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Dishing With a Downton Abbey Star

LunchAtMichaelsThere are Michael’s lunches and then there are Michael’s lunches. Over the course of all the years I’ve been chronicling the scene on Wednesdays at 55th and Fifth for this column, I’ve had plenty of occasion to dine and dish with the famous and infamous, strivers and stars and more than my fair share of pop cultural icons. When I think about what I love most about this gig, I have to paraphrase Forrest Gump: Each Wednesday at Michael’s is like a box of (very expensive) chocolates because you never know what you’re going to get. Today, I got the chance to spend a delightful few hours with Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore, the blustery and big-hearted cook on Downton Abbey, my absolute favorite television show. As anyone who follows my posts on Facebook and minute-by-minute recaps for XFinity knows, I am beyond obsessed with the PBS hit, so I was more than a little excited about the chance to have a lengthy sitdown with one of my favorite actors of the series. And Lesley didn’t disappoint.

Diane Clehane and Lesley Nicol

Diane Clehane and Lesley Nicol

She arrived — and looked quite chic in leather pants and high heel boots! — right on the dot of 12:15 for our lunch and promptly charmed everyone in the place, telling GM Steve Millington the dining room was “gorgeous” and graciously chatting with a few fans who stopped by the table to say their hellos. As she looked around the mercifully subdued dining room, I explained that Michael’s was the place to be for all sorts of movers and shakers and, of course, the random celebrity. “Joan Collins was here a few weeks ago,” I told her searching my mental Rolodex for the name of a British star I could mention. “Probably ate a few lettuce leaves,” said Lesley. I knew I’d love her.

We quickly dispensed with ordering (Dover sole for two) and settled in for our chat — and after five minutes I felt as if I’d known her forever. Lesley told me she was in town for a flurry of meetings with her new New York agents at Bauman Redanty & Shaul, who she’d hadn’t yet met, and with casting director Avy Kaufman. Her PR rep, Andrew Freedman, who moved his firm from New York to Los Angeles a few years ago, had managed to arrange our lunch between all these big doings.  She’d also found time to take in a Brooklyn production of Julius Caesar, whose all-female cast included her good friend Susan Brown as Casca. But, she confided, she was really looking forward to tonight’s after-party for Thor on the off chance she’d get to meet her celeb crush, Sir Anthony Hopkins, who appears in the film. “He is just gorgeous,” she said as she speared a Brussels sprout, “If he’s there, I’ll probably be too tongue tied. I’ll just drop down and die.”

Her own encounters with Downton fans have been “wonderfully positive,” said Lesley. “I don’t get recognized a lot at home (in London). Last night at the theater, I saw a man who was looking over at me, and he got that look and then he said,  ‘I love you’ and I said, ‘I love you, too.’ I think it was lovely of him.” As for the difference between the show’s British and U.S.-based fans, Lesley explained, “It’s a breath of fresh air being here, really. [America] celebrates success while in Britain some of the reviews can be a bit vicious.” One reviewer, she said, inexplicably compared cinematic Downton  to UK soap Crossroads, which is known for its “wobbly sets.” Said Lesley: “They actually called Downton ‘Crossroads with butlers.’ I think that’s rather harsh.” Luckily, the show’s fans are universally rabid about the show. Lesley told me her most surprising fan encounter — besides learning that a woman in the UK had created a Mrs. Patmore porcelain figurine she was selling online (“I think they’ve told her to stop”) — happened at Costco in Los Angeles, where a young Mexican girl “who couldn’t have been more than 17″ was checking her membership card at the door and asked, “Are you Mrs. Patmore?” Upon learning she was face to face with one of the actors from her favorite show, the girl said, “My whole family loves your show. We watch it together.” Marvels Lesley: “I thought it was wonderful to think of this Mexican family in California sitting around watching our show.” Lesley also told me she’s traded tweets with Chelsea Clinton, who told her Downton was a family favorite.

The British-born actress, who now splits her time between London and Los Angeles with her husband and beloved dogs, Bertie and Freddie, is quite the television fan herself. She counts Veep as a fave and she thought the first season of The Americans “was excellent” and gives high marks to series star fellow Brit Matthew Rhys. She told me she was thrilled to meet Margo Martindale who appears in the show recently at this year’s Emmy Awards. “I met her on the red carpet and I told her I’d had a dream that we starred in a new version of Cagney and Lacey. She said that was a wonderful idea!” Lesley just discovered Nurse Jackie after having watched four episodes on her plane ride here. Being part of a hit show has been “really fantastic,” and she says being cast as Mrs. Patmore ”was one of those rare instances in life when everything was just right.” She was walking her dogs in a London park when she ran into her friend Liz Trubridge, a producer on the show a few months before production was about to begin on the first season. “She told me she had a great job for me and she was going to talk to (series creator) Julian Fellowes about me.” As it happened, Lesley had auditioned the year before for Fellowes for another project, From Time to Time, where she would have appeared opposite Maggie Smith as her housekeeper. (Fun fact: While Lesley has spent many hours chatting with the Oscar winner when the show’s entire cast is needed on location for “weddings and funerals,” she’s never had a scene on Downton with Smith. “I love spending time with her. She’s very funny, you know.”)  Fellowes decided the housekeeper needed to be a different age than originally thought and as a result Lesley didn’t get that part. But she did leave an impression on Fellowes, who cast her in the role of Mrs. Patmore without seeing anyone else for the role. “Talk about lucky! You can wait around all your life for something like that to happen. Sometimes, it never does.”

