‘Audiences didn’t want Downton Abbey to end ... I think that’s why talk of the movie is just endless’
Actress Michelle Dockery talks to Gerard Gilbert about taking on some very un-genteel roles
After I read it I rang my agent and said ‘I have to play this woman’
It must have come as a shock to fans of Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey — or perhaps as a sneaking satisfaction to those who thought the haughty aristocrat verging on the insufferable — to have witnessed the actress’s follow-up television role in the American drama Good Behavior.
The establishing shots of Dockery’s character, a paroled junkie grifter called Letty Raines, see her flipping burgers and cleaning a lavatory pan in a scuzzy diner and kneeing a would-be rapist in the groin. It almost feels like some form of self-abasing penance — the type that medieval nobility might practise — for all those years playing the imperious Lady M.
“I wasn’t actively out to do something so vastly different,” says Dockery, back in the UK after a long summer shooting the second season of Good Behavior in North Carolina. “I loved Mary, I loved that character so much, so I would be doing a disservice to go ‘eugh, I want to do something completely different’. But then most of the British people watching the show, the last thing they would have seen me in was Downton, so there’s no denying that will draw people to seeing Lady Mary cleaning the toilet.”
In Good Behavior, conwoman Letty is desperate to be reunited with her young son after a spell in prison, teaming up with a hitman called Javier (played by Argentinian actor Juan Diego Botto). It was a role that came her way not entirely on the merits of Downton Abbey.
“I did an episode of Waking the Dead a long time ago — I must have been 24 or something — and I played this character Gemma who was a rape victim who then goes out to avenge her attackers,” says Dockery, who is now 35. “She is the closest to Letty actually of all the characters I’ve played and it was on my showreel, and the producers had seen it. You never know what job is going to lead to the next part in the next 10 years.”
It also helped that Good Behavior’s writer, former Wayward Pines showrunner Chad Hodge, was “a Downton Abbey devotee” — but Dockery still couldn’t believe her luck in being offered the part. “I loved the pilot when I read it: this deeply flawed complex woman. You’re being constantly surprised by her life — by the fact that she has a son, that she’s a con artist and a very good one. After I read it I rang my agent and said ‘I have to play this woman’.”
The new season has a feel to it of The Americans, the drama in which Soviet sleeper agents pretend to be an ordinary suburban US family, as Letty and Javier try to live a normal life with Letty’s son Jacob while both being hunted by the FBI. “The first three episodes of the second season are very funny because you’re seeing this hitman and this thief trying to be normal and Letty cannot help herself,” says Dockery. “She’ll go to a store and will steal her son’s school clothes rather than pay for them.”
Filming took place in Wilmington, North Carolina, with 16-hour shooting days as opposed to the 12 hours on Downton Abbey. “Plus you got weeks off on Downton when they filmed the servants quarters,” says Dockery. “But this show, Letty’s in just about every scene, and you’re like this hamster on a wheel.
“Wilmington is a wonderful place to work though because you have downtown, which is really cool and hip, and then the beach. But even then my weekends really were filled out with just resting or learning my lines. I’m constantly learning lines.”
Dockery had a dialect coach to help with Letty’s “general American” accent. “It takes a while to get into the movement of it,” she says. “With American, you’re using different muscles, with my accent as well. My Essex twang is still there and it’s a little lazy at times, so the American accent is rhotic, you’re pronouncing all your rs.”
In person, the Romford-raised Dockery sounds nothing like Lady Mary, although she says the estuarine accent has softened over the years — except when she’s had a few drinks. She won’t be needing English English for quite a while however as she firmly establishes herself across the Atlantic, most recently in New Mexico shooting Godless for Netflix, a limited-series cowgirl drama being dubbed “a feminist western”.
“That’s what people are calling it,” says Dockery. “I’ve certainly never seen a western
before with that many female characters. The premise is Frank Griffins, played by Jeff Daniels, and his gang of outlaws are on this mission of revenge against Roy Good, played by Jack O’Connell, who’s a son-like protege who betrays him. So while Roy’s on the run he seeks refuge on my character’s ranch, and this relationship develops between them, if you want to call it a relationship.”
Her character, Alice, whom Dockery describes as a “hardened widow and outcast”, lives in a town governed mainly by women as a result of a mining accident; all the men were killed. And in what sounds like a feminist High Noon, the women must come together to protect themselves against the outlaws — Dockery learning how to handle a gun in preparation for her role.
“The first thing we all did when we arrived on set was to go to cowboy camp,” she recently told Vogue. “I remember when I shot a gun — the adrenaline was crazy. On Downton Abbey we had the shooting parties, but the women just stood back and wore a nice outfit and assisted the men.”
“Alice was another character I was mad about and I put myself on tape for it when I was in North Carolina,” she says. “I just loved her. Then I was offered it and nearly fell off my chair.”
Dockery won’t be able to park her American accent quite yet — she makes her homecoming stage appearance at London’s National Theatre later this autumn, in Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1976 movie Network. Directed by Ivo van Hove, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston takes the Peter Finch role of the messianic news anchor Howard Beale, while Dockery takes the part played by Faye Dunaway, that of Beale’s ruthless producer Diana Christensen.
“We start rehearsals in a couple of weeks and I’m so excited by the opportunity to be back at the National and working with Bryan Cranston,” she says. “The timing is great because I’ve felt a real urge to be home again, and in the strongest sense it’s kind of happened because I feel like I’m going back to my roots. The National was my first job out of drama school (in His Dark Materials in 2004), so it’s a wonderful feeling to be back home.”
Indeed it’s easy to forget that Dockery was foremost a stage actress before Downton Abbey whisked her career off in a different direction. She was twice nominated for an Ian Charleson Award, in 2006 and 2008, and once for an Olivier Award, for her part in the Russian drama Burnt by the Sun. She was also Ophelia to John Simm’s Hamlet at the Sheffield Crucible in 2010, “descending movingly into madness”, according to The Independent’s theatre critic.
However, Downton fans need not despair of ever seeing her again as Lady Mary. According to the president of NBC Universal, Michael Edelstein, a script is being written for the long-mooted Downton Abbey movie and a budget has been set. “Yeah, the phantom script — nobody knows. We’ ll see,” says Dockery. “Ending Downton was very bittersweet for everyone, it did feel like something that would go on forever and felt like the audience didn’t want it to end. I think that’s why talk of the movie is just endless.
“I’m positive something will happen at some stage. But it is proving difficult to get together a big ensemble cast like ours, so we’ll just have to see. But I’m not bored of Mary.”
Season 2 of Good Behavior is on Virgin TV from October 16; Godless is on Netflix from November 22; Network is at the National Theatre from November 4
VERSATILE: actress Michelle Dockery. Below from left: as Letty Raines in Good Behavior and Lady Mary in Downton Abbey with Elizabeth McGovern who plays Cora, Countess of Grantham