After remarkable small-screen success as Lord Grantham in TV’s Downton Abbey, Hugh Bonneville shares the big screen with a humble bear in his latest adventure.
What’s more, it’s a bear who isn’t actually there.
Paddington bear will spring to hilarious life when the movie, which carries his name, is released across the country on November 28.
The skill of the actors will be in disguising the fact that for the most part they were acting into thin air.
Only later did Michael Bond’s much-loved bear leave the computer screen and join them. Not that you’ll see actually see the join, of course. As the trailers have already made clear, real action and CGI meet seamlessly for a thrilling new version of everyone’s favourite childhood classic.
The film, which also stars Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Nicole Kidman, Peter Capaldi and Sally Hawkins, looks certain to be one of this year’s big Christmas hits at the cinema.
The test screenings have met with a hugely-favourable response, and Hugh – who lives just outside Midhurst – has a good feeling about the whole thing.
“I was a bit nervous when I thought about it because Paddington was part of my childhood. I thought ‘I hope they are not going to Hollywood-ise him and make him a cute bear in the Disney tradition’. But because David Heyman, who produced all the Harry Potters, was doing it, I felt in safe hands.”
To an extent, the question is why hasn’t Paddington, so popular down the generations, been turned into a film before.
“Actually, David would say that the technology just hasn’t been there in terms of the movie until now. There has been the delightful stop-animation version with Michael Hordern voicing it, a semi-cartoon version, but this is now the first time the technology has been up to speed enough to create a convincing CGI Paddington.”
Which means, of course, that whatever else Hugh is sharing the scene with, it’s not actually Paddington. Paddington comes in later (or ‘Mr Paddington is in his trailer!’ as Hugh puts it).
“But they did create like a teddy bear’s head which was used to get lighting references and so on. Obviously, it was inanimate. It’s only through the computer that Paddington is made animate and given a sense of life.”
And what a life it is.
“I think really the hallmark of Paddington is just his amazing spirit of inquiry and adventure, but always from a standpoint of complete innocence. With Paddington, it is all about finding out about the world in this strange environment that he is in, this strange new country. He was taught in the jungles of Peru that British people wear hats and carry rolled-up umbrellas and are all very polite, but of course London is all very different!”
So, is he a little like a creation from another era expecting another era?
“Well, yes and no.”
As Hugh points out, the image of Paddington bear arriving on the railway platform in a world he doesn’t know is one richly evocative of wartime evacuees, gas masks around their necks, as they set off for a new life. And of course, when Paddington first appeared, back in 1958, those images would have been of very recent memory.
“But actually that image of a refugee arriving from a different place is still something that is very present for us now.”
And that’s probably one of the reasons the test screenings have proved so positive in advance of the big-screen release.
“There’s something very funny for the children,” says Hugh. Watch for the earwax on the tooth brush. “But there is also something very nostalgic for people my age that grew up with the books.”
None of which deflects from the fact it was still a strange film to make, with the hero of the piece in effect absent from the screen.
“Sometimes we would have (a girl called) Lauren who is the same height as Paddington standing there to give a physical sense of Paddington.”
Sometimes Hugh would be acting opposite a stick with a piece of sticky tape giving an eyeline for an imaginary Paddington.
“And it was strange... You would start to feel his presence even though he wasn’t there.”
Sometimes there would be another actor off-screen feeding Hugh the lines: “But in a sense, everything was up for grabs. I might actually say one line, and then get a completely-different answer back in the finished version. That was the very painstaking process that came afterwards, painstaking but very satisfying. Paul King, the director, had the patience of a saint.
“But actually, as soon as I met Paul, I realised that he really was Paddington. He has the same wonderful, open-hearted spirit. Like every director, he would get knocked back 300 times a day, but like Paddington, he would always bounce back to the default position of ‘Okay, what’s next?’”
In the film, Hugh plays Mr Brown who welcomes Paddington into his home: “He is a risk analyst and a very, very cautious man, buttoned up and rather grey. He is characterised brilliantly in the costumes. Colour is very important in the movie in the way that the colours change. Mr Brown is rather grey, but the advent of the bear and the innocent risks that Paddington takes cause Mr Brown to start to reassess his life and become more colourful. The family is slightly disparate. The children find the parents embarrassing, and Mr and Mrs Brown are... well, not at odds, but they are moving on slightly-different tracks and have slightly lost connection with each other. It takes the arrival of this bear with his huge open heart to get everyone gradually to come together as a family again.”
Playing Mrs Brown is Sally Hawkins: “Our paths had crossed on a project years and years ago, but we had never worked together. We soon created a great rapport, and we had a lot of fun improvising.
“Paul is not a rigid script person. We spent a couple of weeks rehearsing and improvising and trying to get the tone of the family just right.”
One of the little unexpected adventures along the way was losing Colin Firth, who was to have voiced Paddington: “It was one of these strange things that happen. Colin felt he and the bear were growing apart and that he wasn’t quite right for it. And you can see what he meant, particularly now we have heard Ben Whishaw doing the voice.
“There is no disputing Colin’s eternal youth and youthful spirit, but I think to have a younger timbre to the voice with Ben felt right.
“Colin was very, very gracious about it. He was the first to realise he and the bear were just diverging.
“But I think it is all to the good. The spirit that Ben brings to it all is absolutely spot on.”