'Downton Abbey' Season 4: Rob James-Collier's Thomas has a new secret and a Miss O'Brien replacement

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When "Downton Abbey" Season 4 begins, troublemaking footman turned valet Thomas Barrow ( Rob James-Collier) will be absent one compatriot turned nemesis in Miss O'Brien ( Siobhan Finneran). But never fear, "Downton's" writer and creator, Julian Fellowes, doesn't leave Thomas floundering solo for long.

"He's currently auditioning applicants," James-Collier tells Zap2it of his character. "And the first few haven't been suitable. But he pulls in someone from his past, who he has a secret -- he holds sway over -- and we don't know what he's got on her. But he pulls her in and gets her to do his bidding."

James-Collier divulges as many details as he dares, with Fellowes nearby on the red carpet for a "Downton Abbey" panel discussion at the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences, sponsored by Ciroc. He explains of the mysterious new character, "It's just to help [Thomas] facilitate, and become the next Miss O.B., so he can have access to the gossip and the rumors, and keep an eye on what's going on upstairs ... so he can plot his evil plans of world domination."

Season 1 revealed Thomas' penchant for blackmailing people from his past with dark secrets when the Duke of Crowborough came for a visit. Thomas lost a daring standoff with the Duke, who found and destroyed a treasure trove of his love letters kept hidden away in Thomas' downstairs quarters. But there is hope Thomas he will fare better this time around. 

As for Finneran's departure, she is one of the handful of cast members who Fellowes says chose not to extend her role once her three contracted seasons were up.

It seems Thomas' mysterious new associate will be the only partner for his character this season, as there are no immediate plans to introduce a fresh love interest for the newly promoted under butler. "It would be nice," says James-Collier. "But I think [Thomas is] really unlucky in love, isn't he? If you kiss men in their sleep, you're not going to get a positive response. So I don't think it's on the horizon. Because as we discussed at the end of last year, it was illegal and it's against God. It's pretty hard to get action when you're a gay man in Edwardian times."

Thomas' character will certainly continue to be homosexual, as Fellowes stresses the most important thing when writing a character is, "Whatever happens to the characters, they must stay the same people." But for now, that portion of Thomas' story will take a back seat. 

"I think we've done it. I think it served its purpose." James-Collier says. "I think we had a responsibility -- not just because he was a gay character, but because he was a gay character in that time. ... So I think because the stakes were so high if he ever got found out, we had to at least address that story. ... Julian wrote brilliantly for it last year, And I think we've done that, so there's no point in going back to revisit it. He's been accepted, people know who he is and what he is. And he's found his natural sort of place now at Downton Abbey. And maybe even chilled out a bit."

And while Thomas is holding a secret over the head of a new Downton resident, James-Collier will be hiding his own secret, in the way of a shaved head underneath a pricey wig, thanks to a recent film role. "I was playing a psychotic drug dealer," he explains. "And thankfully they let me do the role because it was just before 'Downton.'"

Collier admits he will be wearing a $6,000 wig throughout the entirety of Season 4. "When you get your wig fitted, you have to keep your hair [as it is], because the wig's fitted to your hair at the time," he says. "So I have to be a skinhead 'til August. But on the bright side, If I ever go bald, I've got a wig to fall back on and protect my career."
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