BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Despite 36 years in show business, it seems that actress Phyllis Logan has never quite escaped domestic service. Her first paying role was that of a maid, for which she earned 37 pounds.
Here she is again, as the starchy Mrs. Hughes in service at “Downton Abbey.”
When Logan first read the part, she thought she’d have to assume a strange English accent. After all, as Mrs. Hughes is the senior housekeeper of the estate and all the “downstairs” people come from the blue collar area of northern England.
But Logan is a Scot with a thick Scottish brogue, rolling her R’s and stretching out her vowels. And a revolutionary thought occurred to her: Why not make Mrs. Hughes a Scot?
“So I read the part and looked at the scenes and I thought, ‘Oh, this would also work quite well as a Scottish character,” she says, looking nothing like Mrs. Hughes in gray chiffon with sequins and extinguishing an electronic cigarette.
“So when I was there I went in and spoke to [the producer] and he said, ‘Oh, you’ve got such a nice accent, maybe we should try Mrs. Hughes as Scottish.’ I said, ‘Well, funnily enough that you should say that, I was going through and thinking that the syntax of what she said, the type of person she was — I thought this could really work as a Scottish woman.’ They were delighted and said, ‘Yes, that’s fine.’ ”
She may be deft with serving trays and choosing the proper linen, but her first meaty role was that of a lady of England’s aristocracy in the detective series, “Lovejoy” with Ian McShane. That followed with roles in almost every popular British crime series there is, including “Wallander” and Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies.”
Although she participated in school plays and joined the film club as a teen, the idea of acting for a living never occurred to her until a friend suggested she try out for drama school.
“Because I came from a small town outside Glasgow, nobody from my school had ever gone into the acting profession. It was just something you didn’t do,” she shrugs. “You joined the bank or became a teacher or whatever you did. I suggested it to my careers adviser who said no basically. ‘Why would you want to do that, you’ll never get the grades?’ He was talking about being a drama teacher, and that’s not what I was talking about.”
She ignored him, sent for a prospectus to drama school in Glasgow and auditioned her way in. Her parents thought she was a bit loony, she says.
“Not so my mum, but I think my dad just thought, ‘That’s not a job.’ Sadly my father died before I graduated, so he didn’t see any of the success at all. And my mum, bless her, who just died two years ago, she was very happy. I think she was proud of me.”
Logan’s Scottish accent first intruded when she was studying drama. “We were always told we had to get rid of our Scottish accent. You need to start off with what they call RP — Received Pronunciation, that’s what they do on the BBC. . . . I didn’t really buy that idea at all. So when I first did ‘Lovejoy’ and was playing a very upper-class lady, I went to the interview and spoke like that and they gave me the part and I thought, ‘When am I going to break it to them that this is how I sound?’ ”
Except for a very brief stint working for tips as a hat-check girl, Logan has never had another job, nor has she ever wanted to quit acting. “It’s true as a woman particularly, the older you get, the parts get thinner on the ground and not quite as interesting, that’s for sure,” she sighs.
“People are trying, and I think maybe the industry is waking up to the fact that women can be funny in comedies and can be in hit films,” she said.
The death of her father when she was 20 affected her profoundly early in her career, she says. “He was only 59 and I hadn’t even graduated, and my sister had only just left university. My brother was out in the world. But it was a terrible time, actually. I often think, I wonder what would’ve happened if my dad had survived. It’s a bit like ‘Sliding Doors,’ you don’t know how much your path would’ve shifted. I just don’t know. But I often wonder if there would’ve been a different shift. It affected us all, and my mother was widowed longer than she was married.”
Wed to actor Kevin McNally (“The Pirates of the Caribbean” series), Logan says she never intended to marry an actor, and they took their time about it. “I’m the first to say I would never have had one in the house,” she says. “But you can’t legislate love. We’ve been together for 20 years. We met on a job, some television thing years ago. But we didn’t really get together on the job at all. We’d known each other, but I thought he was a bit of an arrogant twit, but there’s so much more to him,” she smiles.
They have a 17-year-old son, David. Motherhood at 40 changed her, she says. “When somebody’s calling you ‘Mommy’ it’s a wonderful thing. But also to have that responsibility and to know that you and your partner have this little thing that’s totally relying on you — and it made me, I suppose, less selfish. Not that I was mega-selfish to start with, but it’s lovely having that responsibility. It’s scary. But it’s great when you get used to the idea of having that responsibility and having that child that you have unadulterated love for and will do throughout their lives.”