Ah, the circle of stardom and the wonder of That Guy. Is there any greater thrill in pop culture than noticing someone you’d never noticed before? Probably not. Which says a lot about pop culture.
Downton Abbey — peradventure because it’s an ensemble from a different country — has a host of familiar faces you can’t quite place. The woman carry a kind of instant fame with them (Elizabeth McGovern is an Oscar nominee and Maggie Smith is Maggie Smith), but the main men have a head-scratchier past.
So here’s a brief primer on where you’ve seen these guys before. Prepare by aiming your hand at your forehead.
Probably the most diverse career history of them all, Jim Carter appeared prominently in Shakespeare in Love as Ralph, the actor who plays Nurse in the play within the movie (I’m confused, too), but it’s hardly the first time he’s been in an iconic flick. That honor goes to his very small appearance in the background of Flash Gordon. A hell of a way to launch a career.
He also had a gigantic watch as Deja Vu in Top Secret!, went fantastical in The Golden Compass, appeared as an ogre in Ella Enchanted, played a delightful hitman in Blame it on the Bellboy (as you can see below), and many more.
Obviously, the guy is versatile. Which is saying something considering how deeply ingrained he is in the stuffy role of Carson. It’s hard to imagine him otherwise, which really changes the tone of Blame it on the Bellboy. Watch it before this week’s Downton Abbey and pretend that Carson is in hiding from his criminal past of tormenting Dudley Moore.
Another eclectic career, Hugh Bonneville effectively got his filmic start with Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, then went on to get chummy with Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. He’s been in a few other notables, but the pinnacle of That Guy perfection comes from the Brosnan-era Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies where he and Mr. Bates both play submarine officers (although Bates didn’t get a cool headset, or get to talk).
Unless you’re a giant fan of the Irish Film Board or were struck inexplicably by a nanosecond’s worth of a background Leading Seaman in a Bond film, you probably didn’t see Brendan Coyle until The Jacket where he plays a totally well-adjusted guy with a shaved head named Damon who definitely doesn’t menace Adrien Brody at all.
Still, you owe it to yourself to hunt down some of Coyle’s other work because it all supports the theory that he’s one of those rare actors who can give you a black eye without making a fist. He’s traded in intensity for a long time. And that tell-tale, exasperated sigh isn’t new either.
The rest of the male Downton cast is far tougher to spot. The younger actors like Rob James-Collier (Barrow), Allen Leech (Tom) and Dan Stevens (Matthew) didn’t do much before the show that would have made it to the US. On the other end, David Robb (Dr. Clarkson) played Christian Bale’s dad in Swing Kids and played an Admiral in Elizabeth: The Golden Age; and Kevin Doyle (Molesley) had a brief role in The Libertine.
But there you go. The best possible opportunity to see Mr. Carson swilling beer, waving a gun around and selling Juliet into marriage. Lord Grantham helping out James Bond is pretty great, too.