Masterpiece’s favorite upstairs-downstairs period drama is back, and with its return come a slew of new faces. We know what you’re thinking: Will George Clooney, who appeared in a Downton Abbey comedy sketch (watch here and here), be among them? Sadly, no—but there’s still plenty to look forward to. In advance of the series’ fifth season debut, creator and exec producer Julian Fellowes introduces Downton’s new characters.
RADE SHERBEDGIA AS PRINCE KURAGIN
An old friend of the Dowager Countess—he “featured in Violet’s past,” Fellowes teases—the prince is a Russian refugee who flees the Bolshevik Revolution and lands in England. “When you’re casting someone who is going to play quite a principal role opposite Maggie, and they go down memory lane, you do need a real heavyweight,” Fellowes explains. “Otherwise they just get sort of blown away by her.”
Sherbedgia (pictured above)—who counts Batman Begins and Eyes Wide Shut among his credits—was up for the challenge, acting opposite Smith in a scene that Fellowes describes as one of her best from the series. “He’s got an extraordinary kind of poignant quality that makes you sort of half cry all the time,” Fellowes says.
RICHARD E. GRANT AS SIMON BRICKER
Grant (Withnail & I, Girls) joins the show as an art expert who visits the estate to assess a Piero della Francesca painting owned by the Granthams. (Fun fact: Fellowes reminded us that Downton viewers have seen the painting before. The Turk admired it the night of his untimely death.) The actor already knew some of his new co-workers: Grant costarred with Maggie Smith (Countess Violet) in 2001’s Gosford Park, also written by Fellowes. “The Downton mixture of drama and comedy—he pitches that so expertly,” Fellowes says.
Beyond the painting, Grant strikes up a flirtation with Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), which isn’t likely to please Robert (Hugh Bonneville). Presumably, Robert’s displeasure won’t be short lived, as Grant appears in four episodes. “I think it’s quite a good part,” Fellowes says. “He has his own story, and he equips himself very, very well.”
ANNA CHANCELLOR AS LADY ANSTRUTHER
The widowed Lady Anstruther has previously been mentioned on the show by her former footman, Jimmy (Ed Speleers), with whom she’ll reconnect in this season’s first episode. (To give you an idea of their relationship: She refers to him as “a very naughty boy” in the show’s season 5 trailer.)
Fellowes describes Chancellor’s turn at the estate as “partly comedic and quite touching,” noting that not every actress could pull of that balance. As a testament to her talent, Fellowes likened Chancellor—whose credits include The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Dreamers—to Smith. “One of the hallmarks of talented actors is that they can play different things at once, Maggie being a supreme example of that,” Fellowes says. “She can be funny, she can be poignant, she can be tragic even—all within a few seconds almost. She never changes into a different person. I think Anna Chancellor has that too.”
Downton Abbey returns to PBS at 9 p.m. on Jan. 4.
For more on this winter’s most promising TV programming, pick up this week’s issue of EW.