Ever since we saw him in Downton Abbey as the passionate chauffeur-turned-estate-manager Tom Branson, our eyes have been set on Allen Leech. Now in the World War II-centered film, The Imitation Game, the Irish actor is trading in his Downton duds for his role as John Cairncross, a British code hacker working to solve the top-secret German Enigma machine with mathematic genius Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). The historical movie shows shows secret government operations and controversies from the time of Winston Churchill, and places the spotlight on a man who paved the way to modern technological advances and ultimately invented one of the first computers ever. We spoke to Leech about the film, period pieces, and his crossword puzzle-solving abilities.
What made you interested in this film?
I just wanted to help tell the story of this incredible man—there are so many elements that really drew me to it, but I’d say that it was that I wanted to clear up the story of a man who was really something.
Since Downton Abbey and The Imitation Game are both period pieces, is there anything specific you do to get in the mindset of a certain time period?
That’s a good question—I think they’re very different in a way because Cairncross was an actual person, so I had a responsibility in my portrayal of this man. My approach to preparation was to read over the things that the actual man did—instead of like a character like Tom Branson, who’s just a character of the time period, so you can have a little more freedom. I suppose you create a world to be the character, but when you have a man like Cairncross, when you get in the mindset it’s very different because you have to take the time to look at the research that he did. I just always look at the readings of that time period anyway, just some facts about the history—just kind of going back and reading tales of people in those times.
Did you read anything specific for The Imitation Game?
The Imitation Game was actually based on a biography of all the people that lived there and it details the more academic stuff about the machine as well. We all tried to get our heads around how it worked, because we were trying to portray them and what they were doing. I still have very little knowledge on the Enlgma machine. Actually, we had books that explained how it works but I had no idea what was going on.
Did you find yourself doing puzzles on set? You do a lot of crosswords in the film.
We actually did as a cast have something that bonded us together, so we began to do the crossword everyday. There were six actors, and we worked on them—and we were pretty terrible to be honest. I remember there was one that we finished in the whole time. There were some days where we’d get maybe four clues right in this massive crossword. It’s funny because we’re playing some of the greatest minds that have ever lived…and there’s just four that we could get.
If you had to live in a specific time period, other than the present, when would you live and why?
I would have loved to live in Prohibition America. I was always fascinated by the Prohibition-era and New York around that time. I think that would be an incredible, fun time.
How does filming an episode of Downton differ from filming a longer feature, like The Imitation Game?
They’re very different, because Downton takes a lot longer, and with films you have the constraint of a short period of time. We shot The Imitation Game in a period of eight weeks, so I really enjoyed the intensity of shooting in a much shorter period of time. And also, as an actor, like on Downton, sometimes you get some piece of information and you go, “I really want to know if they would have known that?” in episode work. It’s difficult in that way. It’s nice as an actor to have that mental closure of where you have to get to as a whole in a film.
Can we expect to see more of you in feature films or television?
I’ll take good work wherever it is—whatever medium it’s in. I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to balance the two quite nicely. I would love to do more features, and I’ve been lucky to do a feature every year in between Downton. They’re coming closer and closer together in terms of the quality and budget right now. A lot of the stories that you used to really only be able to tell in movies are getting turned into full projects for HBO and Showtime. So I really just want to do good work.
Alan Turing’s discoveries shown in the film eventually led to the invention of the computer. Do you ever go on the internet, and if so, what do you do?
I’ve actually been away from home so there are some great websites you can go on to reconnect—there’s a great website called Broadsheet. I like doing stuff that reconnects me with home.
The Imitation Game opens in theaters November 28. Watch the trailer below.