You could never tell by looking at this dapper Englishman who plays the stalwart Earl of Grantham on "Downton Abbey," but Hugh Bonneville hurled a sledgehammer through the family's kitchen window when he was 7 years old.
It was not indicative of things to come, he insists. "I'm not prone to temper tantrums. I used to be a bad sulker. We're not a shouty family, and nowadays I can forgive but I don't forget," he says. "I'm a Scorpio. If you have a go at a Scorpio they can get you back sometime." he jokes.
The occasion of the sledgehammer was prompted by his older sister's teasing. "She was annoying me. So I chased her through the garden, and she went back inside, shut the kitchen door and went, 'Nah, nah' through the kitchen window. And I saw a sledgehammer and popped it through the window. Cut to my dad chasing me round the garden, and I got a big smacked bottom. That changed my life. That was a big lesson."
Bonneville has been acting for 26 years, but it took the mysterious alchemy of an absorbing script, astute producers and a dream cast of "Downton Abbey" to elevate him to star status. That doesn't really matter because, like every actor, Bonneville says he still worries where the next job is coming from.
"'Downton Abbey' is a hugely popular show and I love it, but it will end at some point and then I need to find work. We're all waiting for hire."
He didn't always want to be an actor. At one point, Bonneville desperately
"For a long time in my late teens, I thought I wanted to be a barrister, a lawyer. I even went so far as to shadow a barrister in the courts for a few days and ended up getting so excited about it and thinking where do I sign up? The best advice I was given by this senior lawyer -- he said, 'Look, you haven't even gone to university yet, just calm down and come back and see me in four years' time and I'll bet you won't want to be a lawyer.'
"I said, 'No, I will. I will.' He said, 'Just go and have some fun, and do your plays.' That was the best advice because I realized that really what I was enjoying was the theatricality of the courtroom. I would've been a terrible advocate thinking on my feet. I can improvise in a rehearsal situation, but when someone's liberty is at stake or a point of law -- I saved the legal profession from a lot of headaches."
The phenomenal success of "Downton Abbey" surprised everyone. "I've not been in a show that's had the impact 'Downton Abbey' has had around the world," says Bonneville, 49.
"But the work is the same discipline, and I have the same approach to the work as I do with any other project. For the show to have it hit in a way we all find overwhelming, in a lovely way, is quite humbling, really. Because most of the time it doesn't happen."
While he's no daredevil, Bonneville admits that he loves the challenge of performing a role to which he feels inadequate. "But that's thrilling when you're sent a script or invited to audition for a project and you think, 'I can't do this. It's outside my range, my compass.' And when they say, 'Well, you're going to play the part,' you get terribly nervous. And then you raise your game. If you do manage to do it with any degree of credibility, then you think, 'Maybe I have gotten better.' "