Having completed a degree in Business and a Masters in Marketing, few, including Rob James-Collier, would have pictured him sitting opposite Maggie Smith at a read-through for one of television’s most anticipated dramas, written by Academy award-winner Julian Fellowes. But that is exactly where Rob found himself earlier this year.
“I was really excited the day of the read-through, but it was a double-edged sword,” says Rob. “I was fortunate and unfortunate enough to be sitting opposite Dame Maggie Smith, which is brilliant because you’re like ‘wow, it’s Maggie Smith over there’. But then it began to sink in how amazing and when it came to my turn to say my lines I have to admit it was like going through puberty again. You know that moment when you open your mouth and it comes out really deep,” he laughs. “It always used to happen when I was in German classes! I was so nervous,” he recalls.
When Rob James-Collier left ITV’s flagship soap, Coronation Street, he decided to take his time before returning to television, opting instead to wait for the right script to come along. ‘Coronation Street was an amazing experience and an opportunity I’m really grateful for, but it was the right time for me to leave the show and I wanted to try other roles,’ he says. “I was offered a number of jobs but none of them really felt right and I knew I wanted to wait for something big – I just hadn’t found the part yet.”
When the audience meet Thomas, he has been acting up as Lord Grantham’s valet. Ambitious and driven Thomas is self-serving and always on the look out for a promotion. When Mr Bates turns up out of nowhere Thomas’ resolve to get out of Downton Abbey hardens and he will stop at nothing to realise his goals. “Thomas, being the arrogant character that he is, assumes he is going to get given the job of valet, but the rug is pulled out from under his feet when a mysterious man known as Bates turns up. Not only that, but he has a disability, which makes it especially hard for Thomas because it means Bates can’t fulfill all the duties of a valet.”
Unlike a lady’s maid, being a valet in a large country house didn’t automatically mean you were exempt from other duties such as: serving at dinner when guests are invited or helping with luggage when required. When Bates turns up at Downton Abbey with an old war wound it creates mystery and intrigue among the staff but for Thomas, Bates presents a bigger problem. “Thomas plans Bates’ downfall with his partner in crime O’Brien but their efforts keep failing and Bates keeps surviving so they up the ante and we see their efforts to get rid of Bates become more sinister as the series progresses.”
Playing an unsavoury character was new to Rob but he found that, like all of the characters in Downton Abbey, Julian had written Thomas in such a three-dimensional way that there were a lot of characteristics and emotions to work with. “The fantastic thing about the scope Julian has given me is that yes, while O’Brien and Thomas are nasty pieces of work, he writes in funny lines for him as well, so you’ve got a little bit of comedy as well as those other sides to the characters,” he explains.
“I had this idea in my head of how I would like to play Thomas but when I turned up on the first day Siobhan Finneran, whose CV speaks for itself, said less is more and let the lines speak for you, which was great advice and what could have been a pantomime villain is now hopefully quite understated but still hits the mark.”
Thomas has a secret, or at least he thinks he has but there are certain members of the staff who have worked him out. “Thomas’ secret comes out towards the end of the first episode. He is a gay man and in those times, not only was it considered a sin against God, it was also illegal and frowned upon within society. I think many of the staff are aware that Thomas likes men and they kind of brush it under the carpet,” he says.
“When we discover he has been having a tempestuous love affair with the Duke of Crowborough (Charlie Cox, shown on left with Hugh Bonneville), we see a vulnerability and naivety to Thomas that we rarely see again. He is hurt and angry that this man who he thought would take him away from Downton Abbey and make him a butler, is more devious than himself and as a result Thomas lets his guard down,” he continues.
If it wasn’t for a Salford University student failing to turn up at a film shoot one rainy Sunday Rob might still be working in marketing. “By chance a friend was doing a Performing Arts degree at Salford University and they were making a film for the end of term. One of the actors dropped out and my pal thought, ‘Rob’s game for a laugh, he’ll give it a go’,” he says. “I hadn’t any acting experience, apart from the donkey in the school play with a cardboard box on my head - (which scarred me for life) - and it was a rainy Sunday afternoon but I loved every minute of it!”
After that Rob found an acting coach in the Yellow Pages and began going to classes one night a week after work. Three months later, he had an agent and an audition for the BBC’s Down To Earth with Ricky Tomlinson, which gave him his first acting role. “I made loads of mistakes on screen, but what an opportunity to have for your first TV appearance and I was really lucky to learn on the job. That’s why I appreciate everything I get, because I know how hard it is and there are loads of actors out there better than me, so I am just grateful to be in work.”
Photo credits: Nick Briggs, Victoria Brooks
Read much more on Downton Abbey