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By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 23, 2019 at 05:17 PM EDT
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WARNING: This post contains spoilers from the plot of the Downton Abbey movie. Read at your own risk.

The King and Queen are coming to Downton!

This monumental news is the plot around which the entirety of the Downton Abbey film, now in theaters, fixates — how will Mary (Michelle Dockery) ensure her house is adequately prepared? Will Thomas (Rob James-Collier) be up for the butler-ing job? And will Tom Branson (Allen Leech) let his Republican tendencies show, much to the family’s embarrassment?

All of this provides fodder for the low-stakes aristocratic drama that has become the bread and butter (or is it tea and crumpets?) of Downton Abbey, while also laying groundwork for more serious explorations of romance, living as a gay man in England in this era, and assassination attempts — many of which involve chauffeur turned Crawley family member Tom Branson.

But for Allen Leech, the actor who has played Branson since the start, it turns out meeting another ruling party (this one democratically elected) was his equivalent of a royal visit.

“It’s always surprising the people that love the show. I’m always bowled over by it. One of the most bizarre encounters I had was probably being invited along with Michelle [Dockery] to the last White House Correspondents dinner and meeting President Obama and the First Lady, who is a big fan and having a moment to talk to them,” he tells EW. “We stood there and we were getting our photo taken, and it was at the end of season 6, and [Michelle Obama] said, ‘I’m pretty sure you’re fed up with people asking what’s next.’ And I turned to her and said, ‘You better get used to that in January.’ That was a pretty cool moment and that will always stick out in my mind.”

These days Leech is getting as much adventure on screen as he is off. While the 2016 wrap-up of Downton Abbey left him with the most open-ended story line and no romantic happy ending (a turn of events he calls “frustrating”), the movie tees him up as romantic and action hero — romancing lady’s maid/secret love child Lucy (Tuppence Middleton) and stopping an assassination plot against the King.

DOWNTON ABBEY
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/Focus Features

As Downton Abbey was about to hit theaters, we called Leech up to get the lowdown on what it was like to play the romantic hero once more, filming his first-ever Downton stunt, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were the only one who really didn’t get your romantic happy ending at the end of the series. Was that disappointing?
ALLEN LEECH: Yeah, it was frustrating, but then I’d also been on such a journey with a character. I said to [creator] Julian [Fellowes] once, “Where does Tom end up?” and he said, “Well, who knows? But that’s life, Allen, not everyone gets a happy ending at the same time.” You have to trust in Julian. At the time, this character you play for so long and you become so close to, you want it to have a satisfactory summing up of and finishing of his story. I did feel it was left slightly open-ended. Obviously, now with hindsight, I’m delighted because it gave him so much to do within the film.

Were you excited to get a central romance in the film?
I was, I was really excited and delighted that he had so many elements within the story, not just the love interest. But also what he does within the family and how he’s become so integral to the family. That’s something that made me very happy — the importance that Branson has within Downton. It’s something I could never have imagined when I started this. [I was originally contracted for] three episodes. That was it. He definitely stuck around for longer than that.

What was your reaction when you first read the script and saw how central you were? Were you surprised by the circumstances?
I really was. I didn’t know what to expect. I love that moment when you get one of Julian’s scripts. It always fascinates me how he interweaves these stories of 22 characters so beautifully, and how they constantly intersect and influence each other as the story goes on. It’s such a testament to him as a writer and so clever using the idea of the royal visit because it affects everyone equally because it’s such a momentous occasion.

Were you surprised by who Tom ends up romantically connecting with? I think we all maybe expected him to match with a bit more of a firebrand, like women he’d paired off with before.
What I love is they’re both victims of circumstance. They find themselves in this world not because they tried to create it or not because they fought for it; they both just happened to find themselves in this circumstance by fate. Lucy is born out of wedlock [and] therefore has had to be hidden; Branson because his wife has passed away but he felt a duty to keep his daughter within the family, he finds himself here, and then, they find each other. The symbol of what they do at the end of the movie when they’re dancing together, but they’re not dancing with the family — they’re not contained within this very regimented and formulaic ballroom scenario. They’re outside on their own, doing their own thing. That’s a lasting image of them moving towards the future and a symbol of the modern age.

Your chemistry with Jessica Brown Findlay was partly what really propelled the show to its extreme popularity early on. Was it fun to get to be in that space again and be the romantic lead again? How did your chemistry and working relationship with your love interest compare this go-round?
I had a wonderful time working with Jessica Brown Findlay. She’s a wonderful actress. We were also helped along by the age-old story everyone loves, which is almost the lady and the stable boy. This time it was the lady and the chauffeur. People love the idea because what they symbolized was how love can conquer all. This time, Tuppence is a wonderful actress; it’s the second time we got to work together. She was in The Imitation Game. I had a lot more dialogue with her this time. In that movie, I’m pretty sure I just said “Hello.” So, it was lovely to get to act with her. I’ve admired her work for many years. She’s brilliant and a lovely person to play off, and it was so lovely to find Tom in a position where he truly was ready to fall in love again. We had a lot of false starts with Tom, but this was the right time for it.

RELATED VIDEO: Allen Leech reveals the romantic story of how he met his wife

You also are quite a grand hero in other ways. You save the King from an assassination attempt. What was it like filming that scene? Intense? Fun?
It was very exciting because I never got to do anything like that on the show. Over the four days, we had the actual King’s Troop. They’re actually a working regiment of the army. We had two of the finest stuntmen who mainly work on Game of Thrones, so I think when [they] arrived and had to do our stunt, they were a bit underwhelmed. I mean, having done epic 45-minute battles in that show. But it was very exciting. [Director] Michael Engler calls it an “action-ish” scene.

Were you surprised by Tom’s role in that scenario? More than anything, it probably shows how far Tom has come since we first met him.
When I first read it, I was a little nervous, given his Republican ideologies that he’s held and has certainly repressed or learned to express himself slightly differently. Obviously, he would do this for only one reason. Julian and I agreed — he’s doing this for the family, not for anything else. His loyalty is to the family, certainly not to the monarchy. That hasn’t changed. What I loved about that story line was, it solidifies how important Branson’s become in the world of Downton. Coming from the chauffeur and then moving up, and then his wife dying, and all the trials and tribulations he’s gone through. The assassination attempt and him thwarting it shows Branson is integral to the world of Downton Abbey.

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Downton Abbey (movie)

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