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Hugh Bonneville: Mental health wasn’t addressed at school

The Downton Abbey star talked about boarding school, The National Youth Theatre and moments that changed his life forever
Hugh Bonneville pens his Big Issue Letter To My Younger Self. Image Credit: Karl Schoendorfer/Shutterstock

Actor Hugh Bonneville had “horrible panic attacks” as a teenager, the Downton Abbey star has said, and at one stage he did not believe he would make it as an actor. 

In a wide-ranging interview for The Big Issue’s Letter To My Younger Self series, he discussed boarding school, The National Youth Theatre and the moments that changed his life forever.

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“I remember having horrible panic attacks when I was in my teens, but mental health was not addressed or shared in the same way it is now,” he said. 

“Particularly if you’re in a boarding school environment where any sign of weakness is… not necessarily pounced on – I think we were a very benevolent school on the whole – but some people suffered. 

“I can analyse what I had as panic attacks now, but at the time I thought I was having a heart attack. But it just wasn’t the done thing to talk about it. When I look back now I think I’d like to say to my younger self, it’s OK. You’re going to be OK.” 

Bonneville, who will star as Roald Dahl in the upcoming movie To Olivia, which explores the marriage between the renowned writer and actress Patricia Neal, said he had never thought of acting as a profession, let alone something that would make him a star. 

“I loved acting because it was fun, but there was absolutely no way in a million years I ever thought of it as a profession, because that’s what other people did,” he explained.

No, I was going to do something sensible. Not medicine – I fainted at the sight of a needle – but I was going to be a lawyer. That was my game plan. The National Youth Theatre completely changed my perspective.

“I can remember the moment I opened the envelope to tell me I’d got a place there, because that really did change my life. Suddenly I was meeting like-minded kids from all over the country, coming together because they all wanted to be in plays. 

“That was a game-changer in terms of my passion. I think by the time I got into my late teens, my second year of university, I really thought, maybe I’ll give the acting a go for a couple of years and then go into law. And, well, that was 30-something years ago.” 

Hugh Bonneville in the hugely successful Downton Abbey.
In Downtown Abbey
Hugh Bonneville in the hugely successful Downton Abbey.

Bonneville also paid tribute to his late brother, who he said he lost “very suddenly” last year. 

“I just got a phone call one lunchtime saying, do you know why Nigel hasn’t turned up for work? It was one of those. Sudden and wrenching. All his plans for a long busy retirement snuffed out overnight,” he said. 

“My father was entering dementia by then so he didn’t really fully understand it, but it was very tough on my sister and myself. So I’d like to know… I think I’d like to know that my brother was happy. Because I didn’t get the chance to ask.” 

Read more about Bonneville’s theatrical training, working with Julia Roberts and wishing he could relive one night with the Royal Shakespeare Company in this week’s Big Issue, available through The Big Issue app now.

To Olivia, a Sky Original film, only on Sky Cinema from February 19