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11 Secrets About the "Downton Abbey" Movie

Romance, sequels, Easter eggs, and more!

It's been four long years since faithful fans bid farewell to the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants on the Downton Abbey television series. But, this month (September 13th in the United Kingdom; September 20th in the U.S.), the beloved Downton will be back in all its glory—except, this time, on the big screen.

Created and written by Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey achieved a global audience of 120 million and won 15 Emmy Awards during its six-season run. To date, the show, which ran on PBS Masterpiece stateside, remains the most successful British period drama ever to air in America. Needless to say, the film is hotly anticipated.

Set in 1927 and directed by Michael Engler (who also directed the fifth and sixth episodes of the show's final season), the film's plot revolves around the household preparing for a royal visit. Details have been kept tightly under wraps, but I spoke with Engler, the stars, and the executive producer of the film—which was shot at Highclere Castle, the 5,000-acre estate in Hampshire, England, that "played" Downton Abbey in series—to gather secrets from upstairs, downstairs, and behind the scenes. Here are 11 details you probably didn't know about the Downton Abbey movie. And for more of TV's biggest hits, here are 23 Things You Didn't Know About the Emmys.

The movie has been in the works since the final season of the show.

Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Boneville in Downton Abbey movie
Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

"It took a long time to put [the film] together," explained executive producer Gareth Neame. By the time the show wrapped up production during the summer of 2015, Neame was "well into planning the movie." But despite the actors' collective enthusiasm for project, it was far from a done deal. "It wasn't straightforward at all," said Neame. "We wanted to do it, but there were no guarantees it would happen."

The conflicting schedules of the large company of actors proved to be a great challenge in setting up a production schedule, too. "It's a great credit to Gareth that he managed to keep an equilibrium through all our eccentricities and idiosyncrasies and bring us all together," said actor Hugh Bonneville, who plays Robert, the Earl of Grantham.

The cast was nervous about recreating their beloved characters.

Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey Movie
Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

Having said goodbye to their small-screen alter egos several years prior, many of the actors wondered if lightning could, in fact, strike twice. "There was some nervousness about 'Could we rekindle the affection and that ease we had with one another? Would three years have dissipated it all?" explained Bonneville.

It turned out, the stars absolutely could reignite their onscreen chemistry without batting an eye. "It surprised everyone that it only took a few minutes working on a scene before the cast [felt at ease]," Engler said.

The opening is a nod to the television series.

highclere castle aka downton abbey

"Fans will remember [the opening sequence of the series] in a fond way when they see the film," Engler said. "Something arrives, just like it did at the start of the series, and that's how we begin."

Bonneville offered this clue: "It's a very different letter [than the one in the first episode of the show], but it's a letter from the outside that kicks off our story." And if you're a fan of Downton, you'll love The Best HBO Shows You're Not Watching.

Downton got a brand new kitchen and servants' hall for the movie.

Kitchen in Downton Abbey Movie
Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

While the goings-on upstairs were filmed at Highclere for the series, Mrs. Patmore's (Lesley Nicol) kitchen and the servants' hall were filmed on a set at Ealing Studios in West London. But when the series wrapped, the "downstairs" was taken apart. So, for the film, production designer Donal Woods, recreated the servants' spaces at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, England. Everything—including those iconic bells on the wall—was replicated exactly as it was in the series, down to the last detail.

Some costumes will look familiar—for good reason.

Still from Dowmton Abbey Movie
Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

As Lady Edith (now the Marchioness of Hexham), Laura Carmichael got to wear one of the best and most extensive wardrobes on the series—and fans may spot some of their favorite looks from Edith's closet in the film. Costume designer Anna Mary Scott Robbins "always looked for ways to tell the story with the clothes," said Carmichael. "The film pushes things forward in the '20s and there's a bit [of wardrobe] you might recognize [from the show]."

"The costumes were very important in getting back into character," added Bonneville. "Putting on the same clothes again felt very right."

There's an illicit gay relationship subplot. 

