by jared bowen | February 12, 2014 | People
Michelle Dockery is well aware that much of the television-viewing world is grieving for her—or at least for her aloof Downton Abbey alter ego, Lady Mary Crawley. In the gripping final moments of the show’s last season, Mary’s dashing husband, Matthew, played by Dan Stevens, perished in an automobile crash after leaving his wife cradling their newborn son in a hospital. Our image of the young family was suddenly and tragically replaced by Matthew lying lifeless on the side of the road. “The reaction was incredible on Christmas Day at home…. It was such a shock,” Dockery says of the season finale airing in her native England. “It just goes to show how much people have taken the show into their hearts.”
Downton Abbey returns to the air January 5 on Boston’s PBS station WGBH-TV, revealing life post-Matthew and Lady Mary surviving as a widow. But the truth is, since the show debuted in 2011, much of the focus has been on Mary thanks to a steely portrayal by Dockery, who landed the part when producers spotted her onstage in a West End production of Pygmalion. “I feel so fortunate that I’ve got the role,” she says. “And looking back, I can’t believe it when I think about the audition, sitting there in front of the producers and the directors. It’s amazing what’s happened for all of us.”
What’s happened is that from the moment the show began airing in the UK and in America a few months later, there’s been a Downton frenzy of ravenous viewers who can’t get enough of the upstairs-downstairs dynamic of a turn-of-the-century English family trying to hold on to their aristocratic ways, not to mention their castle. Dockery’s Lady Mary is the often-frigid eldest daughter with the greatest real-world perspective. “I love playing her because of her behavior at times. I find she can be quite shocking,” Dockery says. “She has a real bite to her that I love playing, because I don’t think I could ever be that way. That’s the joy of being an actor—you can play tap into those sides of yourself that feel unfamiliar.”
By telephone from New York, where she is enjoying her first-ever Fashion Week festivities, Dockery is exceptionally warm and thoughtful. She doesn’t take her overnight acclaim for granted and appears positively bewildered by the moments of luxury her fame now affords. “I went to the US Open just now in New York, which was amazing. We sat so close [that] we could see every expression,” she says. “It’s wonderful that we get these opportunities now.”
She’s also grateful for the security that comes with starring in a worldwide hit television show. Gone are the days of wondering when she’ll work again. “I’ve got myself a nice flat in London now,” she says with a sense of relief. “I felt like I moved all the time when I first started out, like a gypsy, every six months,” she explains. “It’s great to have a home and everything else that comes with it. Being recognized is very amusing. It’s wonderful.”
Downton fans are legion. Viewership in the US grew by 7 million last year, making the show the highest-rated PBS drama of all time. In Boston nearly one quarter of homes, from Back Bay to Brighton and beyond, tuned in to watch the show last season, netting WGBH its highest ratings since Ken Burns’s series The Civil War 23 years ago. More Bostonians watched the show in America than in any other market except for Seattle.
It tickles Dockery to know that a number of celebrities are also fans, including Mick Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Stones as well as her own idol, Edie Falco. “She’s one of my acting heroes. I just think she’s one of the best, and apparently she caught up watching Downton, which is just amazing to hear because I think she’s incredible.” And Dockery is confounded that she’s become a star on red carpets otherwise populated by actors she’s long admired from afar. “I’m just so starstruck by so many people. Most of them come over and say they’re fans of the show. It makes us fall over with shock…. It’s something that we weren’t really expecting,” she says.
It explains why viewers the world over were stunned by the sudden departure of Stevens last year—a move that also shocked his on-screen newlywed, who says the cast only learned of his departure and the character’s death midway through shooting last year. This season dawns with Lady Mary in mourning, something Dockery says she was also feeling in real life. “It was just really strange not having Stevens around because three years is a long time to work with someone so closely,” Dockery says. “There was a real sense of isolation with the character in the first episode because Mary has very much retreated. She’s become a bit of a recluse. It’s almost how it felt for me.” Rebecca Eaton, executive producer for Masterpiece, which is the American producer of Downton, says it’s a role Dockery has risen to. “She was one of many in that first season, and now she is arguably first among equals,” Eaton says. “Season four is really Michelle’s season.”
Every last word of Downton Abbey is written by series creator Julian Fellowes, and Dockery says she wouldn’t dare offer input. “I put my faith in him. The writing is not something we really get involved in,” she says. An avid television viewer herself (she counts Mad Men and The Sopranos as two favorite shows), the actress is thrilled for the backbone Fellowes has given Mary. “I feel like I’m part of this great surge in great writing for women,” she says, also giving nods to the female roles in Homeland and Nashville. “In television there seem to be many roles that are written for women and really strong characters… that aren’t always the victims, or vulnerable.”
Eaton adds that the role has also allowed Dockery to deepen as an actress. “She’s a very animated person, but she can manage to be very still when she needs to be, and Mary’s had to be kind of frosty at various times,” she says. It doesn’t hurt, Eaton also points out, that Dockery “wears clothes like no other.”
Dockery’s Lady Mary began the show tightly corseted in Edwardian gowns, but this season finds herself finished in the fashion of the roaring ’20s. Dockery credits the show’s costume designer, Caroline McCall, with influencing her look on-screen and off. “I’ve taken much more of an interest in style and color, and fashion generally, since being in the show,” she says. It’s made Dockery a leading lady on many best-dressed lists, donning an array of designers, including Ralph Lauren at the Met Costume Institute Gala and Prada at the Emmys this year. “I like to keep it very classic and simple,” Dockery says. “I like a French feel to everything—whatever that means,” she adds with a self-deprecating laugh.
After costarring with Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina last year, Dockery’s burgeoning film career continues with a role in the Liam Neeson action film Non-Stop, alongside Julianne Moore, in February. “It was great working with her. I was always giving her tidbits from the show,” she says of Moore, who is yet another Downton fan. Dockery looks forward to more singing, too, having performed with Downton costar Elizabeth McGovern in her group Sadie and the Hotheads. But for now she is largely content with Downton and says she plans no untimely exit of her own. “It’s really in the hands of Julian and the producers,” she says. “ If series five is commissioned, I’m certainly on board.” And so are millions of fans.
photography by liz collins/trunk archive; Styling by Samira Nasr