Much has changed for Thomas Barrow since audiences first saw him smoking behind the Downton Abbey servants’ quarters with his co-conspirator Miss O’Brien circa the 1910s. Once dubbed the “evil gay footman,” a moniker that was at once a trope and also unapologetically delicious considering the character's machinations, Rob James-Collier’s Thomas rose to the prominent title of head butler to the Crawley family toward the end of the series. When the Downton Abbey film opens in theaters this Friday, not only does he appear suited to his position, but it’s clear he’s become an all-around gentler sort. Still, he's armed with a caustic zinger or two at the ready. It is Downton, after all.
“[Thomas] is now at that point that you can go in service — the butler,” James-Collier tells The Advocate about his character’s professional journey from footman to valet to underbutler and so on. “He doesn't need to scheme or plot anymore because he got where he wants to be. So he's a lot happier as a person, and he's likely to be a little bit more gentle.”
(There are mild spoilers about the Downton Abbey movie in this interview)
The film picks up in the mid to late 1920s, not too long after the series — which ran from 2011 to 2016 in the United States in a collaboration between the BBC and PBS — ends.
“Homosexual acts” weren’t decriminalized in England until 1967, but the Downton Abbey feature film, which revolves around the family — but mainly the servants — fastidiously prepping for a last-minute visit from King George and Queen Mary, offers Thomas a glimmer of happiness in a world where he’s less alone. The Yorkshire of the film isn’t quite the queer enclave that Brighton, England, has been for decades, but Thomas does encounter a like-minded fellow who introduces him to a hidden part of his village.
“We've explored — in quite some depth throughout the series — [Thomas's] sexuality and its impact upon him,” James-Collier says. “We've seen that struggle and what it was like to be gay in a time when it was illegal and against his religion. He's been on that journey. He's become more comfortable with who he is.”
Thomas’s proclivities were always one of the worst-kept secrets at Downton Abbey, with the likes of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) dropping withering bons mots from time to time and servants occasionally quipping about him once he’d left the room. Early in the series, when the kitchen hand Daisy reveals she’d developed a crush on Thomas, Downton’s cook Mrs. Patmore warns, “He’s not a ladies’ man.”
Throughout the years Thomas has had lovers (mostly off-screen), he’s been blackmailed because of his sexuality, and he’s blackmailed a few people in return. He’s been called an abomination, been beaten, gone toe-to-toe with the old-guard Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), engaged in wonderfully queer bitchery with Miss Baxter (Lady Grantham’s first ladies’ maid), and found an understanding friend in the gone-too-soon Lady Sybil. Thomas even subjected himself to conversion therapy at one point to rid himself of his “affliction.” Through it all, he polished the silver, turned the clocks, and presented Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) with only the most pristinely delinted jackets and buffed shoes.
The film sees Thomas unseated from his exalted perch as butler for the king and queen’s arrival since Mary (who runs the business of Downton) insists Carson come out of retirement to see the job is handled to her standards. On the upside, Thomas’s temporary demotion opens up some free time, during which he finds a friend in one of the king’s men. It’s then that the somewhat provincial Thomas is introduced to the hottest underground scene in Yorkshire.
“He wasn't aware of this entire world, this entire culture behind closed doors where there were like-minded gay men who were free and dancing together, kissing each other, and literally just allowed to be themselves and create this unique world hidden, but in direct view,” James-Collier says of a scene in which a wide-eyed Thomas enters his first clandestine club for queer men.
“I really find a sense of childlike awe in that scene with Thomas. If you can imagine a child on Christmas Day, he's like, Wow, I can't believe this world exists,” James-Collier continues.
“The sense of relief it must have given someone like Thomas to go, Wow, there are others like me. There is a world where I can escape to, and explore, and be free,” he says. "It's very heartwarming.”
Creator and writer Julian Fellowes and James-Collier have ushered Thomas through from the guilty pleasure of the conniving “evil gay footman” of the early seasons to becoming a beloved character who has, at turns, expressed great compassion for others. He once offered himself up to be beaten by thugs to save another servant, James. Throughout, Thomas struggled internally and externally with coming to terms with being gay at a time when any exposure could have caused him to lose it all.
“If he's found out as a practicing homosexual, he would definitely be sacked. He would be imprisoned,” James-Collier says.
“Julian chose to explore his sexuality and the impact that had upon him psychologically. It's resonated with the audience,” James-Collier adds of how Fellowes was able to deploy Thomas as a fulcrum to help change hearts and minds.
“As Thomas has begun to understand himself, so has the audience. The move shifted from a pattern of not liking/hating him to empathizing with him. That grew into sympathy,” he adds.
“They [fans] love Thomas now, and they root for him. They just want him to be happy because they're like, I get it. It must have been horrendous to not be able to love and be free in a time to be yourself. Who should deny that most basic of human rights?”
Fans of Downton Abbey are sure to revel in the grand escape back to 1920s — to Lady Grantham's (Elizabeth McGovern) continuous gentle sway over her husband, to the sisterly snipes between Mary and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and to the repartee between Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess Violet and Penelope Wilton's Isobel.
Considering Thomas’s sojourn to a gay establishment in the film, when asked who James-Collier thought would be the most likely of the servants or the family to hang out a gay bar with his character, he considers carefully.
“When she was in it, it would be Miss O'Brien [Siobhan Finneran], wouldn't it? She knew his sexuality and it didn't bother her, although ultimately she used it against him,” James-Collier muses. “I think it would be Miss O'Brien, and it would be good to see her let her hair down. It certainly wouldn't be Mr. Carson, anyway. Let's put it that way.”
But James-Collier, who’s also known for his role in the long-running British series Coronation Street, has an epiphany that it’s safe to say Downton audiences would have loved to see unfold.
“It would be good to see Thomas out on the town with the Dowager, though, wouldn't it?” James-Collier says. "Two quite acerbic, witty characters as well. You know what I mean?”
James-Collier was happy to return to Downton with the cast and the audiences that have supported the series and his character. And he's proud of the story of resilience through strife that he's helped to tell through Thomas's journey — especially with the feature film depicting a more hopeful place for the Crawleys' gay butler.
"We're moving forward, and look where we've come from," James-Collier says of the fight for LGBTQ equality. "It's good and important to get that message and remind people, so we don't go back to those times. That's the key, I think, the message is hopefully Thomas's journey in the movie will tell everyone, 'Let's not go back there.'”
Downton Abbey opens in theaters Sept. 20.