For an actress, Hollywood is a daunting, superficial place where youth counts for everything. But not, it seems, for Downton Abbey star Lesley Nicol. At 61, she has defied convention and become an international star later in life thanks to her role as frumpy cook Mrs Patmore.
“At the drop of a hat people will say there are no roles for women after 40. It’s there with a bunch of other rules I’m not interested in.
“I defy that. I got married for the first time when I was just gone 50. People used to say to me, ‘You won’t meet anybody now’. Well, I did. I had to wait for that opportunity and that person because it wasn’t there before. And then it was.
“So I’m not interested in rules. I’m very happy to have this [Downton] role and show actors my age it can happen any time. Who knows what’s around the corner?”
Since Downton won an American audience and two Golden Globe awards, Lesley has been welcomed into Hollywood’s inner circles, reports the Mirror newspaper.
She even counts Bette Midler as one of her pals, recently hosting the screen legend at her £2million LA home.
“Being in America is amazing – they are more welcoming than in the UK,” says Lesley. “Really high-level people in the business are respectful of us. They think we are well-trained and that we are worth having on a set.
“I met Bette Midler, who I absolutely love. I went to see her and then she came to our house for lunch. She is a really lovely, intelligent, fascinating woman. I was beside myself that she even watched the show. We had a lovely meal – that was a pretty special moment.”
The cook for that occasion was her husband, spiritual therapist Da’aboth Te’He’ling. He was born David Keith Heald but adopted a new spiritual name.
Lesley lights up as she talks about her marriage and says Da’aboth is her truest and most loyal supporter.
“I’m very lucky to have a husband who cooks for a start,” she says. “It’s a good partnership. I met him through a friend and we just hit it off. He is a martial artist and he does lots of spiritual stuff like Reiki. But he is interested in our world. We just got back from the Monaco TV festival. It would be awful if I was dragging him to these things and he felt ill at ease. But he doesn’t. He’s off talking to anybody. He is very comfortable in his own skin.”
He’s also a Star Wars fan, and Lesley is getting ready to make his dreams come true. She has become a friend of director JJ Abrams since he visited the Downton set earlier this year and her cheeks flush as she squeals: “I asked JJ if I could visit the set of the new film and he said, ‘You can visit any set I’m on anywhere in the world’.
“I can tell you, my husband will die and go to heaven.”
As well as a house in Beverly Hills, the couple share a home in Chiswick, West London, with their two dogs Freddie and Bertie.
But life has not always been so A-list for Lesley. She grew up near Manchester where her father was a GP and her mother an amateur actress.
She went to Guildhall Drama School and grafted for decades with bit parts in TV shows including Casualty, Blackadder II and A Touch Of Frost. It wasn’t until she landed Downton in 2010 that she became a household name.
Despite her success, she thinks that finding work has got a lot tougher for some of her peers. She says: “If I wasn’t doing Downton I think I would be very aware that things have got a lot tougher and there is less television than there used to be.
“A lot of my friends, the older actors, have always worked and they are suddenly going, ‘Where has the TV gone?’. I don’t think it’s an easy time for people.
“All I know about this job is, if you want to do it then you are going to do it. But if it starts letting you down badly then you will leave it. I don’t want to do anything else. I won’t retire – I will carry on until it gives me up or I drop, because I love it.”
Lesley is now filming the fifth series of Downton. She says the show is still going strong and the plots are well up to standard. But she knows it will have to end at some point.
“It only has one writer in Julian Fellowes,” she says. “It’s very different to shows in America where they have teams of writers. One day they will decide to stop it. But I’m very happy and I’m not going to run away from it now. We only do it for half of the year so I have the other half to do other things.”
She recently had parts in hit US shows Once Upon A Time and Raising Hope. And during her time off she uses her celebrity status to raise the profile of good causes such as the Medical Detection Dog charity. This uses dogs to detect early signs of cancer as well as helping people with illnesses such as diabetes.
Lesley explains: “If you say Downton Abbey characters are coming you sell more tickets. It helps a good cause. Working with MDD is incredible because it shows how important dogs are in helping make medical advancements.
“I think mammograms are still worthwhile but I think the medical profession is interested in exploring how far you can go with the sensitivity of a dog’s nose because they are simply more accurate than a machine at the beginning.
“There was a lady in the charity who had a dog who kept nudging her breast – when we say it is life-saving and changing it really is. But there is a three-year waiting list for a dog so we need to spread the word. I hope we can raise enough awareness to make a difference.”
The new series of Downton Abbey will screen on ITV in the autumn.