Hugh Bonneville, PLAYING UNDER THE PIANO: From Downton to Darkest Peru

Hugh Bonneville, PLAYING UNDER THE PIANO: From Downton to Darkest Peru

Zibby interviews (in person!) Golden Globe and Emmy nominated actor Hugh Bonneville (star of Downton Abbey, Notting Hill, and Paddington!) about his memoir Playing Under the Piano: From Downton to Darkest Peru. Hugh talks about his real name, his childhood (it involved museums, the theater, and a mom in the secret service!), some hilarious early-career mishaps, and his plans for the future (retirement is not an option!). Finally, he shares his best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Hugh. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Playing Under the Piano: From Downton — like Downton Abbey, obviously — to Darkest Peru. Welcome.

Hugh Bonneville: I thought you were going to say downtown then because so many Americans do.

Zibby: I would never have said something like that. Not me. I’m prepared.

Hugh: Thank you very much for having me to your beautiful home. I love the fact that all the books in the library are color-coordinated. They’re laid out according to color. Where did that idea come from? What does it tell me about your childhood and your psyche?

Zibby: Should we go there?

Hugh: I have a cousin who does exactly the same. He’s adorable, I hasten to add. I’m intrigued. He’s never quite had the answer. He says, “I just like the look of the light blue next to the yellow next to the dark blue.” Do you have a method? Is there a method behind your madness?

Zibby: Not really. You’re turning this whole thing around. I don’t know. I took them all down during COVID. I put them all on the floor, everything in the whole room. I thought, I’ll just put them by color. I don’t even know how I thought of it. I started with a shelf of white. I put that all the way down at the bottom. Then I just moved from there. Then I realized how many books are white and red and black.

Hugh: Absolutely. There’s also a lot of blues. It’s reminded me of something in my childhood where I had — do you have Top Trumps here, those game cards? They’re like playing cards, but they’re for themes of things.

Zibby: Like baseball cards and things?

Hugh: I guess that sort of thing. Somebody’s power in this area is ten. Their skills are five or six. Anyway, I used to arrange these cards sometimes according to the color of them, sometimes to the level of skill that this card was at or which team they were in. It got very confusing because I changed them once a year. I had to recategorize. I had dreams of being a librarian for a while, but that soon evaporated. Are we digressing? We haven’t even started.

Zibby: Okay, your book. Let’s start with the author name because this actually isn’t your real name. Go into that.

Hugh: My full name on my birth certificate was Hugh Richard Bonnewille Williams. My father always used to say that the Bonnewille was originally Bonneville and had come over to England from France in the Huguenot persecution. Then when I came to being an actor, there had been a Hugh Williams in Equity, which is the British union. You can’t have two people with the same name. My first director in my first audition said, “Oh, I remember Hugh Williams.” He went banging on about Hugh Williams for ages, this former actor. I thought, I’m never going to get a word in edgewise. I know what. I’ll use my middle name. For ages I was Richard Bonneville. I’d adopted the French bit because it sounded nicer than Bonnewille. Then eventually, I remember being at a party once after I’d been an actor for about ten years. My host, who had known me as Hugh all my life, didn’t introduce me to anyone because he didn’t know whether to call me Hugh or Richard. I thought, how does Reg Dwight cope? Who’s Reg Dwight? Do you know who Reg Dwight is? Elton John. Or Gordon Sumner. Who’s Gordon Sumner? Sting. I thought, how do they cope, people who’ve either known them in their professional lives or in a former life? I thought, stuff it. I’ll go back to Hugh, so Hugh Bonneville. That’s a very long-winded answer as to why Hugh Bonneville is my name.

Zibby: Or that you felt very comfortable just comparing yourself to Elton John and Sting.

Hugh: I know. These incredible stars.

Zibby: Three musketeers, you three. Okay, so we’ve got your name. Why write the book?

