Sipping Tea With Michelle Dockery

Downtown Abbey

“I was so ready to get back into her shoes,” the Downton Abbey star says of her beloved character

If the enchanting theme music of Downton Abbey has been stuck in your head since the series wrapped, you’re in luck! The cast (and music!) is back in their evening wear and house uniforms in a feature film of the same name, hitting theaters in the U.S. on Friday, September 20. I’m a Downton superfan, so I was excited to chat with Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary in the franchise. Over cups of literal tea, Michelle told me all about revisiting the beloved character after a few years — and about her close friendship with the Laura Carmichael, who plays her sister/ rival Lady Edith.

Katie Couric and Michelle Dockery enjoying tea in Manhattan.

Katie Couric: Michelle, I’m so excited to talk to you because I’m a huge ‘Downton Abbey’ freak, and I’m very excited about this movie. What was it like getting the gang back together? Although I wouldn’t necessarily describe these people as a “gang.”

Michelle Dockery: Well it’s what we call ourselves. It’s the gang — the Downton gang. It was brilliant after three years. We are this big family and, of course, spent so much time together over those seven years on the show. It was a real privilege to be able to come back together and do it for the big screen. In a strange way it felt like we never left. Allen Leech [who plays Tom Branson] says it felt like he fell asleep in his trailer for three years and then woke up and we started doing the film.

Did you all stay in touch when the series ended?

We did. There were a few Downton things along the way; we had exhibitions opening all over the world. There was one in Singapore and recently in Boston. So we would come together for those events but Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith — we’re very close in real life, which is always a funny anecdote because the characters are always at each other’s throats.

I always loved Mary but — I know I’m acting like these people are real — she was quite cold and really dismissive of Edith, in a way that made me sad for Edith.

Julian writes siblings very well. That dynamic between the sisters started very early on, because Mary was very dismissive about Patrick, which was her original suitor who Edith was very fond of. So from the start, it was this rivalry. There were moments, I have to say, where Edith gave as good as she got. It was like a tennis match between them.

It must be funny because you’re such good friends, and then you’re rivals on the show…

We kind of love it. On the series we would ask Julian what’s next with them, and we’d go to certain scenes in the script and be like, “Yes, we get to have a catfight in this moment!” It was a lot of fun, and oftentimes Laura and I were on the verge of tears — laughing because it was just so funny to be doing those scenes together and try to keep a serious face. What’s interesting in the film is that they kind of get to a very settled place. They’re both happy and married, and they live very far apart, which I think is probably healthy. It’s nice to see that in the film. They’ve kind of gotten to a bit of a truce and they’re civil with each other.

Did you miss Mary in the three years that you weren’t playing her?

I did. When we finished the show, we were ready to say goodbye and move on to other things. But really, there were parts of that character and other things I loved so much: her unapologetic nature, her wit and her strength. I did miss that, and I missed the clothes. By the time we did the film, I was so ready to get back into her shoes.

I interviewed [‘Downton Abbey’ creator] Julian Fellowes when I was in London for my podcast, and he talked about how meticulous everyone is on set to make sure to reflect the period — from the clothes to the way you sit, the way courses are served to, of course, the outfits. Were you happy to get back into those clothes or were they ridiculously uncomfortable?

They were uncomfortable in the early days because we were in corsets in the first and second season. But once we hit the ’20s and women were liberated, we got the vote, the corsets came off.

And then you got to wear sheaths, really, that were much less form fitting.

Much less fitted and looser. It’s more about the delicacy of the costumes. Anna Robbins, our amazingly talented costume designer, often goes to Paris to find authentic pieces from that time. She found a dress that was perfectly intact at the top but in tatters at the bottom. So she would then keep the top half but make the lower half.

There’s such an opportunity in the series to delve into every character and you really get to know them in the creepy way I’m discussing you and Edith. But it must be challenging to transform that into the feature film — what were the biggest challenges for you or for the whole group in making a movie instead of an episodic TV show?

The person with the biggest challenge was Julian. He had to write the thing, and he did a remarkable job at creating this narrative, which of course is the arrival of the King and Queen and what that does to every single person in the house. Everybody has a role to play in this momentous occasion. He does such a brilliant job in weaving subplots in and out of that main narrative.

For us, we just had to do our jobs. We just had to turn up and do our lines and really not do anything too much differently than we did in the show. Laura Carmichael and I were going, “Should we do anything differently? Our faces are going to be so massive on screen. Should I not emote too much?” Very quickly we realized that we didn’t have to do anything differently, and that everything was happening around us. The cameras were sweeping and grand shots and the costumes — everything was turned up a notch for the film.

But I loved that the music was the same.

And so beautiful. The opening credits are five minutes long, and the only time you hear the Downton theme tune is when you see the house. Also for us, there are certain shots in the film that we’ve never seen before. We’ve never gotten as high as the roof.

In addition to ‘Downton Abbey’, you have been involved in a number of TV and film projects as well. What has excited you as much as Mary?

Godless is something I loved, and it was a real departure from Mary. Getting to get back into period costume, I really loved, because I had been doing modern stuff up until that point. But Western was very different. So it was a good role to play.

And in fact, you have a couple of really exciting projects coming up.

Yes, I’m in Guy Ritchie’s next film called The Gentleman, which is very much in the vein of Lock, Stock and Snatch, and he’s going back to that territory. I’m playing a very, very different character to Mary. She’s a real kind of East London, Cockney. She’s a bit closer to my own roots and she swears a lot, so I can’t repeat any of the lines she says right now. … Then I’ve got, we’re still actually shooting, Defending Jacob. It’s William Landay’s novel and we’re adapting it for television. It’s an eight part series for Apple, and it’s essentially about a family whose lives are completely torn apart by an incident in which a boy is killed at their son’s school, and their son is on trial for the murder. It’s a brilliant story and it really questions what you would do as a parent in that situation. The writing is superb.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

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