Downton Abbey’s dashing villain despairs

Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow' PA Photo/ITV
Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow' PA Photo/ITV

WE’VE heard about British stars being big in Japan, but Rob James-Collier has just discovered he’s all the rage in country a little closer to home.

“I’m big in Germany, apparently. I’ve just done a shoot for German Vogue. I might bail over there and get a free night out,” says the 36-year-old, with an impish grin.

The cast of the fabulous Downton Abbey ' PA Photo/ITV

The cast of the fabulous Downton Abbey ' PA Photo/ITV

It’s his role as Thomas Barrow in Downton Abbey which has won him the attention. Handsome and Brylcreemed, Collier cuts a dash as the Crawley family’s first footman, but beneath the surface the character is as troubled as they come.

In his chequered three-series history, Thomas has relentlessly plotted and schemed. He tried to oust valet John Bates, to no avail, got himself shot on purpose during the First World War to get an early discharge from service and scammed the rationing system by selling goods on the black market, which ultimately left him bankrupt and begging Downton Abbey’s head butler Carson to give him back his job.

Such is Thomas’s notoriety that when Oscar-winning American actress Shirley MacLaine first jetted in to play Lady Cora’s mother at the beginning of this series, she made a beeline for James-Collier to berate him.

“It was a completely surreal experience,” he recalls. “She got out the car, this Hollywood icon, and she was kind of looking for someone. And everyone was there, the entire cast, and she went, ‘It’s you!’ pointing at me. She came over to me and she’s like, ‘The evil one! Why are you so evil?’

Rob James-Collier as Thomas and Siobhan Finneran as O'Brien' PA Photo/ITV

Rob James-Collier as Thomas and Siobhan Finneran as O'Brien' PA Photo/ITV

“And I was like, ‘Hello Shirley, nice to meet you, I’m Rob, how you doing?’ and she was like, ‘Never mind that, why are you so evil?’”

So far this series we’ve seen him locked in a battle of wills and wits with his former sidekick and fellow servant Sarah O’Brien. The pair fell out when, despite an era of austerity in the house, O’Brien managed to get her nephew Alfred a job as a footman.

Thomas sought to undermine the new recruit’s position and he and O’Brien turned on each other in a conflict which has come close to reaching the same level of drama as Lady Sibyl’s shock death during childbirth.

The clash between the two characters reached particularly dangerous proportions in the latest episode.

“It’s escalated into something highly malevolent and borderline disturbing,” says James-Collier.

Thanks to a bit of expertly-timed stirring from O’Brien, Thomas - who is secretly gay - believed handsome footman Jimmy Kent had fallen for him. He crept into his room and kissed him while asleep

As this series comes to an end, Thomas has to face the consequences of his actions, but James-Collier hopes viewers have come to understand him a little bit more.

“He’s very angry towards this world which condemns him for being who he is,” the actor explains. “We’ve seen him in a fragile state, open, vulnerable, a man in despair, and hopefully - if I’ve done my job right - the audience will empathise with him.

“It helps to understand why he is how he is. You get into the psychology of this broken man. I think the scenes are quite upsetting.”

The Mancunian actor, who played Liam Connor in Coronation Street for two years until 2008, thinks it was important to put the issue “out there” and to explore how being gay when it was illegal might have affected people.

“Thomas has always been an outsider because of his sexuality, he’s got this secret. There were no gay bars back then - that’s in series four when he opens one,” he jokes.

He’s hoping his character will make it into series four and, meanwhile, he’s been popping up in other shows, in roles “a world away from Thomas” - a deliberate move to avoid being typecast.

He starred in romantic drama series Love Life at the beginning of this year, and last year was in Jimmy McGovern’s BBC series Moving On.

But it’s Downton which people really want to speak to him about, even with fans outside of Germany.

“The nation seems to have taken this show to their hearts and you’re part of this show. So whether you’re good, bad or indifferent in it, they don’t care,” he says.

“You belong to Downton Abbey, ergo they love you, and it’s been nice to be part of that.”