Michelle Dockery will never forget her audition for “Downton Abbey.” The actress immediately knew she loved the role of Lady Mary but wasn’t convinced the producers of the TV series would cast her. She was largely unknown at the time, having primarily performed onstage around England and in several BBC productions, including an adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw.” Despite some trepidation, Dockery knew, absolutely, that she could inhabit Lady Mary Crawley.
“I was 26 at the time and I did go in thinking, ‘I'm going to give this my best shot,’” Dockery remembers, speaking from a hotel in London the day after the U.K. premiere of “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” a sequel to 2019’s “Downton Abbey” movie. She adds, “But in the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘Somebody else who's a little more established will likely get it.’”
Dockery left the audition feeling she’d done her best, but also acknowledging that she probably should “let this one go.” When she ultimately got the part, she was genuinely shocked.
“I was living in this house in South London I shared with three other girls — it was like a student housing and I wasn't a student at the time,” she recalls. “And I remember I was in my bedroom and my agent calling me and I had to sit down. I just couldn't believe that I had been offered this role. It was huge. I felt like, in that moment, it changed my life, but I never imagined just quite how much it would.”
To say “Downton Abbey” changed Dockery’s life is a vast understatement. The actress has embodied Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Grantham, for six seasons of TV and now two movies. The role has earned her several SAG Awards, multiple Emmy nominations and a burgeoning career of notably diverse work. Most important, Dockery has remained with Lady Mary for more than a decade of her life.
“It's rare to go back to what feels like a regular job,” Dockery, 40, reflects. “It's quite rare in an actor's life. I love the familiarity of it, because when you start a new job, there's a certain amount of nerves and trepidation leading up to it. And preparation and various things you have to do to get into character. Whereas with Lady Mary, I just put on the shoes and one of the dresses in the fitting, and there she is. It’s such an easy job, really, and to be surrounded by the people that you love and have known for 12 years is a real privilege.”
In early episodes of “Downton Abbey,” which premiered in the U.S. in early 2011, Lady Mary was a fashionable, aristocratic snob. Her relationship with her sisters, particularly Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), was tumultuous, and it seemed like the only person she had a soft spot for was her grandmother Violet (Maggie Smith). Over the seasons, as Lady Mary fell in love with Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and then lost him right after their son was born, the character warmed up.
When we revisit her in “A New Era,” Lady Mary is the guardian of Downton Abbey, helping to bring the manor home into the modern age. Unlike her father, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), Lady Mary welcomes the idea of a Hollywood crew coming into the house to shoot a silent movie, which will give the family the funds they need to make repairs. Not only does she solidify Downton’s future but she also finds herself becoming a voice-over artist — a la “Singin' in the Rain” — when the silent film turns into a talkie. That Dockery carries one of the movie’s two main storylines is by design.
“Mary started out as a fairly snobbish, rather selfish, rather difficult girl trying to get her own way,” says screenwriter Julian Fellowes. “But, of course, part of that is she was strong. From the start, she always had a strong personality. And I think what we've watched over the years is how she has come to harness her strength, master her strength and use it to achieve what she wants. By the last film, she was semi in charge of running everything. But now she really is in charge. We were very lucky in Michelle in that I think she's developed into a very strong leading lady [and] a very strong adult actress who can carry all that weight. We’re taking advantage of that, really.”
Dockery was attracted to that evolution, which has come gradually and naturally over the years. She also likes that Lady Mary stands in contrast to Robert, who is so resistant to the changing times.
“I think of her in the first [season] — there's this very arrogant, petulant young woman who refused to adhere to any responsibilities she might have,” Dockery says. “I think there's one line where she's like, ‘I don't want to be the lady of the house. I want more than that.’ What’s interesting is that she's discovered along the way [that] that’s what's right for her and [that] she really enjoys it. In this film, you see her really embracing her responsibilities. She's enjoying being at the helm.”
While Dockery will always come back to Lady Mary — it’s yet to be determined whether there will be more films — she has also had the good fortune of taking on other types of characters in various time periods. After “Downton Abbey” aired its finale in 2015, Dockery moved on to some very different TV roles in “Good Behavior,” “Godless” and “Defending Jacob.” She worked with Guy Ritchie on “The Gentlemen” and returned to the stage to play Diana Christensen in National Theatre’s production of “Network” in London. But Dockery hasn’t purposefully avoided period dramas.
