Missing The Actors Who Quit Downton? Here Are 3 Strange, Dark Gems To Watch Them In

‘Twas ever thus: seasons change, dogs molt and stars of phenomenally popular television shows junk their secure employment for "exciting new roles." Downton Abbey, now in its fifth season (9pm Sundays on KQED 9) is no stranger to departing actors—many of whom came to the Crawley estate from very different roles, or have since gone on to unexpected things. So to all those still missing Matthew, Sybil et al, I say: why not let that aching sense of loss be your spur to discover some dark, strange and under-appreciated stuff these actors have given the world before or since Downton?

Dan Stevens (as Matthew Crawley, last seen in 2012’s Christmas Special)

Why not watch him in: The Guest (2014)

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Well, I’ll be damned if little Matthew Crawley wasn’t responsible for the best — but also most underrated — American thriller of last year (even better than Nightcrawler!). The Guest was the movie for which Dan Stevens got buff and jumped the Good Ship Downton to widespread outcry — particularly in his native Britain, where ridiculing homegrown stars who exhibit any sense of ambition to “crack America” is basically a national pastime. On the evidence of this irresistible homage to 1980s thrillers, the doubters should now be eating humble pie, or at least they would be, if anyone had actually seen it. (The Guest made barely over $300,000 in the U.S., and was met with a critical reception best described as “eh?”)

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Mis-sold as a horror film on the back of director-writer team Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s 2011’s previous family-in-peril movie, the preposterously enjoyable You’re Next, this movie is totally Stevens' show. Physically unrecognizable as the same gentle Matthew who stole your mother’s heart, he's the titular Guest: the wiry, intense David who turns up unannounced on the doorstep of a bereaved family introducing himself as a soldier who served alongside their late son. He's quickly invited to “stay awhile,” and he’s soon drinking beer with the grieving parents, picking up their troubled son from school and hogging the bathroom from their 20 year-old daughter. But as he inveigles himself further into their lives, ominous questions arise. Why doesn’t David have any I.D? Why is he trying to buy a gun? And why do people all around them keep getting injured or turning up dead?

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Thanks to its insistent electro-synth score, splashy neon palette and taciturn lead hardman prone to bursts of extreme violence, The Guest has been characterized online as “Drive with a sense of humor,” but really that's overselling Drive. It’s clear that David’s unnerving demeanor, ambiguous intentions, and his Terminator bar-brawl moves all point towards something very bad about to go down. What sets this movie apart from a thousand other generic thrillers is a) its gleeful refusal to let a well-worn plot play out how you’re expecting and b) its deep love of the “relentless foe” movies (Halloween, The HitcherTerminator) to which it’s paying tribute.

Whether Stevens is charming his dead pal’s mother, entrancing the aforementioned sister in a much-Tumblred bathroom scene or mounting a disproportionately vicious assault on some unfortunate high school bullies, he’s compelling, terrifying and — most refreshingly — really funny, with a sly sense of humor that’s totally crucial to this movie’s infectious absurdity. (Just watch the way he rolls his eyes and tuts in exasperation while dodging bullets.) Right up until the climactic showdown that mischievously literalizes the true horror of your high-school prom, Stevens just gets the inherent ridiculousness of the lone-wolf archetype that Ryan Gosling made so ultimately uninteresting, and its a joy to watch. So if all Downton alumni’s forays into the world of action movies are this good, step up, Carson; Liam Neeson can’t keep hogging the middle-aged hero niche forever!

Jessica Brown Findlay (as Lady Sybil, last seen in Season 3)

Why not watch her in: Black Mirror, “Fifteen Million Merits”

f60d5caa87afd849c37131c12b1db468ea4aab06Lady Sybil was the first real Downton character to be sacrificed to an actor’s ambitions. Unlike Dan Stevens, she clearly harbored no desire to 'cast off the corset,' choosing instead a series of costumed roles. Unfortunately, her first major movie after exiting the show was the widely-derided period 2014 fantasy Winter’s Tale with Colin Farrell. (Fun fact: Martin Scorsese apparently turned down the chance to direct that adaptation of Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel, calling it “unfilmable.” When Martin Scorsese says he literally doesn’t know how he’d make your film, maybe this is a red flag?)

