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Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham in a scene from the second season of <i>Downton Abbey.</i>
Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham in a scene from the second season of Downton Abbey. / Nick Briggs / PBS
Christmas and corsets with the cast of 'Downton': The cast of 'Downton Abbey' talk eyebrows, corsets and the highly anticipated Christmas episode, which airs in February in the USA. (Dec. 18)

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With eagerly awaited Downton Abbey back for a third season Sunday on PBS (see local listings), we checked in with one of its co-stars, Hugh Bonneville, 49, who plays Robert, Earl of Grantham.

What’s the scoop on the new season? “It’s about the family regrouping. In Robert’s case, in my case, he’s hoping he can return to the past ... and he’s made a huge financial blunder that has put the whole estate in jeopardy. There’s some very big emotional punches.”

Downton is really a soap opera, isn’t it? “At the heart of Downton, structurally or technically, is a soap with sometimes-intelligent thoughts behind it, and high production values, at a West Wing pace. In the same way with a soap, if you get bored with one character, another one will be along in a minute with a story line told at a tremendous lick.”

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? “I’ve had the same resolutions for about 20 years, which is to read The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, and I’m only on about book No. 3. I’m a terrible reader, which is a great shame because literature is the lifeblood of everything, really, in terms of inspiration and nourishment of the soul. So each year, I get Dickens off the shelf and say ‘This is the year.’ ”

Any other goals? “I’m desperate to improve my game of darts. I was beaten by my son [Felix, 10] quite thoroughly over the summer, and I need to do some dart practice.”

Is Downton something you’re son is interested in watching or maybe it’s not quite a kids show? “He dips in and out. It’s funny you say that [because] the first time I realized the impact the show was having I was picking up my boy and a 10 year old guy came up to me and said ‘I don’t like what that Thomas the footman did. ‘What’s he doing next week?’ and I suddenly realized the show was breaking out of its expected demographic. And I had an 8-year-old girl come up to me with her mom the other day and say how much she enjoys the show. It’s interesting how it’s broken out across boundaries”

How is being a TV star in America different from Britain? “In Britain, there’s an automatic default position: If you’re in a successful show, you must be a horrible person. ... In America, the default position is if someone does well, you celebrate them. It does go a bit nuts here in America, the way you celebrate success. It’s a wonderful thing to behold, not to experience.”

Did you always want to be an actor? “At one point, I toyed with becoming a lawyer. I would have been an appalling lawyer. I can retain lines but not facts. I certainly couldn’t argue for someone’s liberty in court. I’d go to pieces and start weeping.”

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