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Sixty Seconds with Robert James-Collier

The actor, 42, on the new Downton film, sitting with George Clooney in make-up and tackling teens in Ackley Bridge

What was the appeal of joining Ackley Bridge?

I like what the series stands for. It’s quite edgy and I like the diverse cast — Asian, black and white kids are all thrown in the mix, which I don’t think we see enough of on telly. There’s a lot of street casting too so there are loads of children who come from different backgrounds who are an inspiration to work with because they’re fearless and enthusiastic.

How would you describe your character?

Martin Evershed is brought in as deputy head and he’s been pushed to Ackley Bridge as a bit of a ‘problem’ for the trust, hoping they can forget about him. You’ll see the humorous side of him but you’ll also see him locking a parent up in a classroom.

How much research did you do for the role?

I took bits and bobs of teachers I remember from my school days. I took a bit of my own personality as well. I’m quite happy-go-lucky and I believe a sense of humour gets you a long way dealing with the stresses life throws at you.

Could you be a teacher?

I think I’d be a good teacher! The test was like art imitating life, coming into an established show. They put all my big scenes on the first day — talk about chucking me in the deep end! I also had to convince these young adults that I was an OK guy. Sixteen- to 18-year-olds don’t care what shows you’ve been in and won’t tolerate any diva behaviour, they just want to see someone who’s real because that’s what they are. Even if that includes one of them, Zain, saying to me, ‘Haven’t you got yellow teeth!’ I said, ‘Yeah, thanks a lot, Zain, tell it how it is!’

Downton role: As footman Thomas

How did it compare to working on Downton Abbey?

There was more of a freedom than on Downton because in that you’re restrained by the times and costumes and your body language — it all has to come from the eyes and you can’t gesticulate too much. Also, with Julian Fellowes being an Oscar- and Emmy-winning writer, you wouldn’t mess with the scripts. Why would you? With Ackley Bridge it’s slightly freer because it’s a younger set and a lot of non-actors so we were encouraged to ad lib at the top and end of scenes. The kids could ad lib forever — adult actors usually run out of things to say after 15 seconds!

How has Downton Abbey changed your life and career?

To have stability for the six to seven years we did it was fantastic. It gave me a bit more exposure, so people know me now for Downton, and I met a lot of good people and friends for life, but other than that I’m the same old me. I was lucky enough to be brought on the cast and do something new, then for it to go viral worldwide and become this phenomenon. And we’re still enjoying it. The movie’s out in September so hopefully it will be received well.

You must be have been pleased as you thought Downton had ended…

Yeah, but with shows like Sex And The City and The Inbetweeners having successful films, there was precedence there. Downton is an established brand now, so for me it was a bit of a no-brainer to do a film. And I’m glad they did. It ties up a lot of loose ends and I think there was a demand for it.

The trailer suggests Thomas finds romance…

Yes, he does. He’s sort of a film within a film. Mr Carson is brought back to help when the royal family visit the abbey and Thomas sees it as a slight of his abilities so he stands himself down for the duration of their visit and goes off and has an adventure. So it was strange because I was back with everyone for parts of it but for big parts I was on my own filming up in Bradford. It was like I was doing a Thomas Barrow special, which I think everyone wants to see!

Top guy: George Clooney

What are your highlights from working on that show? Working with George Clooney?

That just shows what esteem the show’s held in and fair play to George Clooney for doing the skit for Text Santa — he was absolutely fantastic. I’ve never seen a set go so quiet when someone has walked on, there’s so much of an aura about the man, what a top guy. On the make-up truck, looking in the mirror seeing him next to me, it was like, ‘Wow, yeah, that’s why you’re in the movies and I’m not!’

When did you decide to be an actor?

I did a business studies degree and marketing master’s but as soon as I started working in marketing, I just couldn’t see myself in an office for the next 30 years. So I started adult acting classes in Manchester. I got an agent who got a casting director down who auditioned me for series five of Down To Earth with Ricky Tomlinson and Denise Welch. That job was a six-month training ground and I was still very raw in it. Fortunately it was before everything was uploaded to YouTube so no one can see it!

Ackley Bridge is on Tuesdays at 8pm on Channel 4

I’ve never seen a set go so quiet as when George walked in, there’s such an aura about the man