Photography by Mr Brendan Freeman | Styling by Mr Tony Cook
Words by Mr Peter Henderson
When I post on my Twitter account that I am about to interview the actor Mr Allen Leech - widely known to audiences as Tom Branson, the chauffeur in the hit TV series Downton Abbey, who ends the second series eloping with one of the ladies of the manor - the reactions range from swooning to downright jealousy. While the award-winning historical drama has attracted a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems that Mr Leech, 31, has become something of a heart-throb in female circles. If he is aware of this fact, though, it is something that he wears lightly when I meet him at the East London townhouse where the MR PORTER shoot is taking place. Classically handsome and with an easy-going manner, Mr Leech is bemused when I ask him if he has heard of a website called "F**k Yeah Allen Leech", on which die-hard Downton fans have posted hundreds of stills of Branson, many lovingly annotated with his lines from the show ("I promise to devote every waking minute to your happiness").
Although Mr Leech, who was born in Killiney in Ireland and studied acting at Trinity College in Dublin, has appeared in two other historical dramas (HBO's Rome in 2007 and Showtime's The Tudors in 2010), he has a diverse set of films, TV shows and theatre productions under his belt. In the upcoming thriller The Sweeney he plays Simon Ellis, a member of a brutal-but-effective elite police squad - a world apart from the fanciful costumes and cut-glass accents of Downton. Meanwhile, Mr Leech describes the time he spent last year starring in Mr Mike Leigh's West End production Ecstasy as "One of the most enjoyable experiences I have had professionally", and he has another film releasing soon. Titled In Fear, it is a tense psychological horror flick produced for Film4 and StudioCanal.
You have just finished filming the third series of Downton Abbey. What can we expect?
My character, Tom Branson, has run off with Sybil, the youngest daughter from the Crawley family, and they have got married and moved to Ireland. In the first episode they come back to England, and Branson feels trapped because he can't go downstairs [with the other domestic staff] because no one wants him there anymore, and he can't go upstairs because the family hate the fact that he has married Sybil. So the idea of trying to find an identity, and trying to work out how strong to make his political ideals and how they might affect his marriage, runs throughout the new series.
Would you say there are any similarities between you and Branson?
I'm not as political as Branson, so the fact that I've always gone for women who are out of my league is probably the closest similarity we have [laughs]. I think I have less of a success rate than he does, though...
Did you miss Branson's chauffeur outfit, seeing as he was no longer a member of staff in the third series?
I did miss it, actually. Mainly because it gave me a real sense of the character's identity when I put it on, and there was a ritual to getting into the garters, the green jacket, the goggles and all that stuff. But I finally got to wear other outfits, which was great... I mean, I spent two years as an oversized leprechaun, so it was nice to get into some tuxedos and stuff. Downton is set in the early 1900s, and because Branson is the guy who is against the establishment he is the first character to rock up in a tux rather than in full tails, so I had some of the sharpest gear to wear.
Your upcoming film, The Sweeney, is completely different: contemporary, gritty and raw. How did you get into the mind-set for that?.
The way that the director, Nick Love, approached it was brilliant: he had us all go out and do proper training in relation to handling guns and things. We actually got to fire live rounds. I was there with the rest of the cast, and when they gave me the gun, and said, "OK, you can fire live rounds now," the first thing I thought was, "Wow, I could actually shoot Ray Winstone in the face right now." That's the first thing I thought! I told him afterwards, and he said, "I don't think that's very healthy, Allen," and I said, "I know! But that's the first thing that came into my head" [laughs].
It sounds like it was a boy's dream to film...
Oh man, it was insane. There's a scene with a massive gun battle across Trafalgar Square, and you're standing there with your handgun, running across the square, throwing yourself against pillars... One time we were sprinting across the square and Ray turned around and said to me, "Slow down! Remember who's the lead here," so he made me take a couple of steps back. It was great fun, though.
Mr Leech as the chauffeur Tom Branson, alongside Ms Jessica Brown Findlay, who plays Sybil Crawley, in the second series of Downton Abbey, 2011
The Big Screen
Mr Leech with Ms Hayley Atwell in the 2012 movie The Sweeney, based on the cult 1970s TV show
Mr Leech appearing in Mr Mike Leigh's theatre production, Ecstasy, alongside Ms Sinead Matthews, London, 2011
Are there any characters you've played whose outfits have influenced your personal style?
Well, the jacket I'm wearing right now is from The Sweeney so I guess I have! Not always, though. For [the 2003 film] Cowboys & Angels there was this red leather jacket, and as a joke I brought it out and said, "What about this for my character?" and of course it turned out it actually was his jacket, but in the end it looked great on camera.
As an actor do you feel there's pressure to look good?
I think there is, yes. If I'm honest, I probably pay more attention to what I'm wearing when Downton is on, or when The Sweeney is out I think I'll be more aware of it. But at the end of the day, I cycle around London a lot so comfort is always a factor.
Which actors' style do you admire?
Daniel Craig looks great both on screen as Bond and off screen. Ben Whishaw has good style as well.
Do you have any future projects that we should look out for?
This month I'm going out to Barcelona to film Grand Piano with Elijah Wood and John Cusack until the end of October, then I imagine back to Downton. I think there are definitely a couple of stories there that are still to be continued. I'm delighted I've got so many different things to be doing.
Anything coming up in theatre?
Not at the moment. I did the second series of Downton at the same time as the Mike Leigh show in the West End, and it was a killer. I drove straight to the theatre to perform from the Downton set after a day of filming, and because it was a Mike Leigh show and he's big on realism, I had to drink eight cans of lager on stage every night: they had to be real cans of lager, to get the sound of opening them and everything, so I was basically hammered every evening. Then I had to roll home for four hours of sleep before returning to the Downton set in the morning. So I was hungover or drunk for six months [laughs]. The next time I do theatre, I will make sure there is a big gap between it and something like Downton. But I'd love to do another play.
Finally, I heard you had an unusual animal encounter while you were filming Man About Dog...
I know what you want to know. In the film there was a scene where I was sleeping on a bed beside a greyhound, and I had to keep the dog calm so we could get the shot. And I'm not going to lie, the way I had to do this was by massaging the dog's balls! It's true, and I'm not ashamed of it... although I hope never to have to do it again. The things you do for the business... The funniest thing was the dog handler on set, who started out saying, "Personally, I find one of the best ways to keep a dog calm in bed is to..." and I was like, "Hang on a minute! How many times have you found yourself in bed with a dog needing to be kept calm? Is this a problem you often encounter?"
The third series of Downton Abbey is airing now in the UK on ITV1. The Sweeney is out now in the UK.
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