Hugh: The really simple reason is because a publisher nagged me about it years ago, to do something. He contacted me out of the blue, an agent, actually, a literary agent in London. He said, “I think you should write a comic novel.” I said, “Oh, god, that’s far too grown up. I’ve got a day job, for heaven’s sake.” He said, “How about an autobiography?” I said, “Autobiography smacks of accuracy and chronology and, indeed, pomposity if you’re not careful.” He said, “At least a memoir, something where you can string stories together.” That’s what I set out to do. I just didn’t do it. I wrote a chapter with great ceremony in 2017, ’16, ’17. I got my son to take a picture of me starting writing. I sent it off to him. I said, “Look, I’ve started, Rory, finally. I don’t want a book publishing deal. I want it to pour out of me.” Nothing poured. It didn’t even trickle. When it did, I put a finger in the dike, so to speak, and sort of pushed it back. Then my son went traveling. He’s now twenty-one. He was just turning twenty. He went traveling in the summer after the pandemic. He could actually go around Europe a bit. He texted saying, “I’m leaving Sam, my traveling companion, just for a week. I’ve hired an Airbnb up in the hills.” I thought, this is interesting. What’s he up to?

Sure enough, he sent me a screenshot of his word count on his first day. He said, “I’ve just written four thousand words of my novel, Dad. How many words have you written today?” I felt so ashamed by my son. The next day, I picked up the phone to the agent. I said, “I need a publishing deal. I need a deadline. I need someone cracking the whip.” I sat down this time last year, so I’m talking about October, November last year, and got on with it. because I’m so naïve in this world of books. They said, “We want a hundred thousand words.” I wrote 160,000. I thought they’d be pleased. No, they were a bit cheesed off that now we had to do a lot of editing. I said, “What’s wrong, then?” The publisher said, “Look, I’m enjoying it hugely, but I’m on page a hundred, and you’re still only eight. We need to just really pick and choose our stories here.” Then the process, as you know, murdering your darlings and me wanting to write about my passion for the arts and education and him saying, “That’s boring. Tell us more about Maggie Smith,” or whatever it might be. I had to find a balance in the end. Two things. A, I enjoyed the process. B, isn’t the unconscious an extraordinary thing? I had no intention when I set out, to write about my parents in the way that I do. My father had passed away for before the pandemic. He had dementia. He was ninety-four. He had really good innings and all those things, but of course, you’re still losing a loved one.

I found that I couldn’t stop myself writing about him and Mom and his influence on me and my sister and my brother and the way that they, when I was growing up, had put a gentle sort of cape around us in terms of the arts. The background noise in my youth was culture with a small C. It was going to art galleries and English country houses that would bore the flip out of me at the time, and museums and theater. Theater lit a blue touchpaper and caught my imagination, and opera. Most of it, I didn’t get into, but it was there. It was there in the background of my life. Only when I got into my teenage years and started to meet boys and girls from completely different cultures than mine or backgrounds to mine across the UK through an organization called the National Youth Theatre, which brought kids from all over the country together, did I realize how fortunate I’d been, how lucky I’d been to have that, as I say, low-level hum of culture and taken it for granted. So many of my mates that I forged over those years didn’t have that. I’ve carried that into my adult life hugely. I’m passionate about the arts and the young and the way that it unlocks our imagination and self-expression. Looking at these books here, that’s because people have been allowed to let their imaginations free. It’s a very long answer to a very short question.

Zibby: That’s okay. I love it. Actually, when I read that part of your book, I was sitting there thinking, oh, my gosh, I am such a bad mom. My parents did the same thing that your parents did. I didn’t really think much of it, but they were always taking us to plays and museums and all this stuff. I don’t do that that much with my kids, but I guess they’ll just be okay eventually.

Hugh: They’ll be marvelous.

