As Jimmy Kent on the British drama Downton Abbey, English actor Ed Speleers played more than just a footman. Downstairs, he was a strong-headed young man teeming with aspirations to ascend the very stairs that separated him and his Lordship, the Earl of Grantham. Upstairs, he was James, seen and infrequently heard, dutifully serving the Crawley family. While Speleers’ time on the show was limited—he joined during Season Three and exited Season Five—he remained convincing and compelling throughout, from his start admitting the loss of his parents to an ill-fated tryst with a woman of the upstairs world, which ended his tenure as footman.
“Jimmy was a great character to play and he’ll always be a big part of me,” Speleers says. “I always quite like ambitious characters and he did have this inherent ambition but also this anti-establishment [leaning]…I think Jimmy was slightly embittered. He’d been in the First World War and then he’s suddenly planted in this house,” he continues. “He takes pride in his work but he’s also thinking, ‘Hang on a minute, I’ve been fighting on the front lines so people like you can keep living in your big posh houses and keep having your life the way it is, while I’ve seen people blown up in trenches.'”
Now, after appearing in the British mini-series Wolf Hall as Edward Seymour, brother of Henry VIII’s to-be queen Jane Seymour, Speleers is Slean in the fantasy drama Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands. Set within a mythological world, Beowulf takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon poem written between the 8th and 11th centuries, but begins its own tale of a contested kingdom in the Shieldlands. Speleers is no stranger to fantasy genre; in 2014, he filmed the latest Alice in Wonderland film, Alice Through the Looking Glass, which comes out this May. Moreover, the plot of his first film, Eragon, which he shot at age 17, was set into motion by a dragon egg. In it, he starred alongside Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich.
“It was a baptism by fire in some respects,” he recalls. “I didn’t have a clue about how a camera worked, I didn’t know anything about that world.” His knowledge has undoubtedly increased in the 10 years that have passed since Eragon. At age 27, even when performing among CGI creatures, Speleers’ acting philosophy is consistent: know your character. “The fantasy element does bring a different slant to it but what’s more important than anything is who your character is within that world,” he explains. “As long as you’re understanding who that person is, then, in truth, [you can understand] the world around him or her.”
While Speleers took a break from the cold English winter by way of a trip to Los Angeles with his family, we caught up over the phone about seeking out challenges, his time on Downton, and to whom he owes his acting career.
HALEY WEISS: What was your first reaction when you read the script for Beowulf?
ED SPELEERS: My first reaction was that I wanted to play the character, to take on Slean. I felt it was exciting that the producers wanted to create a world that was inspired by this short but very rich in imagery poem, to take it to its own place and create a whole new world for it [while making] something that could be accessible across demographics. There’s a lot of content out there that’s for an older audience but what struck me was that people who like those grittier, slightly punchier shows could still watch this but with their children as well.
We’re telling stories that relate to today, certainly politically. We have this whole [storyline] with these otherworldly characters who are known as the Mudborn—who are the indigenous characters to our land, basically—and the humans feel that they should be quashing them and destroying them but actually, they were there first. I think there’s something that rings true there that is relevant today, in a slightly different sphere. If you can have a show that has quite strong morals and cover important themes but be able to put them out to a broad audience, that’s an interesting thing.
WEISS: The director of Alice Through the Looking Glass, James Bobin, is known for directing the Muppets films and also for writing and directing on Da Ali G Show. I’m curious as to if that sense of humor came across in his on set demeanor.
SPELEERS: It’s funny because growing up, when Ali G first burst off the screen, it was something that I was probably too young to be watching, but I absolutely loved it… And I just watched The Muppets for the first time the other day and I thought it was great, actually. It has this kind of offbeat quirkiness to it. [James Bobin] definitely has that; he’s got a real sense of humor as a person and as a director. But what I liked about James was that he instilled this inherent confidence in your own ability, which I think is really important. He was really good at making you feel that every moment was really important and how to get the timing right. Comedy is not something that had necessarily jumped out as something I’d immediately go for and he instilled a confidence in me… There’s a twinkle in his eye when he’s directing. Sacha Baron Cohen was involved as well and he knows how to get the right results from people and do it with such a charming demeanor as well, which I think is cool.
WEISS: When you’re reading a script and considering a role, do you find that you want something that seems totally foreign to you and a challenge, or something that seems a bit closer to your acting repertoire?
SPELEERS: I think it’s a combination, to be honest, and I don’t mean to be sort of lazy [in saying] that. A challenge is always important; as an actor, as a human, it’s good to face challenges and it’s good to push your boundaries, and I want to keep doing that. I want to go to the extremes and transformation is something I’m fascinated by. At the same time, you can transform but you can only really put what you’ve got inside you into somebody, so there’s always going to be a degree of you inhabiting any role.
I really do consider myself quite fledgling in my acting career. I’ve only been doing it for 10 years and that’s a short amount of time, really. If I look at the people that I look up to, a lot of them don’t come to the forefront until their early to mid-30s. I think the most exciting roles are definitely yet to come. At the moment, for me, it’s just trying things out and seeing what works. It’s also being selective but actually getting out there and working because I’m not good at just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, hoping that the perfect role is going to turn up.