“It's interesting, because this genre doesn't actually come my way as much,” she notes. “I feel it’s because we play these characters in ‘Downton Abbey’ and we're so known for these characters in this particular period drama. It would be odd for us to be suddenly seen in ‘Bridgerton.’ Do you know what I mean? Because it's like, ‘Lady Mary's just walked into another period drama.’ We were asked this question, especially in the early days, about the worry of being typecast off something like ‘Downton,’ but I haven't had that experience at all.”
The actress, who recently went to South Africa to film the thriller “Boy Kills World,” adds: “I feel like I'm at a point now where it's the things that I say ‘no’ to that have actually begun to shape my career, in a certain way. That takes some courage, you know. That took me a bit of time ... because as an actor, you have this inherent feeling of ‘We've got to keep working, keep this momentum.’ There’s been times where I've had to really stick to my guns and say, ‘No.’”
One role that was an easy “yes” was that of Kate Woodcroft in Netflix’s “Anatomy of a Scandal,” which premiered in April. Created by David E. Kelley and Melissa James Gibson and directed by S.J. Clarkson, the limited series offered Dockery an opportunity to spread her wings even further as a lawyer tasked with prosecuting British government minister James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend) in a rape case. The six-episode arc required a huge amount of research and rehearsal, particularly for the extensive courtroom scenes. A plot twist at the end of Episode 4 — revealing Kate to be Holly Berry, a woman Whitehouse assaulted in university — meant there would be a lot of layers to the performance. Dockery calls it her “most challenging role to date.”
“‘Good Behavior’ was emotionally quite a challenging role ... [playing] a struggling drug addict and going from various phases of soberness and then going back into a spiral,” Dockery says. “But ['Anatomy'] was intellectually challenging. Those courtroom scenes were huge. I mean, some of that cross-examination with Rupert was 38 pages long. It required an enormous amount of preparation, to the point where I was sort of saying the lines in my sleep.”
Dockery worked with a criminal barrister in London, who helped her workshop the court dialogue. Clarkson, who also grew up in Romford, England, and had first met Dockery a few years before, felt that she could push the actress to the brink — which the director ultimately did.
“The thing about Michelle is she's so committed and she is unwavering in what she does,” Clarkson says. “She goes all out and she's not afraid to put herself out there. I said to her a lot, ‘This is going to be a big character, because I've not seen you do anything like this before.' There's an awful lot you have to buy into. When we talked about it, she was really excited about that. [Michelle] is really layered as a person. She's been through a lot, and she's done a lot. I thought, ‘She’s got all those skills and experience to bring all those nuances and complexities to it.' And I did push her, because it's something we haven't seen her do before.”
As of now, there are no plans for a second season of “Anatomy of a Scandal,” even though the finale leaves the story open-ended. Dockery says she’d “certainly be open to it,” but adds, presumably jokingly, that she would want to “check how long those courtroom scene pages are before I go into it.”
It’s happenstance that Dockery has a convergence of projects arriving at once. Alongside “A New Era” and “Anatomy of a Scandal,” Dockery and “Downton Abbey” co-star Michael C. Fox released a four-song EP, "The Watching Silence," as Michael & Michelle on Decca Records. The pair have been playing together for several years, often jamming on set, and eventually realized they wanted to write original songs.
“It’s been such a great creative venture because it is so different from acting,” Dockery says. “With acting, the majority of the time you are given the words. You know, you’re saying somebody else's words. But when you're starting from scratch and you're writing your own words, it's a really interesting process and a really exposing one, actually. But a really rewarding one.”
More than a decade after that first audition for “Downton Abbey,” Dockery continues to marvel at how much her life has changed. Looking back, the early years of the series, which brought the cast into the spotlight and onto awards show red carpets, were a blur. Today, Dockery appreciates the success and attention with a sense of clarity.
“Back then, it was so new and quite overwhelming at times that I didn't quite live in the moment,” she says. “It was a lot of noise, and it feels like you're on the outside looking in. Whereas now I feel much more present in all of it. Maybe that comes with age. But the pandemic has certainly shifted my way of thinking a little bit. On this film, particularly, it felt so special to come back and work during a time that has been such a difficult one for so many people.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.