Zibby: You have to say that. You haven’t met them yet. No, I’m kidding. Let’s go back to your parents for a second. You start off by saying, “There’s not much to say here. The only time they fought was in the car, and I thought they were getting divorced.” That was a very funny scene, as all of your scenes are. Generally, they had a very happy marriage. You all went along in this nice life. Then you didn’t find out until after your mother passed away that she had this whole James Bond secret career going on. The most poignant moment there was at the funeral. I’m so sorry about your losses. You heard that they said because she had a young boy, she only worked three days a week. All of a sudden, you were like, oh, my gosh, I was the young boy. Here am I at age fifty, when you were sitting there, thinking, I can’t believe what she did for me.

Hugh: To be fair, I did know that she’d worked in the secret service, in MI6, as it’s called in the UK, but I certainly didn’t know anything about the work. Neither did my father. She, understandably, took the secrets to her grave. Only latterly did I find out a tiny bit. She’d always said, “I just did some filing, dear.” She did, but it was obviously rather sensitive material and had international implications and etc. When she told me — I suppose I was about nine or ten — that she was going to take up this job three days a week in London, I was furious. How selfish could she be, leaving me? What was I going to do after school if there was no one to play with or give me my sandwich and my orange squash? As I say, when it came to the eulogy at her funeral, my uncle had been in touch with someone in the service who basically said, yes, you’re allowed to say that she served here and that a number of times we tried to get her to do more than three days a week, but she said, no, I’ve got a young at son that I need to look after. That’s when I felt a big lump in my throat. I thought, you selfish little… All you could think about — of course, as we all know, the world revolves around no one but yourself when you’re eight, nine, ten. I look back then, her wicker coffin was there in the nave of the church, and I thought, wow, you did everything for me and my brother and sister. She was a very special lady, as was my father.

Zibby: You wrote about them beautifully. I think that’s one of the greatest things that memoir can do. You can bring back people that you love and let them get to know people who never would’ve met them. We all get little snippets.

Hugh: It’s true, isn’t it? I went into MI6, actually, to give a lunchtime talk once. This guy came up to me — he was a little bit younger than me — and said, “I worked with your mom.” That blew me away, to actually have met someone — this is after her passing, obviously — who had actually known my mother in a completely different world to the one I knew her from. He said, “Whenever we were sitting doing the crossword in our little cubby hole, we’d suddenly hear these footsteps on the linoleum coming down the hallway. Quick, there’s Pat. Quick, jump to it.” It wasn’t the fact that she was an authority figure to them. It was the comment about footsteps. I remembered the sound of her footsteps. That really stuck me. It’s amazing how sense memory can affect you in different ways and come at you in different ways, be it a smell or a sound, like when we put on a record from thirty years ago, twenty years ago. You think, oh. Then it transports you. In that moment, I was transported. I could remember when my mom was in efficient mode. She went into double-time footsteps. I was there with him. I could see her on that corridor. It was very strange and rather beautiful.

Zibby: You did a nice job of weaving in your family story with the trials and tribulations of becoming an actor. You said that now people think that your starring in Downton Abbey did not come from twenty-five years or whatever of your career, and all the other amazing roles. You put all these little behind-the-scenes moments — the funniest one, I thought, was with Martin Scorsese. Can you tell that story? That was so funny. It’s just one of your many self-deprecating moments.

Hugh: The film Notting Hill was coming out in New York. I was standing on the sidewalk with Tim McInnerny, who plays one of the characters of the gang of friends in the movie. The film stars Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, for those who don’t know. Julia Roberts’ agent was very kindly hosting a soirée for us at her apartment off Central Park. A few of us were gathered on the sidewalk. Tim McInnerny and his girlfriend got into the first cab. At that moment, there was an older guy and a young guy coming towards us along the sidewalk. I could see Tim gesturing at me out of the back of the cab as they pulled off sort of pointing at me in a way. I thought, what is it? Is my fly button undone? Why is he pointing? Then I was standing with the director, Roger Michell. It turned out that the older guy coming along was either his agent or — anyway, they knew each other. What are the chances? Here you are. He introduced the young guy, at which point the evening traffic was just cacophonous. There was a car horn. I didn’t catch his name. They’d obviously just come from this meeting with Martin Scorsese because the young guy, this young whippersnapper, pulled out a polaroid and said, “Hey, look. Here’s a picture of me and Marty.”

