Downton Abbey was a popular series, and several actors and actresses got their start on it and became famous after appearing on the show. Created by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning Downton Abbey ran for six seasons and aired on ITV in the United Kingdom followed by broadcast on Masterpiece PBS in the United States a few months later. The series turned into a global phenomenon and has spawned a feature film revival, the Downton Abbey movie. Meanwhile, a few former cast members went on to even bigger stardom, thanks to their time at Downton Abbey.
Downton Abbey launched or cemented the careers of its stars, including Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, and Allen Leech, all of whom returned for the Downton Abbey movie. So did the actors who portray the servants of the aristocratic Crawley family, including Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Joanne Froggatt, Lesley Nicol, and Rob James-Collier. Most of those actors already had solid careers in British film and TV but they gained worldwide fame thanks to Downton Abbey. When the series began, the most acclaimed actor on the roster was Maggie Smith, who portrays Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess. Smith gained a new generation of fans for playing Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies. In addition, Downton Abbey has imported some big-name American guest stars like Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti, and other major British actors like Richard E. Grant and Matthew Goode have also made Downton their home.
Many of Downton Abbey's stars have done notable work after the series ended. Michelle Dockery starred in TNT's Good Behavior for two seasons and in Netflix's Western miniseries Godless. Laura Carmichael appeared in the film A United Kingdom and stars in The Spanish Princess on Starz. Allen Leech appeared as Paul Prenter, the scheming manager of Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) in Bohemian Rhapsody. Amusingly, Jim Carter's voice might be the most famous of all because he provided the voice of Cogman, the sociopathic robot butler of Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) in Transformers: The Last Knight.
However, Downton Abbey's worldwide popularity truly served as a springboard for the careers of a select group of its alumni. Dozens of actors have been part of the series throughout its six seasons and some series leads even left the series at its height, like Jessica Brown-Findlay, who played Lady Sybil, the youngest Crawley daughter and has had an eclectic post-Downton career. But a few former Downton Abbey actors really struck it big in movies and TV, becoming household names thanks to Disney and Game of Thrones.
Lily James is acclaimed by Julian Fellowes as Downton Abbey's "greatest success story" and it's easy to see why. James joined Downton Abbey late in season 3 as the Crawleys' irrepressible cousin, Lady Rose MacClare. Rose essentially replaced Lady Sybil as the family's youthful rebel after Sybil was killed off and Jessica Brown-Findlay left the series. James starred in Downton Abbey seasons 4 and 5 but she left before the final season. However, James returned for the Downton Abbey series finale although she won't be reprising Lady Rose in the Downton Abbey movie.
The reason Lily James left Downton Abbey was because she won the title role in Disney's Cinderella, which ushered in the Mouse House's hugely successful blockbuster live-action remakes of their animated classics. After becoming a bonafide Disney Princess, James continued to score big roles in movies, TV, and the stage. James starred as Natasha Rostova in BBC's War & Peace, she played Juliet opposite Richard Madden in Kenneth Branagh's stage production of Romeo and Juliet, and she played Eve Harrington in All About Eve. James' skyrocketing movie career includes starring in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Baby Driver, Darkest Hour, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society on Netflix. James also portrayed the younger version of Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again and she starred in Danny Boyle's Yesterday.
Dan Stevens starred as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey seasons 1-3. He was the series' main romantic lead who was the heir to the Earlship of Grantham and the estate of Downton Abbey as well as the husband of Lady Mary. However, fans were shocked and dismayed when Matthew was abruptly killed off in Downton Abbey's season 3 finale; the future Lord Grantham died in a car wreck on the night his son George was born. But after three years on Downton Abbey, Stevens grew restless in the role and he was wary of being typecast as virtuous Matthew Crawley after the show turned into a worldwide smash.
Stevens wanted to explore new horizons as an actor and he got his wish with the two major post-Downton roles he's now known for: In 2017, Stevens followed in Lily James' footsteps and became a Disney icon by playing Beast in Beauty and the Beast opposite Emma Watson. Stevens is not recognizable under the Beast's makeup and prosthetics and it was certainly a role far removed from Matthew Crawley. So was his next major role starring in FX's X-Men spinoff, Legion. Stevens portrayed mutant psychic David Haller, the son of Professor X (Harry Lloyd), in the psychedelic series, which recently wrapped its three-season run. As Beast and as David Haller, Stevens showcased a villainous edge and his formidable range as an actor.
Iain Glen already boasted dozens of movie and TV roles and before Downton Abbey, the Scottish actor was famous for playing the villainous Dr. Alexander Isaacs in the Resident Evil movies. Glen joined Downton Abbey season 2 as Sir Richard Carlisle, a self-made newspaper magnate who became the fiance of Lady Mary. However, Carlisle proved himself to be a domineering schemer who was willing to blackmail Lady Mary in order to ensure her devotion to him.
However memorable Glen's stint on Downton Abbey was, the world knows him best as Ser Jorah Mormont on Game of Thrones. Glen starred in all eight seasons of HBO's mega-blockbuster, which became one of the biggest TV shows in the world, and Mormont stood by the side of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) nearly the entirety of the series. While battling the White Walkers, Mormont memorably gave his life in defense of his Khaleesi in Game of Thrones season 8's Battle of Winterfell. Currently, Glen portrays another iconic hero, Bruce Wayne, on DC Universe's Titans.
Rose Leslie also started off on Downton Abbey before Game of Thrones elevated her stardom. The Scottish actress played Gwen Harding in Downton Abbey season 1; she was one of the housemaids who left service and became a secretary, thanks to Lady Sybil's help. Leslie left Downton Abbey after the first season but she returned as Gwen, now a married woman of elevated status, in Downton Abbey season 6. However, Leslie is most famous for playing Ygritte, Jon Snow's Wildling lover, on Game of Thrones seasons 2-4 and for uttering one of the series' most quotable lines of dialogue, "You know nothing, Jon Snow." After she left Game of Thrones, Leslie went on to star in BBC's Luther and she plays the lead role of Maia Rindell on CBS All Access' The Good Fight.
- Downton Abbey (2019) release date: Sep 20, 2019