Penelope Wilton discusses 'Downton Abbey,' 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel'

Penelope Wilton: She has more than 30 years of London theater experience and more than 60 appearances in movies and British TV shows

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" offered Penelope Wilton the opportunity to make a movie with old friends like Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith, with whom she had worked previously.

Yes, Wilton and Smith are close friends. That's probably what makes the verbal jousting on "Downton Abbey" so furious and so fun between Wilton, who plays Isobel Crawley, the mother of Matthew Crawley, and Smith, who plays Violet Crawley, the dowager countess of Grantham.

"I do so enjoy playing her, and I enjoy my spats with Lady Grantham enormously," Wilton said with a laugh during a recent phone interview. "Maggie and I love those scenes so much. We'd love for ("Downton" creator Julian Fellowes) to write more of those."

In working on "Marigold Hotel" - which also stars Tom Wilkinson and Celia Imrie and which opens Friday in Tulsa - Wilton made her first trip to India for filming the picture about seven English seniors retiring to India out of financial necessity.

She came to love the country for its cultural richness, which she explored by joining Dench, Smith and Imrie for brief getaways. She also came to appreciate the challenge of portraying her character in the film, Jean, a spiteful woman in a bitter marriage.

"She probably thought that (retiring to India) might be a good idea, but one forgets that when traveling, you take yourself with you, really," Wilton said. "If you're in a relationship that's not working, that goes with you too, and you are sort of stuck out there, probably only with the one person that you're not getting on with."

That person in the movie is the character played by Nighy, to whom Wilton has been "married" previously for work, in a Harold Pinter play and in the film "Shaun of the Dead."

"Jean is what my grandmother would have called a disappointed woman. But what I like about her is that in these kinds of films, you can't have everyone being sweetness and light, you know. It's unrealistic, because some people can adapt to a situation (like moving to a foreign country), and other people will never adapt to a situation. I thought that was very well portrayed in the script."

Wilton is 65 and the veteran of more than 30 years of London theater and more than 60 movies and British TV show appearances. But through "Downton Abbey," she has found a level of stardom "that goes beyond my life working on fantastically difficult plays like Samuel Beckett or Edward Albee. It's lovely to be doing something that everyone can enjoy instead of just a small group."

As Isobel Crawley, she plays a plucky woman with modern ideas for the early 20th century that often shake up Downton Abbey's inhabitants. Those ideas often induce viewers into "uh-oh, here it comes" anticipation - like her proposal to turn the manor into a convalescent home for wounded officers during World War I.

"She has very good intentions, and she bites off more than she can chew sometimes," Wilton said with a chuckle.

"The trouble is that Isobel is more 'of the world' than some of the people (the manor's aristocrats) that she's dealing with. Reality is something that she recognizes, and it sort of annoys her that (the Granthams) don't," she said, laughing.

Although Wilton is closer to being a household name, especially in England, that hasn't necessarily translated into people recognizing her.

"To date, I can still go on the Tube (London's underground railway), which is handy. I get a few stares and people nudging, but it can be the easiest way to get around London, so there you go."

Then there's the person who does recognize her. This would be a person who thinks an actor is just like the character they portray. As one woman recently told Wilton immediately upon meeting her: "Oh, you're that ghastly one in 'Downton,' always gamesaying the countess."

"You are flabbergasted at the time when someone says such a thing, but obviously she was quite a fan of the aristocracy and didn't appreciate that I, or Isobel, had a voice," she said.

If only Wilton had a script lying around for such situations.

"What's frustrating is that I can never think of a great comeback until 48 hours later, and then the moment has passed."

Michael Smith 918-581-8479 SUBHEAD: Penelope Wilton discusses a new film with her "Downton Abbey" co-star.

Original Print Headline: 'Downton' makes UK actress a big name