On last night's Downton Abbey, Lady Mary may have shed her propriety to save the estate's new pigs, but according to Julian Ovenden, who plays Mary's adversary turned possible love interest Charles Blake, it was really the pigs who were being uncouth. Yes, in an interview with The Wire, Ovenden explained that the pigs were not repressing their sexual desires as much as the characters on the show do.
Ovenden plays Blake, the houseguest studying large estates that starts as Mary's adversary and ended up last night as the latest person under her spell. We chatted with Ovenden, a vet of U.S. shows like Smash, about his stint at the Abbey.
The Wire: How are you?
Julian: I’m very well thank you, we’re going through a bit of monsoon it seems like in England. It’s been just rain and rain and rain. I’m half expecting Noah to arrive with an ark.
Well, I hope you’re inside and shielded from that. Let's talk about Downton. How did part come to you?
It came about in a rather lovely way actually. It never usually happens. My agent was rung up by the producers, who asked whether I would be interested in discussing a role. We discussed the direction of the new season and the track they were formulating—they hadn’t written yet—in their minds. And they wanted my response to what they had in mind, and they wanted my feedback. And I had to meet Michelle [Dockery] and we talked about it. It was a very friendly, very amicable, low-pressure process, for probably the most high-profile television job in the world.
Did the idea for Charles Blake change between what you initially talked about and what came on the screen?
There was a direct link with what we talked about. I sort of dipped in and out of the series, I hadn’t watched all the episodes, but I’d seen enough to know Michelle, you know Lady Mary, is a very strong character, and I kind of felt the most interesting thing for an audience would be to see someone equally as strong—someone who is going to give as good as she gets or get as good as she gives. That was the main thing. It’s quite an interesting time the '20s because the politics of England were changing quite a lot and the class structure was starting to shift a little. I think this character comes from a place of modernism and a place of practicality. He’s a realist. So he’s really quite an antagonist toward Mary especially at the start.
How much did you think of Charles' endgame in the beginning?
I knew that the frosty start to their relationship would begin to thaw. So my job really was to find as many points of connection between two characters and what was the start if there was a start between them what that was. But it’s quite difficult coming into an established show, especially one like Downton because there are so many characters and you don’t get a huge amount of space to set up your store. So it was quite an intimidating job to do.
That actually was sort of my next question. You said you talked to Michelle a little bit, but what was it like coming in?
It is a big deal. There’s no question about it. But in terms of the production crew and the cast everyone’s absolutely delightful, and given that they are three years into a very successful show, it’s quite relaxed. I don’t mean to detract from the fact that inside you’re kind of shaking like a leaf and you want to do a good job, because you want to keep the standard high and you want to keep the show as a success and you want to do your best. You don’t want to be killed off too soon. So it was a great first day. It’s an extraordinary show [for] many reasons, but like the first day Michelle and Hugh I think had just arrived back from the White House that morning. Its success reaches far and wide.
We talked about that relationship between you and Mary. She’s so known for her spiky dialogue, and you had to match that. What was that like?
It was great to come in and play something strong. Michelle’s a very strong actress, she’s feisty. It was really good fun, and it was great to come in and feel like there was immediately something happening. Because Downton moves at quite a slow pace in comparison to most other television shows. And it takes sometimes a few episodes for a storyline to re-heat up, which is rather nice actually, I think It’s quite gentle. It’s quite subtle in that respect, but obviously I had to come in with a bit more of a bang I suppose. For want of a better word.
The relationship between Charles and Mary is in a way sort of similar to the relationship between her and Dan Stevens’ Matthew with all the sparring. Did you see any of those episodes or were you thinking about trying to make it different in a way?
No, I didn’t watch any of that. I decided it wasn’t a good idea. Because I just didn’t want to be influenced by that. My character obviously wouldn’t know about that [...] because I’m not part of the family. I’d seen a bit here and there, but I decided I would not watch stuff and just come in and just react fresh.
I have to ask you: what was it like filming the pig scene?
Hilarious. Because the pigs just had sex basically throughout the whole day. Either because they were ... well, more likely because they were completely bored and oblivious to what was going on. I don’t think they were turned on by the scene. It was quite a lot of pigs as well. But it was a bit fun. It was a really fun scene to do. I think especially for Michelle to be put in that kind of situation, it was hilarious. And we had real fun flinging mud and doing all that and trying to make it as comedic as possible.
Did they make special costumes to get so dirty?
There were quite a few duplicates. They’re called hero costumes. That’s the technical name for it. A little bit like a stunt term, I’m not too sure, because they are going to get ruined pretty quickly.
The pigs were sort of acting out the viewer’s wish fulfillment for the characters.
[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know, it was a fun day. And the pigs suddenly became a big part of the whole thing. Everyone was talking about the pigs, it became quite fun in England. The pigs were trending on the Internet.
What has it been like having the dual reaction to the show, it airing first in England and then months later in America? You’ve done a lot of American TV as well.
It’s quite nice, it’s like having a birthday twice in a year, especially because Americans really seem to love the show and have really taken it into their hearts, which is fantastic. And having been in America, quite a lot over the last few months—I’m going back in a week—it’s great that it’s so affectionately received. I think it’s kind of nice in this day and age of instant gratification, that you have to wait for something. It’s like a present under the Christmas tree you have to wait to open.
I was hoping—hope without hope, this is very silly—in the Christmas Special that Charles might sing for Mary.
[Laughs] Everyone asks this question. Not yet. We haven’t unveiled him. I don’t know how you would include it. You never know. It might happen. I’m really glad I didn’t have to sing in this season, because Kiri Te Kanawa was in the show. I’m really glad I didn’t have to follow one of the greatest operatic singers of the 20th Century. But you never know. Who knows? It’s all in Julian’s mind. So, wait and see. Maybe Downton the Musical. Maybe that’s what’s going to happen.