On Season 2 of Downton Abbey (returning to PBS on January 8, 2012), it is 1916 and World War I has shaken the Crawley family estate to its very foundations. As a way of life is forever blasted apart, alliances are tested as both heroes and villains struggle to survive and forge ahead.
During this interview to promote the return of the popular period drama, actress Michelle Dockery, who plays the clever but cold oldest daughter, Lady Mary Crawley, talked about where things are at with the story in Season 2, what it’s like to play such a complex character, if she could live as emotionally repressed as Lady Mary, and the costume envy that goes on with this show. She also talked about her role in Joe Wright’s next film, an adaptation of Anna Karenina, and her desire to do more modern-day work. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Lady Mary Crawley drove viewers crazy in Season 1, mainly because she seemed very intelligent, and then made some really terrible decisions. When those things happened in the script, how do you justify that as being logical?
MICHELLE DOCKERY: When I read Mary in the first episode, she came across as a very cold person, and very much a snob. The incident with the Turkish character allowed Mary to become a lot more vulnerable, from then on. I felt like she softened a little more because something had actually happened to her. She’s an incredibly complex character. That’s what I love about her. She doesn’t always make the right decisions and is, of course, full of regret for what happened between her and Matthew, at the end of the first series.
When the show returns, what has Mary been up to?
DOCKERY: When you first meet her in the second series, she returns from London. It’s very obvious, from the beginning, that she’s still in love with Matthew (Dan Stevens). She finds out, quite spitefully through her sister Edith (Laura Carmichael), that he’s engaged. She is inevitably devastated that he has moved on, and so Mary very quickly moves on herself. She does meet someone. She brings home someone that she met in London. He’s a media mogul, called Sir Richard Carlisle, played by Iain Glen, who you may be familiar with. She’d already met him, but she decides to bring him back to Downton and everyone meets him.
Mary is 27, by the return of the series. You’re pretty much on the shelf, at that time. She needs to get a move on. So, she tries to move on and make a life with him, but it’s not easy. There are complications. It’s very obvious that it’s still there for her. It’s not completely resolved with Matthew, so don’t lose hope. As far as her war effort goes, she’s reluctant to get her hands dirty, in the beginning. When Downton becomes a convalescent home, she’s not quite as productive as the other girls because she is a snob, but she does roll with it. She goes with the changes. And, she does wear an apron, at one point. The rivalry with Edith is still there, but it softens a little, in the second series. There are more important things going on. They do look out for each other a little bit more, but there’s enough there to keep the audience entertained.
DOCKERY: There’s a lot of costume envy. We’ll have two or three changes a day, sometimes.
How constricting is it to be in the emotions of that era? What do you think of their lives and emotions?
DOCKERY: It’s really interesting to play those scenes where the emotions and true feelings are repressed. We’re in a time now where everything seems so exposed, so to play in a time like that, where people were much more private about their feelings and their lives, is really interesting to play.
Would it drive you nuts to live the way Mary lives?
DOCKERY: Yeah, I think it would. Women have so much more freedom now. But, I do adore the costumes and I love how feminine the women were, in that era. I think it would drive me crazy, yeah. I’m not from aristocracy, or anything like that. I had a very modest upbringing. She’s very different from who I am.
Would you like to do some other kinds of acting, too?
DOCKERY: Yeah, sure. I’d like to wear a pair of jeans, for a change, without a corset. That would be good.
Would you like to do a modern role? Is there a role that you would really like?
DOCKERY: Yeah, I did a cameo in Joe Wright’s film Hanna, with Saoirse Ronan and Cate Blanchett, that was out earlier of this year. That was modern dress. I had a red wig that I wore. It was nice to do something modern. I would love to. It’s just that, if you’re in a period of drama, then they’ll think of something else that you’re right for, that’s a period drama. You take what’s great. So long as it’s good work, I’ll do anything.
DOCKERY: It was Return to Cranford, so it wasn’t the original one. I played Jonathan Price’s niece, called Armenia. It wasn’t a huge role. She came along with Tom Hiddleston’s character, William Buxton, and she was a very flighty character, who encouraged the relationship between William Buxton and Peggy Bell, Jodie Whittaker’s character.
What was it like to get to do Pygmalion at the Old Vic Theater?
DOCKERY: To this day, it was really important time for me, playing Eliza Doolittle. It’s the equivalent of playing a character like Hamlet, for men. Those roles are quite rare for women – to be in every single scene of a play and to have that trajectory of the character. She goes from being the common girl, to then being the puppet in the third scene, and then by the end, she’s this grown woman. It was a real challenge, and I loved every minute. It’s still very, very close to my heart, and I’m reluctant to see any other productions because I’m so protective of it.
Do you have any plans to work in the States, at some point?
DOCKERY: Yes, I’d love too. I really would love too. I love America and I hope that the success of Downton Abbey may open some doors for us. I’m actually not available at the moment because I’m doing a part in a Joe Wright film. He’s doing an adaptation of Anna Karenina, which is another period piece. I have some lovely scenes to do with Keira Knightley.
DOCKERY: No, I haven’t. I should watch it. It’s a really interesting project, so I’m looking forward to working on that.
Can you do an American accent?
DOCKERY: I can, sure.
Did you have a back-up plan, in case acting didn’t work out?
DOCKERY: Music. I think I would’ve gone into singing. I would’ve been a music professional, but nothing academic.