I looked at it. There was this guy and Martin Scorsese in some room somewhere. He said, “We’re having a monobrow contest,” or something. I thought, you cheeky lad. That’s Martin. That is one of the greatest living directors we have. God, you cheeky chap. We all said our pleasantries. We got into our cab. Off they went. We were driving off. I went, “Young people today, they have no idea, Roger.” Roger said, “Do you have any idea who that was?” I said, “Yeah, it was just some cheeky young chap showing off that he’d been to an audition with Martin Scorsese.” Roger said, “I think Martin Scorsese can put up being teased by Leonardo DiCaprio.” I went, oh, okay. By the time we arrived at the party, Julia opened the door of her agent’s apartment and said, “There’s life imitating art here, we’ve heard.” Tim McInnerny had said, “Leo DiCaprio’s about to meet Hugh. He has no idea who this guy is.” Of course, my character in Notting Hill has no idea who Julia Roberts is. It was one example of life imitating art.

Zibby: That’s so funny. You also tell the story of the many trips it took to be rejected from Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Hugh: That was a long, torturous journey. This was obviously several years before Notting Hill. There was this low-budget movie. Everyone under the sun of my peer group was auditioning for this lead role, which was a gorgeous role, obviously. Then I was asked to audition for increasingly smaller parts, then eventually for a cameo. I didn’t get it because this was a low-budget film that was not going to make its money back, and the director needed actors who knew how to hit their marks on a film set. I’d never done a film. He said, “I’m really sorry. It’s not going to work.” The film went on to do quite well. Let’s face it.

Zibby: Their loss.

Hugh: Their loss, exactly.

Zibby: It all worked out okay in the end. What do you want to happen now with your life? You’ve done all of this stuff. You’ve been working your whole career. You had blockbuster films and show with Downton Abbey. You’re renowned and all of this. Now you have a book. Where do you see the meaning in your life coming now?

Hugh: That’s a good question, the meaning in my life. Some people of my age — I’m fifty-nine now. I nearly said fifty-eight. I was fifty-nine just a week ago, so I’m getting used to it.

Zibby: Happy birthday.

Hugh: Thank you. I’m getting used to saying fifty-nine. Not sixty. Fifty-nine. That is good. A lot of people my age are beginning to, if they’re fortunate enough, to start thinking about maybe winding down or taking a different path. The notion of retiring or changing pace or changing direction, it’s like asking a painter to stop painting. I can’t imagine it. Or a writer to stop writing, I guess. I can’t really imagine it. The good thing about acting, you can go on playing older and older parts. I’m not saying I necessarily want to die on stage or on a film set, but I have no concept of retirement. I never have in the same way that I’ve never had any concept of job security. It’s a lurch from one thing to the next. I just want to keep lurching, really.

Zibby: I love that. You’re one of the few men, in their books who I’ve read, talk about a miscarriage that happened to them at some point along the way. I thought it was really interesting that you included that. I know I’m kind of jumping all over with your life chronology here. I was wondering what made you put that in, if you think about it often, if it was meant to inspire. Obviously, you and your wife were thinking so hard about it that it wasn’t until you relaxed that you could have your son. I thought that was a really interesting two pages.

Hugh: It’s a very short little chapter there. It’s like joining a club when you discover how many people go through something like that. For some, it’s like a little drop in the ocean. It’s, oh, well, we had a miscarriage. We move on. For some, it’s the biggest heartbreak. It’s a repeated heartbreak. It’s a source of great trauma and pain. I wanted to, I suppose, just really amplify how valuable Felix became, our son, because he was long looked for. There were times, and I’m sure many people experience this, where you’re bashing your head against a brick wall. You think, this is never going to happen. Okay, there are other routes one can go down. It’s when we’d done all the temperature charts and the this and the that. Eventually, the doctor took a look at one of these charts and just tore it up. We went, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” He said, “Don’t put this pressure on yourselves. Just don’t.” We went on vacation, and ba-ding, there we were nine months later. We were incredibly blessed and fortunate. The name Felix means fortunate. I just wanted to etch that little anecdote in. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t go through years and years of all sorts of therapies, be it either medicinal or emotional. It was just a sadness. It came good. We’re very, very lucky.

