How Downton Abbey Convinced Maggie Smith To Return For The Movie

Downton Abbey Violet Crawley dressed for dinner, and smiling

Warning: mild SPOILERS for Downton Abbey are in play. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, please leave this story and return once you’re caught up.

After Downton Abbey went off the air in 2015 and talk about a film adaptation began, there was one cast member who didn’t seem to terribly enthusiastic about taking part in the hypothetical proceedings. Dame Maggie Smith, the woman behind the keen portrayal of Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, was concerned that between her character’s presumed age,and the nature of Julian Fellowes’ then resolved series, there wouldn’t be much reason for there to be a movie, or for her to be involved.

But as preparations for Downton Abbey the movie came calling, it appears it didn’t take too much convincing to bring the legendary actor back to her exceedingly memorable character. I got to ask director Michael Engler, on behalf of CinemaBlend, specifically what did the trick when it came to bringing Dame Maggie Smith back to the Downton fold. During our conversation on the press day, Engler credited the following factors for her return:

That was Julian [Fellowes] and Gareth [Neame]. I think once everybody else was pretty much ready to go, I think she sort of thought ‘Call me when you’ve got a schedule, when it’s really happening’ and all that. And they pulled it together, and went to her, and said ‘Here’s the script. Everyone’s doing it, this is when it is.’ You know, I think she didn’t not want to be a part of it. I don’t think she needed to do it, more like that it was an unfinished business for her as an actor. But I think it was a group of people she really enjoyed working with over the years.

Smith’s concerns about her character weren’t of the garden variety type, where an actor feels that they’re over playing a role such as the Dowager Countess. Rather, the realistic factors such as Violet Crawley’s age, as well as where the story could go after Julian Fellowes’ memorable series concluded, were the driving factors in Dame Maggie’s doubts about a Downton Abbey movie.

And yet, when the time came, and duty called, Dame Maggie Smith returned alongside her fellow co-stars. Which is a very thankful fate, as Violet gets to be even sharper and wittier in the film version of Downton Abbey; something that Michael Engler chalks up to the natural upscaling process of enhancing the televised narrative of the show into a major motion picture.

Speaking of the Dowager Countess’s age, it’s always been a question as to how old the character really is in the world of Downton Abbey. Smith herself has gone on record thinking she was in the range of being 110 years old by time the show ended, but when I asked Engler if there was a chance that he knew Violet’s proper age, he responded:

No, I don’t [know]. I think if you were to ever actually trace it, it wouldn’t even be possible, because, what is she, 15 years older than when the series started? I don’t know, I think she’s probably, as a character, in her late eighties or something.

That’s certainly a pretty big gap between estimates, but no matter what the age of Violet Crawley truly is, there seems to be a story mechanic in play that’s given Dame Maggie Smith more leeway in deciding whether she’ll come back for any hypothetical sequels. Spoilers are definitely in play from this point on.

At the end of Downton Abbey, we discover that Violet is on borrowed time. A visit to the doctor’s in London confirmed that she is gravely ill, and she’s not sure how much time she has left on this earth. She imparts this news to Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary, and comforts her by telling her that she’s the future of Downton, and she represents the best parts of herself.

So while it was relatively easy to bring Dame Maggie Smith back for this theatrical endeavor, should there be a sequel in the offing, we might not see the Dowager Countess along for the ride. While that prospect is sad, it’s still fantastic that we got to see Smith back in action with her fan favorite character for at least one movie, as sharp and as witty as ever.

Downton Abbey’s future as a cinematic franchise will more than likely be built on the same foundation of luck and dedication that his first film built its hopes upon. Just as Julian Fellowes didn’t know that there was even going to be a movie, Dame Maggie Smith’s participation wasn’t a given during this initial go. As always, fans will have to wait and see what the future brings when it comes to their favorite family of luxury.

What you don’t have to wait for though is Downton Abbey to hit theaters, as today marks the opening of the film in the domestic market.

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

Mike Reyes is the Senior Movie Contributor at CinemaBlend, though that title’s more of a guideline really. Passionate about entertainment since grade school, the movies have always held a special place in his life, which explains his current occupation. Mike graduated from Drew University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, but swore off of running for public office a long time ago. Mike's expertise ranges from James Bond to everything Alita, making for a brilliantly eclectic resume. He fights for the user.