Michelle Dockery, Downton Cast on Butler Thomas and Mary as a Gay Icon

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Michelle Dockery
Michelle Dockery

The Crawleys are back and ready for their close-ups in Downton Abbey: A New Era (in theaters now). The latest film in Julian Fellowes’s series about a landed family and their staff in Yorkshire bucking against and embracing progress in terms of class, gay identity, and women’s rights now faces off with Hollywood when a film crew arrives to shoot a movie at the estate.

This time around, Lady Mary, gay butler Thomas (Rob James-Collier), and others stay behind to manage the film shoot, while Lord (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) head to the South of France with Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) to investigate how the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) came to be in possession of land there. Without giving away all the goods, the film from Focus Features sees a glimmer of hope for Thomas while Mary discovers hidden talents working with the film crew under its director, Jack (Hugh Dancy). Meanwhile, Lord Grantham is forced to consider his identity as part of the landed gentry. Each plotline speaks to the lessening friction between the old ways and the new, with Downton's lovable characters leaning toward change and Mary proving once again that she’s a gay icon.

“There are parts of Mary that I think you see in this film that come out without her realizing, and I think she really enjoys being [not just] part of the film, but the film within the film,” Michelle Dockery tells The Advocate. “She's such a stoic, strong character. I just loved the arc of her journey and who she is now compared to who she was in the beginning.”

Hugh Dancy (Jack), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), and Kevin Doyle (Mr. Molesley)

McGovern marvels at Downton's continued success, suggesting that there is an audience for adult storytelling that bucks the trend of just superhero franchises.

“[What} I find so interesting is that Downton Abbey is a movie that a commercial audience has stayed faithful to for years, and it’s got women over the age of 40 that are speaking, it’s got no violence, no sex, no car chases, no aliens, very sympathetic [gay] characters who you feel their pain and repression,” McGovern says. “Contrary to received wisdom of the powers that be, audiences want that.”

Since Downton Abbey premiered on TV in 2010, both the upstairs and downstairs women have tended to lead the way quite literally to the light (electricity was introduced early in the series) in loosening cultural mores. Certainly, they came to understand Thomas’s gay identity early on. One of his strongest allies has always been the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan).

“I think she has quite progressive views,” Logan says.”It was [probably] out of the norm at that time to [be so accepting of queer people] … but compassion [helped her feel for his situation. I think the LGBTQ community will be absolutely thrilled because I love [Thomas’s] storyline.”

“The women in Downton are very progressive for the time. It’s always been very important to [Fellowes] to show that journey and also show the journey of Thomas and where he's at now compared to where he is in the beginning,” Dockery adds. “I think that storyline is amazing in this film, particularly because everybody wants Thomas to eventually just be allowed to be himself.”

Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey

Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham), Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Grantham), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith) 

As for the head of the house, Bonneville tells The Advocate that his character has always walked a line between the old ways and the new, although his Robert Crawley is more progressive than conservative, he says.

“He is literally a conservator. His duty is to conserve the house and hand it on to the next generation without breaking the furniture if he can possibly help it, or indeed losing the estate,” Bonneville says.

“But he is by instinct as a human being a compassionate liberal. He’s more progressive than one might expect from someone of his stock,” he adds. “Look at his attitudes towards Thomas the footman, for instance, or the butler, as he is now. Others from that generation or from that stock might be more draconian. But he has a liberal compassion.”

Joanne Froggatt (Anna) and Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes)

A New Era investigates the forced change in Hollywood that came with the move from silent pictures to “talkies,” with Dominic West portraying the debonair film star Guy Dexter. When the film hits a snag in a plot reminiscent of Singin’ in the Rain, Mary does her best eye roll and steps in to save the day. But she’s more than a deus ex machina for the movie. Mary’s resilience is the stuff of gay icon material. Kevin Doyle, who plays the teacher and former butler Mr. Molesley, shares why he thinks the women of Downton are so iconic.

Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey

Logan and Jim Carter (Carson)

“There’s a ferocity … to the women. They have to be ferocious. You can see the struggle that they all have. Lady Edith just wants to be something other than just a quiet wife,” Doyle says. “You see that struggle downstairs as well. People want to better themselves.”

“You see that from the very first season, how seemingly constricted women’s roles were in that society in 1912. Then you see the effects of World War I and how things began to change in society. It’s one of the attractions of the show to see that rather closed society slowly changing and adapting.”

Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham), Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Grantham)