The role of Mrs. Patmore, the cook on the wildly popular PBS series Downton Abbey, is played by British actress Lesley Nicol. Known in Britain for her stage and TV work, including a series of commercials for Tetley Tea, she has some of the wittiest lines on the period drama.
The 55-year-old also appeared in the1988 British TV series The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Downton Abbey airs in 200 countries and enjoyed the highest ratings for a PBS show when Season 3 premiered in the U.S. last month. The show airs at 9 p.m. Sundays.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q. Can you cook in real life?
A. No, not really. (Laughs) I mean, I can get by, but I think the world is made of two types of people – ones that follow recipe books and ones who can just dive in and create something. I’m the recipe-book one. But it doesn’t always work out even when I do a recipe. (Laughs)
Q. So you don’t film at Highclere Castle often because your scenes are mostly in the kitchen.
A. It is split into two. When they are in the house upstairs, that is the real castle, Highclere Castle – beautiful, beautiful building. What they decided to do was build a whole joining set at Ealing Film Studios, which is in London. It’s an amazing set. Literally, you walk into my kitchen, and that takes you through to the servants’ hall and the corridors and bedrooms, so it is quite a big set. It stays there for the amount of months we are filming.
Q. Lesley, what brought you to acting?
A. I think the obvious answer to that is shyness. I think it’s true of a lot of actors. I know it sounds a bit weird if you are prepared to stand up in front of 2,000 people, but it’s very simple. What you are doing is being somebody else. That gives a sort of sense of confidence. I suppose that is what happened to me. The first time I ever got up on a stage I did a comedy poem. I don’t know how I got there in the first place because I was very, very shy.
As soon as I got some sort of reaction it was like a drug, I mean, literally like a drug. I thought, I want to do that again. God, I want to do that again! It became my lifelong passion, really. To be honest, it was the only thing that I was better than average at. So it’s not like I had a million options.
I count myself very lucky to have been able to make a living at it.
Q. Has the direction your career has taken been satisfactory to you?
A. Um, I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if I’d got Downton Abbey when I was 22. But you know what? I don’t know if I would have been able to embrace it like I do now. When you look back, I think things are as they are meant to be. Timing is very important. The timing of this particular job was rather perfect for me. It happened to be the right part at the right time. I was the only person who was seen for it. In order to do it properly, I probably did have to do a lot of years developing myself and also being a better actor. I’ve done a lot of work.
I was lucky in the younger years when there was a real proper theater system in the U.K. You could go and work for seasons of plays and just learn what you were doing. Now the horrible thing is, they are training many, many more people because there’s money in it, obviously. But there is much less work and that’s really the wrong way around, you know? When I was younger – I’m not saying it was always easy to get a job – but, generally speaking, there were more opportunities.
Q. When you started out, did you see yourself as a character actress?
A. I didn’t see myself as any kind. I just wanted to learn how to do it. So I went to a school called Guild Hall School of Music and Drama in London, and they give you all kinds of different roles. The first role I played was Madame Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard. It was a part I could never have played at age 17 and probably did a really bad job, but what did become clear towards the end of the three years was that they were pointing me towards the comedy roles rather than anything else. So rather than a character actress, I thought, maybe I can do comedy.
What’s been nice about what’s happened since, and in a way what’s happened with Mrs. Patmore, is I do get the comedy lines, which I love, but they’ve also allowed me to show the vulnerable side and the more dramatic side, which is great. I love the versatility of it.
Q. So you like the character, Mrs. Patmore?
A. I love her. That’s the brilliance of (series creator and writer) Julian Fellowes, really. When I first read the first two scenes, it just looked like she was a bossy, cross-faced old woman, you know. The marvelous thing about Julian is he knows very well that nobody is just that. We’re all something else, aren’t we? We’re all lots of things. So the joy of the job for all of us is he’s allowed us to develop and for people to see other sides (of the characters).
Q. So do we see Mrs. Patmore ever finding a love interest?
A. Yes, there is a possible stand of that somewhere. I requested it sometime ago (laughing) for a number of reasons, actually, because there is an assumption that women of that age aren’t ever going to feel those feelings, which is completely wrong. I also thought there might be some comic potential depending which way it goes. So there is definitely a possibility, yes.