Characters You Love To Hate. That's been an omnipresent archetype on television for decades, but rarely does a show offer these controversial characters a chance for redemption in the eyes of the audience.
Not only does the third series of PBS Masterpiece's Downton Abbey offer an eye opening and heart-breaking look behind the steely armor Thomas Barrow has built up over the years, but, by doing so, presents a rare portrait of the horrors homosexuals faced in Edwardian England.
ETonline recently sat down with Rob James-Collier to talk about his character's exciting arc, what fans can expect from season three and who would be invited to star on his dream spin-off.
ETonline: What kind of reactions do you get from fans since Thomas is such a polarizing character?
Rob James-Collier: It's a love to hate him kind of thing, but because people love the show and you're on the show, it doesn't matter if you're a goodie or a baddie, you're part of a huge package and they love you. But in series three, for the first time ever, we get Thomas going on an emotional journey. A woman in London came up to me after one particular episode aired and said, "I hate you even more now because I cried for Thomas, and I hate that I did that." [laughs]
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ETonline: You've obviously created an elaborate backstory for Thomas, so how exciting has it been to put what's been in your head on the screen?
James-Collier: It's been great. Julian [Fellowes, creator] gave me a great arc this series where we deal, head-on, with Thomas' sexuality. We talk about how it affects him and how it affects the other characters who live in Downton Abbey. It was great to get under his skin, look at some of the reasons why he's malevolent and trying to destroy everyone. At the same time, that shows vulnerability and frailty in him, which, at least with the British, has made the audience empathize with him in a new way. Being a homosexual in Edwardian Times could not have been easy. It was illegal, you're constantly afraid of being caught, society abhorred and condemned you; telling these people they were foul and twisted creatures. That has to have an effect on someone and I think it's great we tell that story in this series because it not only impacts Thomas, but so many other people in Downton. It has fascinating ramifications across the board.
ETonline: Season three also features Thomas and O'Brien going head-to-head this season. What was it like feuding with your former on-screen partner-in-crime?
James-Collier: Siobhan [Finneran], who plays O'Brien, and I are great friends off the screen, and we've always loved playing -- what we call -- our smoking plotting scenes. But as the series progresses, the characters need to progress with it and, as you'll find in any workplace, dynamics constantly change. They're fluid. So in series three, to put it mildly, Thomas and O'Brien are at war with each other. It gets more and more brutal and sinister as the series goes on.
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ETonline: Thomas has done some less-than-favorable things over the last two seasons. What do you consider to be his "worst"?
James-Collier: It's funny, if you ask Americans, locking the dog in the shed in the Christmas Special was the worst thing I had ever done! [laughs] You can get an innocent man sacked, you could frame him for stealing things, laugh as you push him to the ground, but if you put a dog in a shed, you're the worst person in the world.
ETonline: Does that surprise you?
James-Collier: That people prefer animals to humans in America? Yeah, that surprised me a lot [laughs]. Don't mess with a pooch -- that's what I've learned.
ETonline: What are you excited for fans to see this season?
James-Collier: They're going to get rewarded for their patience and being so loyal to the show. There is a wedding on the horizon but as is ever the way in Downton, things won't run smoothly in the run up to Matthew taking Mary down the aisle.
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ETonline: Given the set-up of the show, there are a lot of actors you haven't shared many scenes with. Is there an actor or character you would have liked to spend more time with?
James-Collier: I've said the odd things to people upstairs -- because when you're in service, you only speak when spoken to. I did get to take Dame Maggie out to dance, but I'd love a meaty scene with Dame Maggie. [The Dowager Countess has] got a vitriolic side as well and is acerbic in her comments. I think they could be a good double act. Maybe a potential spin-off on the horizon? She's just a legend. I think if you asked anyone on the cast they'd say the same thing. Plus, it would look good on my reel [laughs].
Downton Abbey premieres January 6 at 9 p.m. on PBS.