Actor Rob James-Collier talks to Matthew Hemley about playing the good guy in new ITV drama Love Life and what it’s like working on Downton Abbey with Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine
If you ever find yourself talking to Rob James-Collier about his higher education qualifications, he’ll thank you for referring to his master’s in marketing as just that – a master’s. Labelling it as just a degree, you’ll find, is likely to provoke a strong reaction from the actor.
“I have to stress it was a master’s,” he explains. “The reason for that is because it cost me £4,000 and I never used it. At least this way I get the kudos of having BA (hons), MSc after my name.”
The reason James-Collier has never made use of his master’s, however, probably outweighs the thousands he spent on getting it. Because, after he completed it at Manchester University, the 35 year old decided he would like to try his hand at acting, following an appearance in a friend’s student film after another person dropped out at the last minute. This experience, it turns out, is one he loved, and prompted him to seek out some acting classes.
However, rather than fork out thousands of pounds more on a place at an established drama school, James- Collier opted instead to seek once a week offerings with tutors he found by leafing through the Yellow Pages. Some of these, he admits, turned out to be “con men”, but one, a former student at the Central School of Speech and Drama, wasn’t.
And this teacher also came well equipped with connections – connections which eventually helped James-Collier land an audition for the BBC series Down to Earth in 2005. Three auditions later the job was his and since then, James-Collier has appeared in a remarkable number of television series. And high profile ones at that. He has featured in Coronation Street, playing Liam Connor between 2006 and 2008, and most recently Downton Abbey, playing Thomas Barrow the footman.
This month he is back on ITV screens, appearing in Bill Gallagher’s Love Life, in which he plays Joe, a commitment-phopic who has abandoned his girlfriend in favour of 12 months travelling the world. The series picks up on his return, when he finds that she has moved on with her life and is pregnant with another man’s child. Taking the part in Love Life, James-Collier explains, was part of a deliberate effort to free himself from simply being known as someone who plays the bad guy, such as Thomas in Downton.
“My agent and I chatted about Thomas and realised people hate him, which is good, because they should,” he explains. “But my agent said the next vehicle for me should be the complete opposite – a nice guy with no malice or edge to him.
“The role of Joe says to the audience, I can play a bad guy, but I can also play a good guy. Then again, I might be that bad in Love Life that the audience hate me anyway. We will see – the audience will decide.”
James-Collier was also attracted to the project because of Gallagher himself and the show’s producer, Red Production Company. He describes Gallagher’s script as one that jumped off the page at him, adding: “You know if something is good because you remember the lines because it is written so well. The rhythm of the speech is spot on.”
Speaking about Red, the actor – who was born in Stockport – says the production company has created a “mecca for northern actors” like himself. But he also believes that broadcasters have more of an “awareness” today that they need to “spread things about a bit more” in terms of creating and producing work in the nations and regions.
“There are a lot of people in this country and we need to represent them all as much as we can,” he adds.
Another appeal of Love Life was the small cast – small, at least, compared with Downton Abbey.
“Working on Downton Abbey is amazing but there’s an ensemble cast of between 18 and 21 actors,” he says. “With Love Life there are two couples and a few other key characters. As a smaller unit you’ve got to take more responsibility – at the same time you can have more ownership of the direction it’s going in.”
In terms of cast numbers, Love Life is also a world away from Coronation Street. He describes the experience on the soap as one that was like “repertory theatre” for him, in that he learnt on the job, but adds that after two years it was time for him to move on.
“I got into acting for the different scenarios and roles and meeting different people,” he explains. “Two years in a studio is long enough, as after that it stops becoming the reason I went into acting. And if I had not left, I would not have danced with Dame Maggie Smith. To challenge yourself as an actor you want to move on and try different roles.”
That said, he’s not complaining about having a recurring role in Downton, as he says working on this show for five months of the year makes him financially stable for the rest of the year – meaning he can afford to look at the parts on offer to him in more detail, and be more “rigorous” with his choices.
But he also realises he is not at a stage in his career where he can be too picky about the parts he takes, saying that, sometimes, if the work is there “you have to take it”.
However, having concentrated to date on television work, the actor says he would like to tackle a theatre project. That said, he knows that his limited training means he is not necessarily likely to find the transition to the stage an easy one.
“I would like to do theatre because it scares me and I think you should do things that scare you,” he admits. “But it’s hard to break into theatre. It is, quite rightly, insular and theatre actors have a different skill to TV acting, so to convince someone you can do it after appearing only on TV is hard. But I would love to go on that journey at some point.”
He adds that projection is something he has no clue about, but says he is willing to learn.
“It’s about going in softly, and not wanting to play Hamlet straight off,” he says. “You have to start slowly, comfortably and build yourself up.”
For now though, it’s television all the way, with the third series of Downton recording at the moment set to take him through to August. And on this run of the popular show, the cast will be joined by Shirley MacLaine, who plays Martha Levinson, the mother of Lady Grantham.
James-Collier says he has a scene with the actress and reveals that the “interplay and banter” between MacLaine’s character and that of Maggie Smith’s is “brilliant”.
“To see these two icons go head to head is something else,” he says. “I will bring a camcorder in and film them just to I can learn as much as possible from them both. I can’t wait.”
* Love Life continues on ITV1 on Thursdays at 9pm for two more weeks