A familiar face in period dramas, Michelle Dockery has already taken on some choice roles!
(Shown in Pygmalion, Turn of the Screw and Return to Cranford)
When Michelle Dockery turned up at the read-through for Downton Abbey she was running late because the Central Line was closed. Her one thought was ‘I am going to be late - Maggie is going to think I am a rubbish actress,” she laughs. “Maggie is one of the greatest actresses that we have and I sat next to her at the readthrough and I remember she turned to me and said, ‘Oh hello darling’ and gave me a big kiss. So I sat down and at the end of it all she said ‘well done’, and I felt my shoulders drop and I knew we were going to get on well,’ she recalls.
Maggie Smith is renowned for her sense of humour, “In the beginning, when we were on set, we were quiet around Maggie but when she started making us laugh off camera, (she is very funny), we allowed ourselves to be a bit naughty with her. In front of an actress of her calibre you do your best to be professional but the moment we realised we could be naughty and misbehave with her it was just delightful and I think we all really bonded with her,’ she adds.
Lady Mary Crawley is the oldest of Lord and Lady Grantham’s three daughters and potentially, the heir to Downton Abbey if she marries appropriately. Her main objective in the family is to find the right husband, as it was for most young ladies of that time. “There’s a great line Julian has written about the female characters in Downton and that is they’re in a waiting room until they marry, which I think kind of tells it how it is. In some way, she’s the boy that Lord and Lady Grantham never had and I think Mary feels that her father really wanted a son’, she says. “That would have made everything a lot smoother for the family inheritance if they’d had a boy. So in that respect Mary is really tough and incredibly stubborn - whichever man is pushed in her direction by her mother or whomever, she’s actually quite reluctant to consider as a potential husband.”
When episode one opens it quickly becomes clear that the sibling rivalry that exists between Mary and Edith runs a lot deeper than the usual sisterly jibes that exist in most families. “She is very feisty and quite cruel at times, particularly to her sister Edith. Because the age-gap between Edith and Mary is so small Edith resents that Mary feels she is entitled to so much more than her. She doesn’t get the same attention from her parents that Mary does and as a result feels invisible,” explains Michelle. “Mary feels it is her absolute birthright to inherit the estate and Edith greatly resents her position within the family. There are some incredibly bitchy moments between the two of them.”
Despite being on the verge of a dramatic change in the world, with the outbreak of the Great War just a few years away, Mary’s feelings, fall, in between acknowledging her duty and responsibility to Downton, yet she is also pulled in the direction of independence and modernity. “If she fell in love with the right person Mary would be happy to stay at Downton and fulfill her duties as the next lady of the house. "She is definitely her grandmother’s granddaughter she knows deep down her responsibility is to continue the legacy of Downton Abbey."..."But at the same time she adores her Aunt Rosamund who is outspoken and thoroughly modern."
Mary endures some grave emotional losses throughout the course of Downton Abbey including the death of her future husband in the opening episode. “Mary would have married Patrick had he not disappeared when the Titanic sank but I don’t think she would have been happy – it was more a union of convenience with which she would have got everything she wanted.” Mary is quoted, ‘I was only going to marry him if nothing better turned up’, which is incredibly cruel but I think it’s true. There was no-one around at the time so I think she would have probably gone through with it. As a result of that happening it actually gives Mary more independence and more choice.” It is at this point Mary realises that she can make her own mind up about the man she marries and Mary’s character begins to change - we see a new more vulnerable young woman begin to emerge. “At the start we meet a very feisty young girl and she doesn’t lose any of that feistiness, but something traumatic happens in a later episode that damages her - it forces Mary to grow up and start looking after people,” she hints.
Mary has a spiky relationship with her mother, Lady Grantham, played by Elizabeth McGovern. On one hand, Mary knows her mother is lobbying hard for the will to be overthrown which causes arguments between her parents, but on the other she resents her mother pushing various eligible young men her way in the hope she will marry and be secure. Her relationship with her mother changes dramatically when Mary is forced to turn to Lady Grantham and housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) for help. “Initially Mary feels that she’s let her mother down terribly, but at the same time it brings them closer together because they share this terrible secret, and that is essentially the essence of Downton Abbey…the secrets that exist between the two worlds of the family and servants and sometimes when those two worlds collide you see one element relying on the discretion of the other in the most serious of circumstances.”
Away from the cameras Michelle discovered that she and Elizabeth McGovern shared a passion for music which has since resulted in them recording some tracks and performing at the Americana Festival in London’s Leadenhall Market. Michelle’s passion for singing and guitar resulted in her singing last year at the famous Ronnie Scott’s Club in London at the request of the club’s owner Sally Greene. “I knew Sally through the Old Vic and she’d heard through a mutual friend that I could sing and approached me about singing at the club. I went for an audition with the musical director of the club and before I knew it I’d been invited to sing on stage in a line up that included Will Young, Andrea Corr, Monica Mancini and Mick Hucknall among many others,” she laughs. “I was so nervous I wanted to run away but the only place I could run to was through the curtains onto the stage so I just had to get on with it but it was a great night and something I’d love to do more of in the future.”
As well as being on ITV1 for seven weeks in Downton Abbey this autumn, Michelle can also be seen at the Crucible in Sheffield where she is playing Ophelia opposite John Simm’s Hamlet. Having begun her career at the National Theatre in His Dark Materials, and having met her great friends and mentors Lesley Manville and Una Stubbs in theatre Michelle doesn’t like to spend too much time away from the boards. “I am really looking forward to doing a play again. In fact, I wanted to pick Maggie’s brains about the role but out of all the theatre she’s done it’s one of the only roles she hasn’t played. It’s only been a year or so, but to me that really feels like a long time to be away from it. When I started acting I was doing theatre all the time and I feel like when I don’t do it I get a little bit scared again,” she says.
Photo credits: Nick Briggs, Victoria Brooks
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