“I never wanted to be famous,” Hugh Bonneville told the crowd at Temple Ner Tamid during a Succeed2gether event for the Montclair Literary Festival.
While he may not have wanted to be famous, Tuesday night, November 15’s crowded temple showed that he certainly is.
The evening’s host, CBS News senior correspondent Jim Axlerod, said: “My family is praying here. I’ve been here for Yom Kippur services where not that many people are present.”
Bonneville is best known for playing Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham on the British television series Downton Abbey. He was in Montclair to talk about his last role as an author.
His memoir, Playing Under the Piano: From Downton to Darkest Peru, was published by Other Press on November 8th. Montclair was one of only three US stops on Bonneville’s book tour.
Throughout the evening, Bonneville and Axlerod drew laughter and tears from the audience as they discussed the memoir, which has been in the works for the past six years but was written in two and a half months.
The idea of writing a memoir came to Bonneville when an agent “nagged” him after seeing his wit and charm in interviews over the years. During the six years, Bonneville spontaneously wrote a chapter or a page.
It was only in the summer of 2021 that his son Felix inspired him to finish the book. Felix was vacationing in Scotland, the same place where Bonneville wrote the first chapter of his then unfinished memoir.
“He sent me a picture of his word count,” Bonneville said of his son. “And he said, ‘I’m writing a book, Dad. I wrote 4,000 words today. And you?'”
This gentle but cheeky encouragement from his son inspired Bonneville to devote the next few months to writing the book.
He sought structure for his writing process through author Roald Dahl, whom he played in the film To Olivia.
“He was working two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, and I was like, ‘That’s lightweight,'” Bonneville said jokingly. He told Axlerod that because he was used to working eight hours a day on set, he thought he could use the same schedule for writing.
He quickly learned that storytelling as an actor is very different from storytelling as a writer.
“Storytelling on screen or on film, actually you’re interpreting, you’re channeling someone else’s work,” he said. “Of course, as a writer, you literally create and shape stories.”
As Bonneville completed his memoir, he realized that the book had evolved into something he had not envisioned when the project began.
In the beginning he wanted to write a “series of showbiz anecdotes”. By the time he was done, he had shared a story about his father’s journey with dementia and his mother’s influence on his life. Through his memoir, Bonneville realized how much of his career he owes to his parents.
As a child, both parents were active in the medical field, but made sure to involve their children in cultural activities. Bonneville said he was “dragged around” to art galleries and concerts.
“Of course I found it so boring at ages 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10,” he said, “but the theater really got me.”
In his teenage years he joined the National Youth Theater of Great Britain, an organization established in 1956 to encourage young people’s talents in the arts. Bonneville credits his time there with having a “cultural hunger.”
He names many celebrities in his book, including Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the late Bob Hoskins. The celebrity who influenced him the most is Judi Dench.
Bonneville recalled his first job at the National Youth Theater, where he was in rehearsal with the actress. His nerve-wracked hands were shaking before he went on stage to rehearse with Dench. “Then she did something I’ve never forgotten,” he said. “She did the opposite of upstaging.”
Dench walked down the stage, turned his back on the house, and turned the spotlight on Bonneville.
“That was about the most generous act a high-profile actor could do for a young dollar like me, and I’ve always appreciated that,” he said.