WEISS: You never went to drama school, right?
SPELEERS: No, and I’ve got a massive chip on my shoulder about that… Coming from England, it’s a tradition. It’s less and less so now; there are a lot of great young actors coming out of England who have maybe not gone to drama school, but I wish I had. What I like doing these days is spending more time with coaches because I think it’s important to work on yourself. If aren’t going to work for a bit, if you’re going to choose not to take a job for a few months, you need to work on your own—and I don’t want to use this term—craft.
I was with someone yesterday out here working on an audition. It’s quite insightful because a lot of the time when you’re doing your own work, it’s all in your own head, which can be frustrating if you’re prepping for something, especially an audition where it’s all in your brain and you go in and no one else has seen it and you don’t really know how it fits. Yesterday, I tried something out and this guy was brilliant and just made me look at it in a different way, which brought a whole new level and nuance to what we were doing… People have interesting things to say and you’re only going to learn from different people’s experience and knowledge.
WEISS: I imagine you might have had that experience being on the set of Downton with such established actors such as Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville. Going into that, would you say it was more exciting or intimidating?
SPELEERS: I think it’s always exciting. People ask me, “What did you learn from so and so?,” and I don’t think I can put it in a bottle; if I could, I’d be a very wealthy man. But [you learn] just by being around those people, watching, taking it in, and actually playing out scenes with them. Downton was great for that because I worked with an amazing cast downstairs and everything we did in the servant’s hall or the kitchen was like a cauldron, a melting pot of energy with people constantly coming in and out of that room or scene. It was a very dynamic way of working.
Upstairs, a lot of the time I didn’t have anything to say but it was a great time to watch. There would be days where you’d have Maggie Smith in and Hugh and amazing guest actors like Paul Giamatti, Shirley MacLaine, and Tim Pigott Smith, and you’d think, “Okay, I’m not going to say anything for 10 hours today but I’m going to stand in the corner and watch,” because you’re in the back of the shot and that’s what you do.
WEISS: I read that when you were younger your older brother showed you Tarantino and Scorsese films. Do you remember the first one that he showed you?
SPELEERS: Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and Goodfellas.
WEISS: How old were you?
SPELEERS: Oh, far too young. True Romance I was a bit older, I was probably nine, but I think I was shown Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas at seven or eight. That’s really bad, isn’t it? My brother… It’s fine, I think I’ve turned out all right; it didn’t harm me too much.
WEISS: What did you find compelling about those films?
SPELEERS: In a lot of the scenes I didn’t have a clue what was going on… But music was a big thing for me growing up and Scorsese and Tarantino both use music brilliantly in movies. They’re probably two of the best at using music. I was listening to this [interview] with Tarantino on BBC Radio 6 recently about his influences in music and how he plots films around music.
WEISS: He often writes with records playing.
SPELEERS: Which I find interesting because I prep roles with music, I sort of always have. When I’m putting the character together I try to find music that I think fits the character… Beowulf was different because trying to find Dark Age music is quite tricky. [laughs] I ended up mixing it up in the end. There were some things you could find, like Nordic music with big drums and horns, but I ended up trying to make it more of a mood-setter… It doesn’t necessarily have to be something that fits the time but with Jimmy [on Downtown] I did listen to 1920s jazz or Al Johnson and a lot of early singers coming out of England. Even with him I would branch out a little bit to get a sense of the world that he might be coming into, in the ’30s when jazz was changing.
WEISS: How did you get started in acting?
SPELEERS: From a stupidly young age I was always involved in anything, whether it be a nativity play or little kids plays. Wherever it was, I was involved and I think it was because more than anything, I wanted to be the center of attention. When I was about 10 in school I was asked to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and that’s running alongside my brother showing me a lot movies and music. I’ve got to give my brother a lot of credit because he’s always introduced me to a lot of things and those films spiked an interest of, “Wow, this is an incredible world, how do you be a part of that?” That definitely helped me through my school years of doing theater. I’ve always loved [acting] and I’ve always wanted to [do it] from as far back as I can remember. Actually, if he reads this, my brother needs to take a lot of credit for me even being able to want to do this for a job.
I can get quite down on myself because if people don’t like what you’re doing, it’s hard. My whole life I’ve wanted to do this and I’m lucky to do it and I don’t want to stop doing it. I read a great article about Michael Caine in the magazine Little White Lies the other day, about the film Youth. He’s done it all and he’s still got this incredible way about him. Fuck, I want to be 82 and doing movies with Paolo Sorrentino where people are like, “This is gold.” Who doesn’t want that? I hope and I think that with the right timing, who knows what could happen. I’m lucky to do what I do at the moment and I just hope I can get to that point, maybe. We’ll see.
ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS COMES OUT MAY 27. BEOWULF: RETURN TO THE SHIELDLANDS IS CURRENTLY AIRING ON THE ESQUIRE NETWORK.