Lesley also told me it had been her idea to give Mrs. Patmore a love interest, a storyline that lightened up last season’s final episodes. “Two years ago I requested a love interest and Julian said, “Do you want to leave the show?” She explained that’s because Fellowes thought that if Mrs. Patmore had gotten married she’d have to leave Downton (Here’s an interesting aside: the title of “Mrs” awarded to senior staff members of Downton and other great houses of the era are meant as “a sign of respect” explained Lesley. Characters like Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes aren’t married and are, in fact, wedded to their jobs since they never leave the great house.) “Of course I didn’t want to leave the show — I wanted to show that people get touched by love at all ages.” She then added with a laugh, “I just thought it would last more than five minutes.” In the end, Lesley did get a charming and funny storyline that allowed her to show Mrs. Patmore’s more vulnerable side, while staying true to her worldly wise character’s common sense. “What I love about the show is that Julian writes storylines for 18 people out of his head and none of them are sketchy. They are all fully drawn characters.”

As most of her scenes take place ”below stairs” in the great house, Lesley’s opportunities to visit Highclere Castle, the country estate where Downton is filmed, are few and far between. “Every time I do come up the drive, the house takes your breath away and that’s saying something because I live in England!” Instead, the scenes with the household staff are shot on set during 12 hour days at Ealing Studios, 60 miles away.  As a result, the actors who play the staff  ”below stairs” in the Grantham household are a tight-knit group. Jim Carter, who plays, Mr. Carson, is a bit of a father figure to the group, says Lesley. ”We have lots of laughs because everyone is a bit naughty,” said Lesley. She’s closest to Sophie McShera, who plays Daisy, a scullery maid who has worked her way up in the kitchen and now has other opportunities to consider outside Downton. “Sophie doesn’t need a lot of screen time because she’s incredible. Any time she’s on screen, she nails it!” Lesley is also great pals with Phyllis Logan, who plays housekeeper Mrs. Hughes. “In fact, she’s coming over next week for lunch — so Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes will be lunching in Beverly Hills!”

No spoilers here about season four (For God’s sake, don’t Google Downton Abbey if you want to be surprised!) as Lesley and the rest of the cast are sworn to secrecy about the show’s storylines. “People always ask and the answer is always the same: ‘If I told you, I’d have to kill you.’” She’s only seen episodes 1 and 3 of the fourth season so far (she does find time to watch them all) but says, “The producers are very pleased with it and they think it at least matched or is better than the last series.” Lesley says there have been rumors that there might be a theatrical film but adds, “I don’t think that decision has been made.” As for the show’s long-term prospects, she told me: “There will be a series 5, but beyond that I don’t know and I’d be the last person they’d tell. I’m in the dark, but I’m certain it won’t go on for years. Julian is very busy. It’s tricky.”

Over coffee, Lesley was lovely about dissecting all my favorite scenes from past seasons. [Spoiler Alert] When I told her I was more devastated by Sybil’s death than by Matthew’s (thanks to Internet spoilers and Dan Stevens’ own announcement he was leaving the series after the season 3 finale aired in the UK), she said. “She died beautifully” — referring to Jessica Brown Findlay‘s heartbreaking performance in the episode, where her character died after giving birth. Then, after a laugh, she added, “What I mean is that the whole thing was incredibly well acted.” No argument here.  Season 4 of Downton Abbey premieres January 5, 2014, on PBS. We’re counting the days.

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Star Jones and a blonde gal we didn’t get to meet

2. Lord Norman Foster

3. “Mayor” Joe Armstrong and the New York Post’s Richard Johnson, whose return to the paper and new column was heralded with it own front page. Impressive. Welcome back!

4. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell

5. Lesley Nicol and yours truly

6. Andrew Stein with, so we’re told, ” a model named Veronica.’ Alrighty then.

8. Christie Hefner, who, in case you didn’t know, is now the executive chairman of Canyon Ranch Enterprises. (She left Playboy Enterprises five years ago.) Christie tells me the spa is branching out beyond its iconic properties into a whole host of brand extensions. This includes a personal online coaching service and Canyon Ranch Kitchen at Home, a nationwide fresh food online delivery service (“It’s in Beta right now”) for the “time pressed” and for those who want the spa experience but for whatever reason can’t get there. Well, one thing’s for sure, if the delivery man shows up with dinner and brings along a facialist, I think they’re on to something.

9. BJ Coleman, who was joined by a tall fellow who swept into the dining room wearing a cape. And not the superhero kind, either.

11. Vidicom’s Christy Ferer with Diana Quasha of Empress, Duchess & Tart — what a great name for a jewelry line!

12. Jay McInerney, who went over to greet Richard Johnson before his wife, Anne Hearst, joined him

14. A casually clad Charles Koppelman in Lucite specs, jeans and a plaid cashmere blazer. Looking good.

15. PR maven Lisa Linden and Patrick Murphy

16. Donnie Deutsch and Piers Morgan Tonight‘s executive producer Jonathan Wald

17. Christine Miller Martin and Judy Price

18. Ed Victor

20. Uber agent Rob Weisbach. Congrats on your recent marriage to Dave DeRosa!

21. Quest‘s Chris Meigher

22. Chic times two: PR princess Trica Jean Baptiste with an equally well dressed gal.

24. Adam Schiff

25. CAA’s Rob Kenneally

26. Dan Zucker

27. Digital Place-based Advertising Association CEO Barry Frey and producer Beverly Camhe

29. MSNBC’s Jesse Rodrigues and CNN’s Javier Morgado

Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM. 

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