Allen Leech makes the move from Downton to Tinseltown
The smash success of Downtown Abbey has made Allen Leech a household face, if not quite a name to remember yet. Now, with a scene-stealing role in new Irish horror film In Fear, the Killiney-born actor’s career is definitely looking up
Why has it taken so long for Allen Leech to become a household name? It is a blasted outrage. Those bally blackguards in the media should be horsewhipped (to use the language of his most-watched vehicle).
Now a fresh-faced 32, Leech has bounced around film and TV for more than a decade. In 2003 he secured a leading role in David Gleeson’s likable dramedy Cowboys & Angels. A year later, he starred in the domestic hit Man About Dog. Aside from having a good-looking mush on his shoulders, Leech has the sort of positive personality that tends to appeal to casting directors.
Sure enough, he worked reasonably steadily: roles in Rome and The Tudors; sound indie pictures such as Rewind. But it took the unstoppable Downton Abbey to make our Allen a velvet-robe celebrity. As Tom Branson, the dishy Irish chauffeur who marries into the “upstairs” family, Leech sets a million hearts aflutter every Sunday evening.
“It’s really only in the last couple of months that I’ve noticed the Downton thing taking off,” he says in his sparkly way. “Generally people leave me alone. You just see the odd one take out their phone and take a picture. It’s a bit random when you start getting iPhones stuck in your face.”
His current visibility proves useful for the makers of a nifty new horror film called In Fear. It’s an intriguing beast. Following a young couple as they encounter violence and mayhem down remote Irish lanes, the picture was largely devised through improvisation. Only Leech – who plays the villain – was appraised as to the details of the plot.
“It’s the most interesting thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “They’d rehearse in the morning. And I would come in during the afternoon. What was genuinely fascinating was how people changed in those circumstances. There was almost a physical aspect to the paranoia.”
The rehearsal structure must have put Leech in a peculiar position. The other two actors were swimming in uncertainty while he savoured all the scary twists.
“Information was power,” he laughs. “And I had the most power on set among the three of us. We were constantly playing the game – off-screen and on. It is definitely the most malevolent character I’ve ever played. And that was great fun too. It’s not often you get to play with something that’s so different from what people know you from.”
Leech gives good interview. Indeed, he’s such an accomplished chat-machine one suspects that, if he ever tires of acting, he could take up some class of TV presentation. In short, he’s a natural. Yet it doesn’t seem to run in the family. His dad was in computing and most of the surrounding clan had equally grown-up jobs.
“There’s one artist in the family I do know about,” he says. “There’s a relative that played a judge in a movie with Jimmy Stewart. I never met him. I’ve only seen pictures. I think he was a great uncle. He’s the only person in the family before me who had the crazy idea of acting. He was crazy enough to go to the States for it.”
An appearance in The Wizard of Oz at school turned Allen towards his current path. He studied drama and theatre studies at Trinity College Dublin, but spent most of his time on academic aspects of those disciplines. Meanwhile, afternoons were taken up seeking out auditions. He remembers feeling secure that, after ploughing through an iffy reading, he would still have a nice safe lecture to attend.
As the millennium ticked on, a new generation of Irish actors – call them the post-Farrell pack – began to secure roles in prominent films and TV. Did he feel like part of a wave?
“There definitely was a moment – Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Stuart Townsend, Andrew Scott – when it seemed like the Irish were coming. It wasn’t just a fashion. Those lads were doing not just good work, but great work. It gave you something to work towards as a young actor.”
In 2004, Leech received an Ifta nomination for best newcomer. Further nominations arrived in 2005 and 2007. But Allen acknowledges – in typically bouncy fashion – that the roles didn’t come quite as rapidly as he had hoped. In the closing years of the last decade, he encountered a proper career trough. It must be hard, in those times, to keep the faith.
“That moment when I came back from doing Rome,” he remembers. “I found myself moving further and further outside London just so I could keep paying the rent. I didn’t work for two years until Julian Fellowes gave me a small part in one of his movies. That allowed me back in the door for auditions.”
Did he ever feel like throwing it all in?
“That period was really tough. I came home and did a play in the Project with a tiny budget. When you’re fighting to get a job and when you’re coming back to Ireland to do a play, you do start to wonder what you’re doing. Why did I get into this?”
“Fuck! Not working is depressing.”
Julian Fellowes is, of course, the creator of Downton Abbey. Not since Upstairs Downstairs in the 1970s had such a formula – the doings of servants and posh folk in a big house – been greeted with such enthusiasm by viewers. The show has been a huge hit in the US and propelled Allen and his colleagues towards a Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble cast.
It’s a strange business being in such a show. His Irish character is bumped from one catastrophe to another as the week’s progress. If you play Othello, you know whether or not you’re going to die at the end (you are, by the way). Who knows what will become of Tom Branson?
“The changes that occur sometime can be very frustrating,” he says. But then two episodes later you’ll see where he’s going and it will all make sense again. You’re not the one developing the character. You have to take it as it comes. You only get a couple of episodes in advance, but you don’t know the whole series. So you kind of play within it. And you sometimes make choices that you wouldn’t if you knew what was coming.”
Tom is, of course, a bit of an Irish Republican. Will we see more of that? “My character’s political fight is coming back now. It’s one of four or five elements that you have to hold on to as a core of your character.”
We wouldn’t want to jinx things. But it looks as if all the pieces have come together for our Allen. In Fear, which opened the Horrorthon festival in Dublin last month, is getting fine reviews from fright specialists and mainstream critics. Next year we will see him playing John Cairncross – top British civil servant and Soviet double agent – in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game. A study of the Allied efforts to break Nazi codes at Bletchley Park, the film gives Allen an opportunity to play opposite hot Benedict Cumberbatch, stars as legendary mathematician Alan Turing.
“Just being around Benedict Cumberbatch and watching him go at it is inspirational,” says Leech. “He’s like a workhorse. He never stops. He’s very much on the up with Star Trek and a bunch of other films. So there’s an excitement and buzz around him and that’s a lot of fun. The company in that film – Keira Knightley, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong – is very strong. So I was certainly happy going to work.”
And Leech is still learning. He’s had 10 years to hone the technical skills that an actor requires. But he finds most of his inspiration in the mundane experiences of everyday life.
“Oh, I’m one of those people who looks around the Tube and wonders about all the people there,” he says. “I wonder what he’s doing. I wonder what she’s thinking . . . What kind of secrets do they have? I’m the same in bars.”
He pauses to consider the absurdity of his precarious profession.
“People must look back and think: what the hell is he looking at? What a weirdo.”