Zibby: That’s great. I did notice in your whole life, you’ve had a really wonderful life. It’s been wonderful to watch. Your parents, there was not too much conflict. You kept at it. You persevered. You eventually attained the height of everything you’d ever wanted. You got your son. You’re married. It’s pretty good.

Hugh: As I say, it’s a memoir. I pick out the best bits. I had to do that. No, I have had a blessed life. I’m a firm believer that we’re only here once. I’m very fortunate. I have friends who suffer greatly with depression, with lack of direction, with a huge amount of pain in their lives. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been encouraged to embrace every day and count my blessings. I do. Of course, I have blue days and days of inertia, etc. My parents grew up in the early days of what we call in Britain, the National Health Service, when the whole medical system was transformed and made available to all despite any availability to pay. It became an ethos in Britain that is being clung onto, just about, these days. Their sense of public duty and public service was paramount, Mom and Dad. They met at medical school. Mom was a nurse. Dad was trained to be a doctor. Their sense of knowing how fortunate they were and how fortunate we three children were was something that was not drummed into us in a, “Don’t you realize how fortunate you are,” it was just there, and their sense of wanting to give back because the system had trained them. They wanted to give back to the community or to the society that had trained them. I feel very fortunate to have managed to keep working for this long in the way that I have and lurching from job to job. I have had a blessed life. I never take it for granted. I’m never, I hope, smug about it. I work really bloody hard. Of course, there are pitfalls along the way. I try and allude to some of those. Luckily, I’m wired to be optimistic and wired to be positive. Again, I feel fortunate to be so.

Zibby: Wonderful. My last question. You said you just whipped out 160 words in what? A couple months?

Hugh: 160,000.

Zibby: I’m sorry. Did I say 160 words? My brain is obviously not working completely today. 160,000 words — I saw the numbers in my head, but that’s fine — in only a few months, if you were working on this just a year ago. What is your advice to aspiring authors?

Hugh: I asked that very question to a couple of authors, friends of mine in the UK. I said, how do you do it? Actually, I’d played Roald Dahl in a film a few years back, and so obviously read up a lot about him. He wrote two hours in the morning and had a lunch. He worked two hours in the afternoon. I thought, he’s a lightweight. I’m going to sit down, and I’m going to write eight or ten hours a day. Of course, the longer you write, actually, the less productive I found it was. There’s something valuable in those short bursts of energy when your brain and your fluidity of thought is at its most accessible. Every writer I asked, they said, you’ve just got to sit down with a blank page and do it, which sounds easier said than done. Once I got into the rhythm of it, some days I’d write seven or eight hours. On the whole, I’d find that the last couple of hours probably weren’t that great. Or I’d write two hours and think, I can’t write any more today. There’s nothing coming. I’m just bashing my head against a brick wall. Then, like with a legato piece of music that suddenly soars, you think, I can’t stop. My fingers are going. I can’t stop. Whether it’s good or not, you’ve got to let it finish. You’ve got to let it come out. I’m not a writer by trade. I’ve enjoyed writing this and having this experience of writing this memoir. Maybe I’ll write some more in the future. I think a sense of self-discipline about it and setting yourself a target. The fact that it took me years to get around to it — then when I did, I really enjoyed sitting down and having a structure and doing it. I think next time around, don’t overwrite.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on. I appreciate it.

Hugh: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure.

Hugh Bonneville, PLAYING UNDER THE PIANO: From Downton to Darkest Peru

PLAYING UNDER THE PIANO: From Downton to Darkest Peru by Hugh Bonneville

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