Here’s why Lily James left the Downton Abbey TV series and why she won’t be in the Downton Abbey movie. From the end of Downton Abbey season 3 through season 5, James starred as Lady Rose MacClare, the cousin of Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and the great-niece of Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), the Dowager Countess. Cousin Rose essentially replaced Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), the youngest daughter of Lord Grantham, who was killed off in Downton Abbey season 3.
The effervescent Lady Rose brought a new kind of rebellion to Downton Abbey, especially for its early 1920s time period. Rather self-centered at first, Rose’s worldview greatly expanded and she came to care a great deal more for others. In turn, her new progressive views, especially in regards to her romantic relationships, sparked scandal at Downton Abbey. Rose was romantically involved with under-gardener Samuel Thawley and dated an African-American musician and singer named Jack Ross. When she was finally married, Lady Rose’s choice for her husband was Atticus Aldridge, a Jewish banker whose family hailed from Russia. After Rose and Atticus married in 1924, they moved to New York City and Rose gave birth to a daughter named Victoria Rachel Cora Aldridge. Finally, Rose and Atticus appeared in the Downtown Abbey series finale, set during Christmas 1925.
After both Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley, and Jessica Brown-Findlay’s main characters were killed off from Downton Abbey, fans were surprised and disappointed when Lily James didn’t return for the final season, which aired in 2015. But this was because, in real life, James’ star was quickly rising as she had been cast in the title role of Disney’s Cinderella. Though James continued to work in prestige television, like starring as Natasha Rostova in BBC’s War & Peace, her movie career skyrocketed. In the last few years, James starred in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Baby Driver, Darkest Hour, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society on Netflix, and Yesterday. James is so in demand that Downton Abbey’s creator Julian Fellowes has called her “our greatest success story.”
Unfortunately, Fellowes cites James’ busy career as the main reason why she won’t appear as Lady Rose in the Downton Abbey movie. As Fellows jokingly told EW, “She can’t be in it [because] she’s in every other film in the world at the moment.” Although James’ high profile would seem like all the more reason why she should be part of the Downton Abbey film, Fellowes further explained that besides working around James’ busy schedule to join the Downton Abbey movie, there were other creative reasons to omit Lady Rose from the film: “Lily is now a big star, and it would’ve been incredibly difficult for her to find time in her schedule to come and play essentially a supporting role in Downton when her career was in a different place when she was with us.”
There’s truth to Fellowes’ statement. Among Downton Abbey’s female ensemble, Lady Rose would essentially be a supporting character, ranking behind Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), Cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton), and the Dowager Countess, not to mention the downstairs staff of Downtown like Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), Anna (Joanne Froggatt), Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), and Daisy (Sophie McShera). Furthermore, the Downton Abbey film’s plot will have King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) visiting Downton. With so many characters in the movie, James would likely have been able to only make a cameo appearance as Lady Rose, one that wouldn’t have much impact on the movie’s story, especially since Rose’s storyline in Downton Abbey has been resolved.
Still, for her part, James has gone on the record that she “would have loved” to have been a part of the Downton Abbey movie and reunite with the cast and series that launched her to stardom. Indeed, Lady Rose’s presence will be missed by Downton’s fans, but if the film does well at the global box office, it’s quite possible Lily James could return as Lady Rose for Downton Abbey 2.