A Proper Talk With Actor Jim Carter: Downton Abbey‘s Mr. Carson Talks to TIME

The television butler talks to TIME about real-life help, etiquette and what we can expect for Carson in Season 3

  • Share
  • Read Later
Joss Barratt/Carnival Film & Television/Masterpiece

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson

Veteran British thespian Jim Carter (Cranford, Shakespeare in Love) is perhaps best known these days as Mr. Carson, the butler to Downton Abbey‘s Crawley family and  the ultimate arbiter of correct behavior. During a recent trip to New York City, Carter sat down with TIME to discuss what he’s picked up from real-life butlers, what we could all learn from Edwardian etiquette and what we can expect for his character during Season 3, which premieres in the U.S. on Sunday, Jan. 6.

TIME: I read recently that you’ve been responsible for a big surge in demand for butlers.

Jim Carter: Personally responsible?

Personally responsible.

I don’t know if that’s true or if it’s just a good catch for a story, but I gather there is a big surge in butlers. The recession can’t have bitten as deep as we think, apparently. Whether Downton is responsible for that, I don’t know. I was asked to go on a cruise recently and they said, “You could have a suite with a butler.” I wouldn’t know what to do with a butler!

Why do you think having a butler appeals to people so much?

They’ve got too much money! Would you want staff looking after you?

It seems very intimate.

I’m not a natural employer. I live very privately and we like our privacy at home. To be sitting and talking with your wife or your family and to have somebody walking around and you’re ignoring them, I couldn’t handle that at all. I can barely handle a cleaning lady coming in every so often. Actors are egalitarian. We don’t do servants.

(VIDEO: The Top 10 TV Series of 2012)

Has playing a butler affected your feelings about that at all?

I wouldn’t want to be reincarnated as a butler. I couldn’t for the life of me do the job in real life. It wouldn’t suit me at all—the routine, the rigidity of it all, having to hold your tongue. On a film set, there are runners who are 19, it’s their first job, but to me they’re as important as anybody else because if they don’t do their job then nobody else can. So I don’t think anybody should be treated disrespectfully or as if they’re of a lower status.

Did you talk to any real-life butlers as part of your research for the role?

No. We do have a chap called Alastair Bruce who’s our expert on all things etiquette-y. But I think the modern butler, I would imagine, is much more computer-y, organizing flight plans and stuff like that, rather than which wine shall we have tonight and laying the table in the correct manner. I don’t know if I’d learn too much from them.

What kind of research did you do, then?

Alastair gave us a really good talk, which sort of set the context of the world at the time—Britain was riding high, the empire was strong—and to tell us also that we were proud to have such a good job and to be so smartly dressed. We didn’t need to be deferential at all in our dealings with the family. We didn’t have to avoid their eyes or bow or back away as they came through or anything like that. So he gave us that talk and then  he keeps an eye on everything, and if there are any questions about, “Will they be drinking tea at this time of day or would they have sherry?” “Ooh, never sherry before dinner!” Those sort of things he sorts out.

Do you find any of that fastidiousness creeping into your everyday life?

No, I’m a scruff-bucket. I had to buy clothes to come over here. We like to lay a nice table if we’ve got guests round, but I can’t say that’s because of Downton Abbey.

(MORE: PBS Announces New Season Line-Up, Including More Call the Midwife)

What was the most surprising etiquette fact that you’ve learned?

The one I like, which I have trotted out before, is that at a dinner party where it wasn’t just family, all the women would look at the hostess and see which way she turned. They would all turn the same way for the first two courses so nobody got ignored. Conversation would go around that way until dessert, when it would turn. In fact, in Series 1, there was a little mention of that. Mary said, “I can’t wait for us to be able to turn,” because she was stuck talking to some dull man about tractors and she wanted to talk to Matthew Crawley. I thought that was rather a good piece of social engineering. We know there are no elbows on the table, you don’t talk with a knife and fork in your hands, the back of a chair is not for leaning on but for the servants to pull, you have to sit upright—but the corsets and the stiff waistcoats demand that you do that anyway. You can’t be casual at all in those clothes.

Are there any etiquette points that you think we could use today?

I’m a fan of politeness and manners anyway. I think I tend to try to let a woman walk through a door first, and I walk on the outside on the street. But that’s probably because I’m an ancient creature. But, God, I wouldn’t want to live like them. Dressing for dinner in your own home! Can you imagine as a teenager?

During this trip to New York, have you been recognized on the street?

One man recognized my eyebrows and was very excited.

Why do you think American audiences have fallen for Downton Abbey so much?

Every American film now, particularly the way it’s advertised in England, is a man with a gun. Everything. The posters are always a guy with a gun. The class system was never as strong in America as it was in England, so it’s unfamiliar I suppose in some respect, but it’s characters they love, stories that engage, and it’s romantic. And it’s unthreatening. You can watch with granny or with granddaughter, and men don’t have a problem watching it. Some men seem to have a problem with historical drama—“Oh, it’s all bonnets!”—but men actually can own up to liking this.

It’s true, there are no bonnets.

We’re past the bonnets.

(MORE: Three Reasons We Can’t Wait for Downton Abbey Season 3)

What can we expect from Carson in Season 3?

Carson, bless him, is trying to get things back to the way they were before the war. We’ve got rid of the convalescent home, he wants to get the staff back up to snuff, he wants to get two footmen in the dining room the way it should be—the world is changing and Carson is trying desperately to fight against the tide of change. There are little personal adventures that happen along the way, but that’s essentially what he’s trying to do. He’s probably fighting a losing battle.

Which is one of the larger themes of the show.

Yeah, Robert, Lord Grantham, and Carson see themselves as the guardians of tradition. We’re the older generation along with Violet, Maggie Smith, and then other people—the women, some of them, not Lady Mary particularly—are forward-looking. It’s an interesting part of history and it’s a part of history that we start to recognize. My mum was born in 1919. It’s becoming recognizably modern—telephones, cars, electricity. It’s the genesis of this massive explosion of progress that happens shortly afterwards.

Have you had any time to work on anything else?

I’m not really been bothered. I do voiceovers and things like that, but I run a cricket club, which takes up a massive amount of my time. That takes up more time than Downton, almost. And then I go cycling every winter; I went cycling in Cambodia. And I have a family and a garden and that’s enough for me.

Will we ever see any cricket on Downton Abbey?

There is! Series 3, there’s a cricket match. Four of the worst words in the English language: Carson comes into bowl.

Sounds fun!

It is. It’s the first time in three years I’ve worn something different.