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No matter: as you sip your Lady Sybil Memorial Martini on a Sunday night in front of Downton Season 5, consider next firing up the episode of British satire/science fiction Black Mirror that Brown Findlay starred in back in 2011. Now on Netflix in its entirety (which is the reason everyone you know and their dog is now talking about it), this British show is best described as a technophobe Twilight Zone, with each stand-alone episode envisioning a different nightmarish way our obsession with all things digital might destroy our humanity.

“Fifteen Million Merits” imagines a dystopian tower-block world in which bovine citizens spend most of their waking hours pedaling on exercise bikes to earn “merits” that can be used to skip the incessant advertising that literally surrounds them. The one glimpse of humanity in this hideous world is the budding affinity between protagonist Bing and a girl named Abi (Brown Findlay), whom he overhears singing and encourages to audition live on TV for the thinly-veiled X-Factor-style talent show that occupies their screens in between commercials. Unfortunately, this gesture of friendship and self-determination sparks their descent into a worse Hell than the one they inhabit: the world of reality television. Sweet, innocent Lady Sybil makes it down the elevator, through the teeming bodies waiting for their moment of stardom and onto the stage in front of the judges — but there’s a price for girls who don’t make the cut.

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Admittedly, Black Mirror is never quite as subversive or cutting-edge as it believes itself to be, and its didacticism about the insidious evils of the screens that surround us (the "black mirrors" of the title) is about as subtle as having an actual TV smashed over your head. But each of its episodes are guaranteed to be the strangest things you’ll watch on a screen this year and, in that sense, its ambition can’t be faulted. And if its all too depressing? At least there’s a bonus for lovers of costumed dramas: Rupert Everett as one of the odious talent show judges.

Siobhan Finneran (Sarah O’Brien, last seen in Season 4)

Why not watch her in: Boy A

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If that Black Mirror episode is too pessimistic for you, then for goodness’ sake don’t go near this next one. Before playing lady’s maid/certified bad egg Sarah O’Brien in Downton — last seen absconding to India, in search of bigger and brighter lady’s maid opportunities — Siobhan Finneran was a reliable face around British film and TV for years. Her roles were often in mysteries and crime dramas, but surely none so bleak as 2007's Boy A, a sparse drama charting the plight of a young man (a young Andrew Garfield, of The Amazing Spiderman fame) newly-released from prison for a murder he and a friend committed aged just 10 years old.

After spending over half of his life behind bars, the shy 24 year-old known only as “Boy A” during his trial is given a new name, a new identity and a fresh start in a town far away from his previous life. Desperate for normality and to leave his unspeakable past behind him, “Jack” slowly begins to forge friendships with new coworkers (including Shaun Evans, a.k.a. the young Inspector Morse in PBS’ Endeavour) and find a delicate happiness with his first-ever girlfriend. But of course, it can’t last: the tabloid papers have learned that the notorious Boy A has been released from prison and there’s a bounty online for details of his new identity.

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Despite its premise (drawing from the infamous 1993 UK murder of the British toddler James Bulger by two 10 year-old boys), Boy A’s handling of the disturbing subject matter is unfailingly sensitive and almost too poignant. Garfield is heartbreaking, as vulnerable as a child in his mannerisms and expressions, making the sparing flashbacks to his childhood before the shocking murder — bullied by his peers, surrounded by adults who are too tired, sick or unfeeling to protect him — doubly unbearable to watch.

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As the unsuspecting woman who takes in Jack as her lodger, Siobhan Finneran’s role is a small but crucial one. Ignorant of the true identity of the young man she’s opened her home to, she represents not only the wider community that houses the kind of people like Jack in the real world, but also the deception that safe harbor demands.

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While Boy A's primary focus is the inadequacies of a society that incarcerates children, it's her character's un-O'Brien-ish openness and warmth (glimpsed in the easy silence in which she and Garfield eat their TV dinners side-by-side) that drives home the moral conundrum of this kind of offender rehabilitation. Why? Because to work, it totally relies on her lack of consent. One thing’s for sure: after this and 2010’s sob-fest Never Let Me Go, Andrew Garfield has a whole generation of film-goers conditioned to start weeping at the mere sight of his big brown eyes. Proceed with caution — and tissues.

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