NEW YORK — Julian Fellowes deplaned from London on the evening of Super Bowl XXXIX, and, even though the actor/writer/director claimed to know nothing about American football, his gift for cultural anthropology allowed him to figure out what's so intriguing about the annual extravaganza.
"I love these things that cut across every section of the community and suddenly all the differences of age and politics, and background, all these differences you're so aware of, go away," said the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Gosford Park" and author of the new novel "Snobs," a comedy of manners set among the British upper classes.
"When they started the national lottery in Britain," he added, "for a while, everyone did it. It was quite moving, that everyone was engaged in the same thing."
While Fellowes gropes for a way to understand large American men whaling away at each other dressed in Space Age costumes, his understanding of social interaction comes easily. He's proved it with his screenwriting (Fellowes also wrote the recent film adaptation of "Vanity Fair," starring Reese Witherspoon), and now in his first novel, the 55-year-old late bloomer has taken on two worlds he is intimately familiar with: acting and high society.
"Snobs" is about a beautiful young arriviste, Edith Lavery, who marries a rather dull member of the upper class, leaves him for a gorgeous, moderately successful actor, then finds that she hasn't gotten what she bargained for.
The book is filled with snarky humor, lots of obscure British terminology ("blowing up a lilo," "Cardboard City," "laughed like billyo") and a razor-sharp dissection of ruling-class mores. But "Snobs" is never outright nasty and has a real feel for the universality of what its characters are going through.
"The upper classes don't like publicity; they really don't like it," said Fellowes. "And they believe that as long as they keep their heads down, they will be left alone. So calling attention to their way of life could be interpreted as a kind of disloyalty. What I feel is that when someone writes a book or makes a movie about a group you kind of understand, it sort of fosters the basic truth that we're all just people. Anything, whether it's my book or 'The Full Monty,' that stops you from dismissing people as a kind of type is all to the good."
Fellowes knows of what he speaks. He is, outwardly, the stereotype of a high-society Brit: well-dressed, classically educated, searingly funny in an Evelyn Waugh sort of way, married to an upper-class beauty who is a descendant of Lord Kitchener, who was a military hero and former war minister. But although Fellowes comes from society, he insists, "I was a very ordinary, fly-on-the-wall participant in it."
He's also Catholic, from what he called "the last generation that knew aristocratic anti-Catholicism. It's quite true to say that my mother-in-law had been planning on a coronet and 40,000 acres" for her daughter. Of the short, fat, Catholic actor of 40 she got for a son-in-law instead, "Catholic was almost the worst bit," he says.
"She's through it now. But what it gave me was an extended sense of what it's like to be an outsider. I have known what it's like to be disliked because of what you are rather than who you are."
Then there is Fellowes' modestly successful thespian career. "I came into acting when to be posh and plain was about as offensive as could be," he said. Sure enough, thanks to his plummy accent and impeccable manners, Fellowes was relegated to playing valets, vicars, Col. Blimp caricature types and upper-class twits in West End plays and a slew of movies with titles like "Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend." But when he was up to replace Hervé Villechaize in "Fantasy Island," he realized he didn't want what Tinseltown had to offer and returned home.
"There are two ways to go to Hollywood, if you mean business," Fellowes said. "You either go when you're very young and very beautiful, and you become a kind of fake American — my friend Jane Seymour did that. Catherine Zeta-Jones has done it. The other way is to be an established star/character player who is prestigious and preferably knighted or damed. That's the Anthony Hopkins, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith way, if you want to be in the A rack. The hard one is to go to L.A. as a not particularly successful actor and sit there and wait for them to make you a successful actor. There is a kind of assumption that if you're any good as a British actor, you'd be in Britain acting."
Fellowes finally started hitting his stride 10 years ago, when he won an Emmy for his TV adaptation of "Little Lord Fauntleroy." Then he played a key supporting role in "Monarch of the Glen," a popular British TV series, and five years ago his actor friend Bob Balaban hooked him up with director Robert Altman, who wanted to make a film about British society in the 1930s. On his first phone call with Altman, Fellowes has said that "they wanted the film to be about three groups, the family, the guests and the servants. I said, 'No, there are four groups because you also have the visiting servants.' " The rest, as they say, is history.
Fellowes is no shrinking violet. He is not afraid to admit that he feels entitled to the nice life he has these days after "30 years of never letting up." But he also admitted that the "best part is that it happened at all, because at 50 you assume it's not going to."
In this vein, Fellowes remembered that one of the most depressing moments of his life was years ago when he was dining with Albert Finney, who turned to him and said, " 'I know your sort, you're the sort that's never been given a chance to show what you can do.' Well, that's exactly what I thought. Then he said, 'Listen, if you've got it, they find you.' Well, of course, I went home with a leaden heart. It took me a long time to throw that off. And I am the living proof that I had got it and they didn't find me — until I was 50."
Book signing / Snobs
Where: Barnes & Noble, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 tonight
Contact: (310) 475-4144