The ‘Downton Abbey’ cast before they were famous

Take the British aristocracy, throw in smoldering glances, bickering sisters, true love lost, along with actress Dame Maggie Smith and you have the biggest hit to come out of England since Pippa Middleton put on that bridesmaid dress. As we gear up for the January premiere of season three of the PBS Hit “Downton Abbey”—which has already aired abroad, those lucky Brits—our friends at took a look at the cast of our favorite upstairs, downstairs drama -- way before “Downton Abbey.”

PHOTOS: See all 28 pics of “’Downton Abbey’ Stars - Before The Fame” gallery

Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham
Maggie Smith is best known on “Downton Abbey” for her quips, deliciously offering up barb after barb. Smith is awesomely reprising her role as the haughty Constance Trentham from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes’ film “Gosford Park.” A veteran of stage and TV, Smith has also shouldered iconic film roles in “Sister Act” and the “Harry Potter” series. Smith already took home an Emmy in 2012 for her role in “Downton Abbey” and is nominated for both a Golden Globe and a SAG Award in 2013 for her work on Season 2.

Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham
When Elizabeth McGovern appeared as Lady Cora Crawley, the resounding American reaction was: “Oh, I love her!” and “So great to see her working again!” McGovern hit the Hollywood big time right out of the gate, debuting on film in Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” (1980) and following up with an Oscar nod for her role as Evelyn Nesbit in “Ragtime” (1981). Then she seemed to disappear…But it turns out, McGovern never went anyway—like Lady Cora, she just moved abroad. After marrying Simon Curtis in 1992, McGovern lived in England and continued to work in several British TV and film productions. But when McGovern first learned of Lady Cora, she didn’t leave her audition to fate. As she told the UK press: “I was such a  [“Downton” creator] Julian Fellowes fan. I wrote him a letter saying, ‘I'm on my knees—I really want to play this part!’” Cheers to her persistence!

Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham
When Hugh Bonneville first took the part of Lord Grantham, he wasn’t entirely sure about his aristocratic role. He told The Hollywood Reporter that Crawley “has a slower pulse than I do. And his sort of feudal world isn't one I’m comfortable with.” A veteran actor of stage, screen, and TV, Bonneville was perhaps best known to American audiences for his role as the endearing and bumbling Bernie in “Notting Hill” (1999) --who fails to recognize Julia Roberts at a dinner party. Bonneville, who was nominated in 2012 for an Emmy for his work on “Downton Abbey,” has landed the titular role in the upcoming film “The Return of Captain Nemo.”

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley
A veteran of the British theater, Michelle Dockery plays the luckless-in-love romantic heroine of Downton Abbey, Lady Mary Crawley. As a young actress, Dockery made her mark as a member of London’s National Theater, earning raves for her tragic Ophelia in a 2010 production of “Hamlet.” Making her TV debut in 2005 in the series “Fingersmith,” Dockery shot to worldwide attention when she was cast as the troubled Lady Mary. She’ll next be seen in the movie “Non-Stop” (2013) playing lead alongside A-listers Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore, but look for her first at the 2013 Golden Globes and SAG Awards airing this January --she is nominated for both for her work on “Downton Abbey.”

PHOTOS: See all 28 pics of “’Downton Abbey’ Stars - Before The Fame” gallery