Gay Kiss in Downton Abbey Movie
Focus Features via YouTube

When we last saw Thomas (Rob James-Collier)—that's Mr. Barrow now, thank you very much—he was offered the position of butler at Downton and was about to take over for Carson (Jim Carter) after being so desperately lonely that he attempted suicide. But, from the looks of that kiss in the trailer between Thomas and another man, he may have finally found romance.

According The Telegraph, Thomas strikes up a friendship with a footman from the royal household (played by Max Brown) and "winds up in an illicit gay drinking den in York." As we learned on the show, homosexuality could result in a prison sentence at the time, but it appears Thomas finally gets the chance to let his hair down in the film. James-Collier told the newspaper, "I have received letters from young men who say that watching Thomas's journey has helped them. All I can say is that it's an utter privilege. It's the reason why I do it."

The actresses who play Mary and Edith are best friends in real life.

laura carmichael and michelle dockery on a red carpet

In the series' penultimate episode, the perpetually unlucky Edith finally let Mary (Michelle Dockery) have it after her older sister sabotaged her engagement by spilling the beans about Edith's love child to her unsuspecting fiancé. The face-off delivered a walloping emotional pay-off that fans had waited six seasons to see. But, while Mary and Edith were sworn enemies for years on the series, the actresses are dear friends and relished the chance to let loose on the set.

"For Laura and I, the meaner Edith and Mary were to each other, the better," said Dockery. "We're so close in real life, so it's really fun playing such opposite characters." And for more little-known A-list connections, see these 20 Celebrity Friendships You Never Knew Existed.

There were plenty of practical jokers on the set.

allen leech

The Downton cast is incredibly close—"one of the closest I've ever worked with," noted Engler—so there's something of a family atmosphere on set, which makes for some hijinks during downtime. "We're all pretty silly," said Carmichael. But Allen Leech, who plays Tom Branson, and Bonneville were a dangerous combination. According to Carmichael, the two "together are quite the practical jokers." She also said James-Collier and Michael Fox (Andy) can cause trouble.  "All of the men are always naughty," she noted. And for more on-set jokesters, meet these 21 Celebrity Pranksters Who Hilariously Enrage Their Costars.

The show's historical advisor had an important role with the film.

alastair bruce

Alastair Bruce, who was the historical advisor on Downton Abbey throughout its six seasons, returned to work on the film to ensure period protocol was followed to the letter. (Fans won't find any awry Starbucks cups in this film.) The graduate of Sandhurst, the same royal military academy Prince William and Prince Harry attended, serves as equerry to Prince Edward. He also holds the official title of Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary, which means that when the Queen is opening Parliament, he leads the procession into the House of Lords.

On the set of Downton's big screen debut, besides walking around to make sure everyone on set was standing stick-straight (no slouching at Downton!), Bruce was the go-to resource for the actors any time they had a question about, say, using the right fork or when to take off their hat.

His encyclopedic knowledge about the British aristocracy in the early 20th century earned him the cast's admiration and the nickname "The Oracle." "We were lucky to have Alastair come back to help us make sense of things," said Carmichael. "He reminds us of certain things that are very important. If there are any questions on etiquette, he's so well informed." And for the franchise's connection to the real-life royals, Here's Princess Diana's Surprising Downton Abbey Connection.

The movie is a love letter to the fans.

Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey movie
Jaap Buitendijk / Focus Features

"When we announced the end of the television show, the fans were only prepared to accept that because we said we hoped to come back in the future with a feature film," Neame said. "If we just ended the show and that was it, so many people would be disappointed—I don't think 'devastated' is too strong a word."

Added Engler: "There is a genuine love and respect for the audience [with the film]."

There could be a follow-up film!

Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey movie
Focus Features via YouTube

True to form, Fellowes is playing his cards close to his vest on whether the new movie is Downton's swan song. When I interviewed him for Parade earlier this year and asked him if there would be second Downton movie, he told me, "You can tie up everything at the end of a series, then there's another series. You wind up the whole series and then there's a movie. So who can say?"

Bonneville was a tad more direct: "I suppose if the film does well and there's an appetite for another one, it could very well happen." And for more great cinematic coverage, check out The One Thing You Never Noticed About Your Favorite Movie.

Diane Clehane is a New York-based journalist and author of Imagining Diana and Diana: The Secrets of Her Style.

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