Four-time Emmy nominee Jim Carter is known for his work in Academy Award-winning films (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Madness of King George”), cult comedies (“Erik the Viking,” “Top Secret!”), and the stage. But audiences around the world know him best for his role as the staunchly traditional butler Mr. Carson in six seasons of the soon-to-conclude TV show “Downton Abbey” (ITV/PBS).
Carter, alongside humanitarian and WandAid founder Linda Cruse, will visit The Music Hall in Portsmouth on Thursday, Feb. 18, to raise funds and awareness for their efforts to help those affected by last year’s devastating earthquake in Nepal. The evening, emceed by local performer Lesley Smith, will be full of magic, comedy, and reminiscences of Carter’s time filming upstairs, downstairs, and all around Downton Abbey.
Carter, freshly back from a holiday with his wife and fellow actor Imelda Staunton, recently spoke to The Sound from his home in England. Here are some highlights.
“The first conversation was summer of 2014. Liz Trubridge, the producer of ‘Downton’ and a great friend of Linda’s, introduced us while we were filming for one of the many large, posh Crawley family scenes down on the lawns of Highclere Castle.
“We talked about magic. I’m an amateur magician and Linda’s a magician and aid worker. We talked initially about me performing a magic illusion in the Philippines, where there had been a devastating typhoon. Then, The Magic Circle in England got involved and the idea developed and grew into WandAid. Though it’s been in gestation for some time, it’s really begun to pick up speed in the last few months, culminating in our trip to America to help raise funds to make it possible to bring aid to Nepal.
“We’re headed to Nepal soon, and we’ll perform magic to local families and children and help them make connections. … We’re planning a big awareness event in the autumn in England along the lines of BandAid.”
On humanitarian work:
“The biggest problem is that once the media circus rolls out of town, then people think the problem is solved. But the problem doesn’t go away. The problems continue for families for a long time. Linda and WandAid have the expertise to help. The Red Cross comes in initially and does astonishing work, but their work is to get over the immediate crisis. People’s lives need to get put back together for the long term.
One of Linda’s great strengths is making connections with the local people and putting them in touch with businesses internationally and locally and helping them come up with a business plan for someone to start their own business to help them feed their own family and keep a roof over their head. We want to put more focus on long-term aid and assistance. WandAid’s mantra is, ‘Giving people a hand up, not a handout.’
“Our plan is very simple. A few hundred dollars can put somebody’s life back together. We can buy them a sewing machine, some material, and they can set up a little dressmaking shop with proceeds going to feed their family. It’s as simple as that.”
“I started off in Fringe Theater, and it wasn’t enough to just act. You had to play an instrument or write. So I practiced juggling and magic, and then stilt walking and tightrope walking. I put together my first full magic act around 1976. It was a sort of disreputable vaudeville stage act. I looked like the worst magician in the world. I probably was the worst magician in the world! But it was very funny and I did that for years and years. I do a lot of close-up magic, but I make no great claims for myself as a magician.”
On his first film:
Famed comedic writing and directing trio James Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker followed up their hit comedy “Airplane!” (1980) with “Top Secret!” (1984). Carter played “Déjà Vu — French Resistance Member.” It was also the film debut of a young Val Kilmer.
“The funny thing is ‘Top Secret!’ is the film that I find many people will come up to me and say, ‘That was my favorite film when I was in university!’ It didn’t do a lot at the time. ‘Airplane’ and ‘The Naked Gun’ movies did much bigger things. It was a bit of a sleeper. It was my first feature film. My agent said to me, ‘Look, these are three crazy Americans directing it. Go dressed the part.’ Now, you never do that for a film audition. That’s just embarrassing. Well, I went in looking like a French resistance member. A beret on my head, a stripey jumper, and a large baguette of bread in my pocket. And I thought, ‘If they don’t laugh as soon as I walk in the door, I’m in trouble.’ Luckily, they all laughed and I knew I was on good ground.
“I was at the Emmy Awards a few years ago and I arranged to meet with Jim, David, and Jerry, and we realized it had been 30 years since we made the film. They presented to me a black and white still of me kissing Val Kilmer on the cheek from the end of the film along with a clapperboard saying, ‘My First Screen Kiss’.”
On Hollywood special effects:
Haunted Honeymoon (1986) starred Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner, Dom DeLuise, Jonathan Pryce, and a young Carter as the nefarious magician Montego. Despite its talented cast and cult reputation, it was not well received upon its initial release.
“’Haunted Honeymoon’ didn’t work as well, I don’t think. But, what a cast! Looking back, yes, what a cast! It was a strange film and I don’t think it quite fired, really, that one.”
Carter’s character Montego had eyes that gave off an evil glow:
“I’m a method magician. My eyes just glowed naturally (laughs). My head most definitely wasn’t clamped in a brace for about four hours while they shone lights into me (laughs). Yes, this was the early days of special effects.”
On portraying Mr. Carson on “Downton Abbey”:
Many of Carson’s downstairs scenes involve hurried dialogue as he addresses and commands his staff. Upstairs scenes present a different challenge.
“A lot of the time I find out I’m working without words. Particularly when I’m upstairs, I’m a presence, but I don’t say very much. I try to make my attitude clear when things are talked about around the dinner table, but discreetly so.
Spoiler alert: After working together for decades, head housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Carson marry. They continue to work at Downton Abbey but decide to move into their own home on an adjoining property. As they leave, Mr. Carson surveys his room one last time and removes the “Mr. Carson” nametag from the door.
“I thought the leaving of the bedroom was very poignant because they were saying goodbye to 40-odd years of life, really. This bare little bedroom that (Carson) had spent the majority of his life in, almost like a monk’s cell, and he was leaving it behind for a new life.
“There was a stage direction for that scene that simply said, ‘Nothing will ever be the same again,’ and I wanted to convey that in how I took out the nametag.”
On the end of “Downton Abbey”:
“I’ve never done a full series before. Not only is it the longest job for many of us, but because of its success, it’s probably the biggest thing we’ll ever do. Any of us — Maggie Smith included. The reach of “Downton” is truly global. I’ve just returned from New Zealand, which is about as far away as you can get, and I was recognized 20 to 30 times a day!
“We had just finished six months of filming and were on our knees with exhaustion. The normal rhythm of our lives is we do a job, we make close friendships, and then we move on to the next encampment. But this has been six years with the same group. So we felt a great deal of sentiment around the end. It was much