Not unlike his fictional counterpart, the stoic valet Mr. Bates on Downton Abbey, Brendan Coyle says he tries to “avoid the hysteria” surrounding him and focus on his work.
Sometimes that’s impossible. Especially when you are a star of one of the most beloved soap operas in TV history. The period drama, which starts its sixth and final season Jan. 3, has been a global phenomenon, setting record audiences for PBS. It has also set off a renaissance in British costume drama.
“For starters, you get recognized everywhere. And it doesn’t matter where you go,” Coyle told the Toronto Star.
In Toronto earlier in the year, the 52-year-old actor was spotted by Chinese university students visiting the city.
“They were just going nuts and I couldn’t quite understand it. They were from all over China, but of all places to be recognized. It was delightful, but strange at the same time,” says Coyle. “It becomes this weird phenomenon, because it happens in the unlikeliest of places. The craziest encounter was in Marrakesh. I started walking through the big market there and people just started shouting, and coming up to me and asking if I had killed my wife. It was insane.”
Coyle, meanwhile, has become something of a sex symbol for his cool reserve and strength of character.
“Housewife’s choice. That’s what they call me on set,” chuckles the actor.
Coyle, like Bates, is not given to sentimentality. And he says he shot the final season “just like any other series. I try to rightsize things in my life. It will probably hit me more when I’m not on set in January for the first time in years,” he said.
“I’m not nostalgic or sentimental about things yet. But in some ways I’m quite relieved to get back to flexing different acting muscles and doing different things.”
After six seasons of playing Bates, for which he was nominated for a 2012 Emmy Award, audiences will have a hard time trying to decouple the man from the character.
Bates, valet to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, is the idealized version of working class nobility: a tragic hero whose flaw is his highly attuned moral code. Injured in the war, he found work with Crawley but was despised and targeted by other servants for having a disability. He rose above that, earning the respect of the household.
He found happiness with ladies maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), but then things started going dangerously wrong.
It would probably be safe to say that Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes would not make the cut at the NCIS writers’ room boot camp. Police procedurals are not his strength, as evidenced by the bizarre plotting over the last few seasons that has seen both Bates and Anna go to jail and then get sprung for the slimmest of reasons.
That included a sexual assault and a potential murder charge, which comes to a head at the beginning of the final season.
“The problems are resolved fairly early on at least. I think we stretched that story line as far as it could go,” laughs Coyle.
Fellowes seems to have reserved a special hell for the couple, heaping the most audacious plot twists on them that detract from the emotionally grounded moments of the show.
But do they finally find happiness as the show wraps? That is one plot line that fans would dearly love to see.
“Well, they love each other very much,” says Coyle. “There are moments of reprieve. And they are very loyal to each other. Once we got married, and we got married early on, I think to have a happily married couple becomes a bit boring. So they had to give us obstacles and conflict. It’s all part of the drama. Do they achieve happiness finally? I can’t say.”
Born in Corby to an Irish father and Scottish mother, Coyle studied drama in Dublin.
His father, a butcher, managed a shop where Coyle learned the trade at an early age before leaving to study acting.
And so far, there has been life after Downton. Projects include roles in Murdoch Mysteries, 12 Monkeys and the drama Unless, based on the book by Carol Shields.
Asked if he will hang on to any mementoes from the Downton Abbey set, Coyle says, “No, no, no, they’re not cool with that sort of thing. They’re holding on to everything since there may be a feature film.”
So for Downton Abbey addicts looking for a future fix, there is hope after all. Mr. Bates may well return. And let’s hope with a glimmer of a smile this time.