For Rob James-Collier, a starring role on Downton Abbey has cast a long shadow. The 41-year-old from Stockport became a household name across the six seasons he played footman-turned-butler Thomas Barrow and yet, while he has seen the likes of Dan Stevens, Michelle Dockery and Jessica Brown Findlay go on to launch Hollywood film careers, for him it’s been a slower process.
“The characters that those guys played are more easily transferable,” he begins. “I think audiences in the US can identify quite easily with the quintessential English gent and English lady, whereas a neurotic, dark, gay character like Thomas is a hard thing to put into the American market. It can lead to typecasting.”
Indeed, James-Collier has been careful to avoid echoes of his previous role. “Because Thomas Barrow is gay and is, essentially, the bad guy for much of the show, a lot of people within the industry can only see you as that,” he says. “They might not be in a rush to see you as a heterosexual love interest. That takes time.”
It was the same when he left his first big acting job, playing handsome rogue Liam Connor in Coronation Street. “After I left Corrie I didn’t work for 15 months; I turned a lot of stuff down because they weren’t the right roles to take me away from what I’d done before. That’s why after Coronation Street I waited for Thomas Barrow… And thank God he came along because the wolves were at the door!”
As Thomas Barrow in Downton
Downton was a wonderful experience, he says, and he considers dancing with Dame Maggie Smith in the first Christmas special as a standout moment. “I didn’t take my first acting job until I was 28 and there I was at 35 dancing with a two-time Oscar winner. If someone had told me that I’d be doing a waltz with Dame Maggie – and that I’d stand on her toe in one take and that she’d give me a funny look – I’d have said, ‘No chance!’”
Since Downton ended in 2015, James-Collier has been offered several villainous types. “And I have had quite a few offers in theatre, which happened to be gay characters, but I really wanted to show something different.”
Eventually, he took a role in The Level, a six-part police drama for ITV, which aired last year. And at the end of 2016 he travelled to Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains to shoot horror film The Ritual, alongside Rafe Spall.
“It’s a genre I have never done because there’s sometimes a stigma around these films,” he says. “There can be too much hack-slashing gore and nudity. This is different.”
The film (opening on Friday 13 October) follows the fate of four former college friends who go hiking in the wake of a tragedy that sees a mutual friend lose his life. The first portion focuses on the banter and bonhomie (as well as its dissipation). It’s only when one of the group injures his leg, forcing them to take a shortcut through the forest, that it all takes an eerie turn.
“I have mates like you see in the film. We all meet up in London and have a big night out, a boozy session. The start of the film is very much like that, with the same kind of banter. That’s why I think it will resonate particularly with a male audience.”
After graduating, James-Collier went into marketing but felt unfulfilled. “I was watching The Office going, ‘Oh my God! That’s my office! I can’t do this for the rest of my life.’” A few years later, a friend on a performing arts course asked him to step into a rehearsal because an actor had fallen out. “It was a rainy Sunday, I didn’t get paid, but I loved it. I thought, ‘If I could do this and get paid, that would be fantastic.’” His interest in an acting career was born and he soon added the prefix James to his name as there was already another working actor called Rob Collier.
“It’s funny, I have always done my own thing, and I kind of blagged my way into acting,” he says. “I have met a lot of actors who are incredibly ambitious, but I am not like that. I think there’s more to life than this career.”
He recently relocated with partner Lauren and seven-year-old son Milo to a village on Dartmoor. He has renovated several Victorian houses with his cousin and he hopes to open an organic bar in the near future. After completing The Ritual, he went on to shoot a small role in a film called The Fight, the directorial debut of W1A’s Jessica Hynes.
“I don’t have a grand plan,” he says. “I like to see what happens, to be myself and to try and enjoy it as much as I can. Every job is a bonus.” And hopefully this one will help James-Collier step out of Thomas Barrow’s shadow.
By Will Lawrence
The Ritual hits UK cinemas on Friday 13th October