Michelle Dockery can picture herself as 007. We happen to meet on the day Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan has his latest meltdown, after former James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan said he would support a woman taking on the role. Dockery, who has been the subject of several “Bond Girl” rumours over the past few years, is keen.
“I love Bond, so yeah, I’d never say no!” she says. “I think a lot is changing with those films – I’m looking forward to the next one for that reason. Those rumours about Gillian Anderson [being the new Bond], years ago… I was so up for that, it was like, ‘When does it happen, when does it start filming?’”
But she’s more drawn to the villainous women in Bond films – Xenia Onatopp in Goldeneye, with her notorious thigh-grip move, or assassin Fiona Volpe in Thunderball.
“Those roles with a darker side definitely appeal to me,” she grins. “But it’s all about them feeling authentic. I’ve never played a really mean character,” she adds, looking delighted at the prospect, “although Lady Mary can be a bit like that at times!”
We’re sitting across from one another in a discreet but grand hotel in London (a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace), discussing the new Downton Abbey film. Dockery is wearing a khaki jumpsuit loosely belted around her waist; her hair is pulled back from her face revealing sharp cheekbones and eyes full of humour that, in Downton Abbey, give Lady Mary that much-needed element of warmth to complement her icy demeanour. The 37-year-old is, as many before me have observed, entirely different from the character that made her a household name, although her Essex accent is slightly more neutral now – perhaps because she’s in Downton mode ahead of the film’s premiere.
“It feels like a long time coming,” she says. “[The film] was rumoured for so long, then there was the question of: ‘Are we going to do this?’ Hugh Bonneville described it as though we were all holding hands on the edge of a cliff working out whether to jump. It felt that way, as though if we weren’t all going to do it, it wouldn’t work. And the timing was perfect, I thought, to get back together. It gave the audience enough time to miss it.”
Dockery seems to go for characters who thrive on independence. Lady Mary often comes across as a spoilt brat in the early series of Downton Abbey, and the biggest snob after her father, Lord Grantham (Bonneville). She is cruel to her younger sister, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and rude to her distant cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), whom she later marries. However, both the storylines and Dockery’s performance show Lady Mary as a loyal friend to Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the family’s former chauffeur who marries her youngest sister, Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), and to her maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt).
She’s also a master of sarcasm, with dialogue delivered in her trademark insouciant drawl. She’s self-determining as the lead in US series Good Behavior (based on the novellas by Blake Crouch), in which she played con artist Letty Raines. In Netflix’s western miniseries Godless, too, she is a revelation as Alice Fletcher – the aloof widow managing a ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her mother-in-law and a young son – who rescues Jack O’Connell’s injured outlaw, Roy Goode.
“I feel like I had a very good start with Mary, because she is this stoic, complex woman,” Dockery says. “I loved Alice – I felt closer to her than to Mary. There was something about her… Mary’s very different to me. My upbringing, everything. It was something I was very nervous about when I took the role. But I’m always drawn to characters who are, of course, real.”
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It’s not difficult to think of another reason Dockery may have related to both Alice and Lady Mary, the latter at least during season three, in which Matthew is killed in a car crash while driving home to see his wife and newborn child. Dockery had been engaged to public relations director John Dineen for a year when he died of cancer, aged just 34, in 2015. Dockery told The Guardian two years later that she considers herself “a widow”, and spoke of how she had thrown herself into work. She mentioned wanting to prioritise a break between projects, but so far, I point out, that doesn’t appear to have happened.
“After Downton I did a lot, and of course these roles come along, and you take those opportunities,” she says slowly. She seems (understandably) reluctant to return to the subject of her fiancé’s death, but, she says, “returning to Mary was… I’d forgotten how much I’d loved her, putting on those costumes. Normally when you do a job there’s a certain amount of research and meeting new people involved, and nervousness that you go through. As actors we’re constantly questioning ourselves. What was great about Downton was that I was going back home.”
The movie, which was written and co-produced by series creator Julian Fellowes, is set in 1927. The original cast, including Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Jim Carter and Penelope Wilton, have all returned, with the exception of Lily James (Lady Rose MacClare) and Samantha Bond (Lady Rosamund Painswick). Aside from this, things feel very familiar and rather non-eventful, albeit with the obvious result of a bigger budget: grander costumes, even more splendid settings… “Everything is turned up a notch,” Dockery says.
She says she never worried about being typecast, although she sounds slightly surprised that it’s turned out this way. “I think it’s the opposite sometimes, with a show like this – if somebody’s casting a 1920s period drama they won’t look for people like us [the Downton cast], because it’d be like seeing Lady Mary all over again.”
There’s a good chance, given the turmoil unfolding in UK politics, that Downton will be held up as a “distraction” from Brexit as much as the royal wedding or prime minister Boris Johnson adopting a puppy with his girlfriend. But Dockery plumps for “escapism” as the source of its appeal and thinks a film that transports the viewer “somewhere else” comes at the perfect time. “There’s a message that Julian puts across, perhaps, but when you’re playing the character, it’s quite different.”
“There’s something that people missed about the Sunday night routine that we kind of brought back [with Downton Abbey],” she adds. “Everyone binge-watches TV now, and I think people miss it being more of an event.”
She admits she got excited about both royal weddings – for the marriage of Harry and Meghan she woke up early to watch while she was in America. She enjoys the sense of rivalry the royals bring to the film: “It affects every single character, and the build-up to that is done brilliantly. For everyone back then, a royal visit was a momentous occasion,” she says, “but I think [the royals] are something we take for granted now.”
The film Downton Abbey is out now
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