that [moment] as a betrayal, when it’s not necessarily. It’s a question of experience. He stands himself down for the royal visit — that’s a bold thing to do and his lordship develops a new level of respect for him because he’s temporarily resigning on a point of principle, which we’d never seen before.”
A principled, romantically optimistic Thomas? Will the wonders of Downton Abbey never cease?
Downton Abbey is now in theaters.