Rob James-Collier gets to the heart of Downton’s scoundrel

Rob James-Collier (with Siobhan Finneran) as Thomas Barrow in “Downton Abbey.”
Rob James-Collier (with Siobhan Finneran) as Thomas Barrow in “Downton Abbey.”
nick briggs/pbs

NEW YORK — He is the slick and smarmy servant whom “Downton Abbey” addicts love to hate. Thomas Barrow — as played by Rob James-Collier — cooked up schemes such as selling food on the black market and getting his hand shot at to escape active duty during World War I. He regularly joins forces with icy O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) to try to get poor Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) tossed out of the Abbey. But James-Collier defends Thomas as misunderstood, not evil. We were skeptical, but pressed on for details.

Q. What attracted you to Thomas?

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A. He’s a great character. Loads of people would have given all their teeth to play him because he’s not just a one-dimensional villain who’s off sneering in the corner. He’s a complex, tortured soul in many ways. We definitely see that in this third series. His sexuality adds an interesting dynamic as well.

Q. It clearly doesn’t sound like you had any trepidation about playing the villain.

A. Most actors will tell you that villains are the most interesting to play. The beauty of Julian Fellowes’s writing is that he’s created a great arc for this character over the three series. You get to see why he is — particularly in this series — bad, as you put it.

His sexuality was illegal at the time. He’d be put in prison. Society judged people. If you were ever found to be a practicing homosexual your life was essentially over. You wouldn’t work again. You’d starve.

Because of his sexuality you get to see an emotional side to Thomas and his frustration at having this tremendous secret. If you did want to express your feelings to someone, the stakes were really high. You couldn’t go on Google to find like-minded people.

You had society telling you that you’re something foul. So if society thinks that of you and tells you that’s what you are, can you blame him for acting like that? He’s just mirroring back what society is projecting onto him.

Q. It sounds like you’re sympathetic toward Thomas.

A. I am. Totally. The pressure that he was under was horrendous. We all want to be loved and to find partners and companions. It must be the most confusing, conflicting thing in the world, and physiologically damaging. So I really do feel for the guy. It’s hard being gay in Edwardian times.

Q. You say he’s mean because he’s gay, but I suspect there were probably closeted gays in Edwardian England who didn’t lock their owner’s dog up in a shed to try to get a promotion.

A. He’s definitely insecure, so it makes him feel good about himself that he can hold that power over people, and have control over something. He can control someone else. That’s why I don’t think he’s an out-and-out villain. He’s a nice guy.

Q. Is that you projecting?

A. I’m not sure actually.

Q. What are some of the things that you do when you’re playing the character that makes people dislike him. Do you have a particular glance or smirk.

A. You don’t have tricks. That makes it contrived. If you have something that comes out as sinister or evil, then that’s a bonus. I try to inject a bit of humor into Thomas. I think sometimes he can be quite witty with his put-downs. I try to get a sardonic element into it, which again makes people warm to him a little. It confuses the audience because they’re starting to love to hate this guy. It gives him light and shade.

Q. Do you have people who come up to you on the street and say mean things or smack you with pocketbooks?

A. The peculiarity of this show is that people look at you and they love you because you’re a part of this show. So whether you play a hero or a villain, they don’t care because you’re in the show. By proxy, you’re in their hearts. I got bought a latte once, that’s about it. You don’t buy evil characters lattes. That’s not normal behavior.