“I never wanted to be famous,” Hugh Bonneville told the crowd at Temple Ner Tamid during an event organized by Succeed2gether for the Montclair Literary Festival.
Although he may not have wanted to become famous, the packed temple on Tuesday night, November 15, proved that he certainly is.
The evening’s host, CBS News senior correspondent Jim Axlerod, said: “My family worships here. I’ve been to Yom Kippur services here that don’t have as many people.”
Bonneville is best known for playing Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, on the British television series “Downton Abbey.” He was in Montclair to talk about his most recent role, that of an author.
His memoir, “Playing Under the Piano: From Downton to Darkest Peru,” was published by Other Press on November 8. Montclair was one of only three stops in the United States on the Bonneville book tour.
Throughout the evening, Bonneville and Axlerod brought laughter and tears to the audience as they discussed the memoir, which has been in the making for the past six years but written in two and a half months.
The idea of writing a memoir came to Bonneville when an agent “scolded” him after seeing his wit and charm in interviews over the years. Over the course of the six years, Bonneville would spontaneously write a chapter or a page.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that his son, Felix, inspired him to finish the book. Felix was vacationing in Scotland, the same place where Bonneville wrote the first chapter of his then-unfinished memoir.
“He sent me a picture of his word count,” Bonneville said of her son. “And he said, ‘I’m writing a book, Dad. I have written 4,000 words today. And you?'”
This kind but unabashed encouragement from her son inspired Bonneville to spend the next two months writing the book.
He sought to structure his writing process through author Roald Dahl, whom he played in the film “To Olivia.”
“I was working two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, and I thought, ‘That’s light,’” Bonneville said jokingly. He told Axlerod that since he was used to working eight hours a day filming on set, he thought he could use the same hours to write.
He quickly learned that storytelling as an actor is quite different from storytelling as a writer.
“By telling stories in the visual or on film, you’re actually performing, you’re channeling someone else’s work,” he said. “Whereas, of course, as an author you are literally creating and shaping stories.”
As Bonneville completed her memoir, she realized the book had become something she hadn’t imagined when she began the project.
At first, he set out to write a “series of showbiz anecdotes.” When he finished, he told a story about his father’s journey with dementia and his mother’s influence on his life. Through his memories, Bonneville realized how much of her career she owes to his parents.
When he was a child, his parents were in the medical field but made sure their children were involved in cultural activities. Bonneville said he was “dragged” to art galleries and concerts.
“Of course, at 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 years old, I thought it was very boring,” he said, “but the theater was what really moved me.”
In his teens, he joined the National Youth Theater of Great Britain, an organization established in 1956 that nurtures young talent in the arts. Bonneville credits her time there for giving her a “culture hunger”.
In his book, he mentions the names of many celebrities, including Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the late Bob Hoskins. The celebrity that has had the most impact on him is Judi Dench.
Bonneville recalled his first job at the National Youth Theatre, where he was in a rehearsal with the actress. Feeling racked with nerves, his hands were shaking before he went onstage to rehearse with Dench. “Then she did something that I have never forgotten,” he said. “She did the opposite of outshine.”
Dench walked off the stage and turned his back on the house, shifting the focus to Bonneville.
“That was the most generous act a senior actor could do for a young man like me, and I have always treasured it,” he said.