Is Cora bereft without O’Brien [whose departure is announced at the start of season four]?
‘Yeah, it’s horrible. I’ve always loved the complication of two people who are very intimate, but that intimacy is based on one person paying the other some money. Cora’s really hurt, but it’s just a job for O’Brien. Cora has to resolve herself to an ever-changing picture when it comes to lady’s maids.’
How has Cora dealt with all the grief she’s suffered?
‘She’s the character who’s suffered the worst, I think – the death of a child and a son-in-law. She’s come out of it wanting to just have fun with what she’s got left, and she’s encouraging Robert and the girls to enjoy life a little bit as well.’
Were you surprised by the public reaction to Matthew’s death?
‘I was pleased. We’ve done our job if people are so involved that they have that kind of response. otherwise its a very bland affair. You want people to get pissed off or incredibly happy.’
Paul Giamatti joins the cast as Cora’s brother.
‘That was really fun. I’ve known Paul since drama school. As an American, it was reassuring to have someone so familiar, it makes me feel really at home. He’s a really fantastic actor – great attitude, great fun.’
What is Cora’s relationship with her brother?
‘I don’t think they’re particularly close. It’s been years since they've seen each other and you’re aware of how far Cora’s come in assimilating herself into her English family. Her American family seem so culturally different.’
Did you imagine ‘Downton’ becoming so big?
‘Not at all. Especially in America – I was so shocked! I’ve done everything the opposite of what you’re supposed to do if you want to have a career in Hollywood, but I’m still there. It’s miraculous.’
Are there any jaw-droppers this series?
‘Yes, but that’s as much as I can say.’
What’s Cora’s relationship with Robert like now?
‘Cora recognises his shortcomings and takes him to task for them. She wants to help him adjust to a changing world that he naturally resists. But she’s very much in love with him still.’
How did you feel about this season?
‘I was excited. We’d had a nice break so I felt fresh. I’m still really engaged by the writing after four years. I don’t approach it as a job that’s good for my career.’
Has there been a change of tone and pace?
‘I think there’s more depth to everything – I felt that when we worked on it. Julian knows us and we know our characters and relationships, so there’s an opportunity to dig deeper and for new characters to come in. They always cast them so well. So there’s new blood and new depth.’