‘Downton Abbey’ star visits Montclair Literary Festival
“I never wanted to be famous,” Hugh Bonneville told the crowd at Temple Ner Tamid during an event held by Succeed2gether for the Montclair Literary Festival.
Although he may not have wanted to become famous, the packed temple on Tuesday night, Nov. 15, showed that he certainly is.
The host for the evening, CBS News senior correspondent Jim Axelrod, said: “My family worships here. I've been to Yom Kippur services here that don't have as many people.”
Bonneville is best known for playing Robert Crawley, earl of Grantham, on the British TV series “Downton Abbey.” He was in Montclair to talk about his most recent role, author.
His memoir, “Playing Under the Piano: From Downton to Darkest Peru,” was released by Other Press on Nov. 8. Montclair was one of only three stops in the United States on Bonneville’s book tour.
Throughout the evening, Bonneville and Axelrod drew laughter and tears from the audience as they discussed the memoir, which was in the making for the last six years but written in 2½ months.
The idea to write a memoir came to Bonneville when an agent “nagged” him after seeing his wit and charm in interviews over the years. Throughout the six years, Bonneville would spontaneously write a chapter or a page.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that his son, Felix, inspired him to finish the book. Felix was on vacation in Scotland, the same place where Bonneville wrote the first chapter of his then-unfinished memoir.
“He sent me a picture of his word count,” Bonneville said of his son. “And he said, ‘I'm writing a book, Dad. I've written 4,000 words today. How about you?’”
This gentle but cheeky encouragement from his son inspired Bonneville to dedicate the next couple of months to writing the book.
He looked to find structure for his writing process through the author Roald Dahl, whom he played in the movie “To Olivia.”
“He would work two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, and I thought, ‘That's lightweight,’” Bonneville jokingly said. He told Axelrod that because he was used to working eight-hour days filming on set, he thought he could use the same schedule for writing.
He quickly learned that storytelling as an actor is quite different from storytelling as a writer.
“Storytelling in the visual or on film, you're actually interpreting, you're channeling somebody else's work,” he said. “Whereas, of course, as an author you are literally creating and shaping stories.”
When Bonneville completed his memoir, he realized that the book had evolved into something he had not imagined when he started the project.
In the beginning, he set out to write a “string of showbiz anecdotes.” When he was finished, he had told a story about his father’s journey with dementia and his mother’s influence on his life. Through his memoir, Bonneville realized how much of his career he owes to his parents.
When he was a child, both of his parents were in the medical field but made sure to have their children involved in cultural activities. Bonneville said he was “dragged around” to art galleries and concerts.
“Of course, at the ages of 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, I thought it was so boring,” he said, “but theater was the one that really struck a chord with me.”
In his teenage years, he joined the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, an organization established in 1956 that nourishes the talents of young people in the arts. Bonneville credits his time there for giving him a “cultural hunger.”
In his book, he drops the names of plenty of celebrities, including Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio and the late Bob Hoskins. The celebrity who has had the biggest impact on him is Judi Dench.
Bonneville recalled his first job in the National Youth Theatre, where he was in a rehearsal with the actress. Feeling wracked with nerves, his hands were shaking before going onstage to rehearse with Dench. “Then she did something which I have never forgotten,” he said. “She did what the opposite of upstaging is.”
Dench walked downstage and turned her back to the house, shifting the spotlight to Bonneville.
“That was about the most generous act a senior actor could do for a young buck like me, and I've always treasured that,” he said.