From Chengdu to the Big Screen: A Conversation with Actress Lesley Nicol

Jill and Lesley tour the Chengdu sanctuary

Sometimes when you meet someone you just get a shiver of recognition, knowing you have just met a soul mate for life. And so it was when I met actress Lesley Nicol of “Downton Abbey” after she had been introduced to us by our mutual friend and UK Ambassador Peter Egan at an event in London. In the same way as I already felt about Peter, it was like I already knew her and we simply clicked... as friends, but also as people who knew we had a rather big job to do. Lesley went on to become our Ambassador too, came out to our sanctuary in Chengdu, and also visited a former bear bile farm where we are looking after over 100 now happier and healthier bears. Together we sobbed and laughed in equal measures, depending on the sad and happy stories of the bears. 

Lesley has the most beautiful and kind heart and the most fantastic sense of humour I think of anyone I've ever met.  We would giggle at our elderly rescued bears as they played in slow motion — wrestling and grunting as they rolled around in the grass — and celebrate their choices and their freedom and their happy days in the twilight of their years. We never really had to explain how we felt because we both knew and felt the same, and that is the mark of choosing an ambassador who is 100% right to represent you. You know that they will be a kindred spirit for life.

Our staff absolutely loves Lesley too and to this day I pinch myself in disbelief that I know and love someone who is such an extraordinarily accomplished actress, a thoroughly down to earth and passionate champion of the bears, and a true friend more special than I can ever describe.

Remarkably, in the midst of interviews and a gazillion publicity requests, Lesley generously found time to talk about the highly anticipated film release of “Downton Abbey” and of her journey with Animals Asia and the bears:

Lesley and Jill playing the fool while watching the bears

Jill: "Downton Abbey" the movie is set to be released in the UK on September 13th and fans all over the world — including me — are popping with excitement to see it on the big screen. How did it feel to step into the wardrobe of Mrs. Patmore once again, gather on set with your colleagues, and recreate that beloved role?

Lesley: It felt the most natural thing in the world to put the costume on again. We all felt like we were “going home” — and it really didn’t feel like there had been much of a gap. The only weird and rather disappointing thing was the whole shoot felt a bit short — it was just weeks instead of the months we were used to.

Jill: Do you have a favorite moment that you recall during filming that you're allowed to share with us?

Lesley: No specific moment really — I just loved every minute with Sophie (McShera, who plays “Daisy”) — both on and off screen.

Jill: In addition to your very prolific career as an actress, some of your fans may not know you are a devoted animal lover. You've traveled to our rescue bear sanctuary in Chengdu to spend time with our fantastic team and beautiful bears and even co-written a song about them. When you first learned about bear bile farming, saw our bears and learned about the horrors they'd gone through, what went through your mind? Why have our bears captured your heart? 

Lesley: I follow my friend and fellow Ambassador Peter Egan on Twitter. He posted a video of a moon bear at the sanctuary in Chengdu. And it was a happy video. And I showed it to my husband and my niece - and I was sobbing! And they thought I had lost my mind because they couldn’t understand why I was crying. In retrospect I think it was then that it became obvious that for whatever reason, I was destined to be involved with this charity for the rest of my life. Those bears got right into my heart - and once that happens there is no way back. I then started watching you in videos on your website - and became really keen to meet you. I was so impressed by you — and everything you have achieved. I can now honestly say that being involved with Animals Asia is without doubt one of the most important and profound experiences that has come as a result of being in “Downton Abbey.” I offered my help, as at the time it was thought at least 160 million people were watching the show in China — and therefore we hoped I might be able to help raise awareness.

I am now proud to call you my friend — and one of the most important people in my life.


Jill: What is next for you in the big wide world of acting?

Lesley: I recur on several cartoon series in the US - and there are things in the pipeline. A show I did an early version of at an Animals Asia fundraiser in Hong Kong — a one woman musical called “How the hell did I get here?” — is being developed and produced in the US next year.

Jill: How has your own lifestyle changed in terms of championing animal welfare?  

Lesley:  Being in “Downton Abbey” led me to being involved in animal welfare. Having a higher profile has given me the opportunity to speak up for the animals I adore so much. It’s very pleasing to me that a very lucky and happy professional experience can also provide some assistance to animal welfare issues. I visited Farm Sanctuary (with you, Jill!) and I haven’t eaten meat since. That brought into question all kinds of issues. As a non-cook, I’ve found myself going to vegan cooking classes in LA!

Jill: We are endlessly grateful for your ongoing support, Lesley. We have a big job at hand to end bear bile farming in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia. Thank you for taking this journey along with us. 

Lesley: There is no doubt Animals Asia is a wonderful and brilliantly run organisation so deserving of support if you have an ounce of compassion for animals. I’m so proud to be a part of this noble cause

Jill: Thank you, our lovely Lesley! And here’s to a brilliant opening for the film! 

* * *

Downtown Abbey, the movie, opens in the UK September 13th and in the US September 20th. The film will premiere in different countries on various dates throughout autumn.

Animals Asia's Ambassador Lesley Nicol and Jill Robinson giving a bear hug

comments powered by Disqus