Go Behind the Scenes of the 'Downton Abbey' Film Sequel in a New PEOPLE Special Edition

Making Downton Abbey: A New Era in the South of France "wasn’t work,” says Elizabeth McGovern. But the reunited cast agrees: Meal scenes are still grueling. Here's the game that helped them cope

People "Downton Abbey" special edition

"They better be warned, the British are coming!" bellows head butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) to his wife, Elsie (the former Mrs. Hughes, played by Phyllis Logan), near the beginning of Downton Abbey: A New Era. It is the French he means to warn, as this latest film, which opens May 20, finds many of the show's familiar faces—both upstairs and downstairs—headed across the channel following a surprising revelation from Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith).

To hail the return of those beloved Brits, PEOPLE is celebrating with a new Downton Abbey special edition featuring exclusive cast and creator interviews, an oral history of the six-season series, and behind-the-scenes photos of the big-screen sequel, which catches up with the Crawley family and their staff in the late 1920s. The time shift is seen in not only shorter hemlines and talking pictures, but in the family itself. "What's lovely in the new film is that you see Mary and Edith much more settled and really matured as women, and their relationship has evolved," says Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary. "There are less jabs between the two of them. Maybe it's because they live apart—that's helpful!"

Elizabeth McGovern stars as Cora Grantham and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Hexham in DOWNTON ABBEY: A New Era, a Focus Features release
Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Carmichael in 'Downton Abbey: A New Era'. Ben Blackall/Focus Features

While roughly half of the cast filmed on France's Côte d'Azur, the rest remained behind at Downton (actually Yorkshire's Highclere Castle), where the Crawleys' grand home morphs into a Jazz Age film location. Actors Hugh Dancy, Dominic West and Laura Haddock—who play the movie within the movie's director and stars—were thrilled by the opportunity to join the Downton family. Haddock, for one, felt a bit awestruck working at the famous estate. "At risk of sounding like a looney, there were times when I would walk to the house and have the theme tune playing in my head," says Haddock. "And I was like, 'Okay, Laura, chill out. You're an actress. Go and do your job.' But yeah, it is funny. Something does happen to you there. It is like part of the English heritage now."

Sophie McShera stars as Daisy, Laura Haddock as Myrna Dalgleish and Charlie Watson as Albert in DOWNTON ABBEY: A New Era, a Focus Features release.
Sophie McShera, Laura Haddock, and Charlie Watson in 'Downton Abbey: A New Era.'. Ben Blackall/Focus Features

Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), was among those enjoying the sun and two-week poolside pre-filming quarantine in France. "We had a really fun time, especially with the crew—it was a real gift," she says. "I feel for the cast that didn't have that story line, because we had a wonderful time."

And yet for all the joy, there are certain scenes that, dating back to when they filmed the series, have always been less fun to shoot. For one: Those big meals, lovingly prepared by Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) with everyone around a gloriously laid table. "The dining table scenes are notoriously tricky because they take forever," says Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham). Adds Elizabeth McGovern, who plays his wife, Lady Cora: "They're boring is what he's trying to say. It takes endless hours to do every setup of every person around the table. And one day it was so hot we were looking at a piece of salmon on the plate that had already started to turn by 10 a.m."

"The great skill one learns is not to eat at all," replies Bonneville. "Because if you eat at one camera angle, you have to eat at all of them. I think over 10 years Maggie [Smith] ate one pea." To alleviate the boredom of all those lengthy table shoots, he says, "we played a game called Wink, Murder." Everyone would a draw folded pieces of paper, with one indicating he or she is the murderer. "If that person winks at someone, they die. Sometimes you'd have 20 people playing at a dining room scene, so that was very entertaining."

CREW members and actors Laura Carmichael, Samantha Bond, Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Michelle Dockery, Harry Hadden-Paton, Elizabeth McGovern, Douglas Reith, along with 1st Asst. Director Adam Lock on the set of DOWNTON ABBEY: A New Era, a Focus Features release.
Behind the scenes of 'Downton Abbey: A New Era'. Ben Blackall/Focus Features

"You'd have to try to be clever enough to kill somebody when they weren't saying a line on-camera, so they wouldn't be seen dying," explains McGovern. With due modestly, Allen Leech (Tom Branson), confesses that he was often the winner. "The trick is that you don't have to murder everyone quickly," says the man who plays the gentle former chauffeur. "You can do it quite slowly."

With more interviews and on-set intel, PEOPLE's new special edition Downton Abbey: All About the Beloved Series & Films is available now wherever magazines are sold.

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