Laura Carmichael: 'I felt like I was never going to get into an audition room. Downton was a miracle'

As ‘Downton Abbey’ comes to a close, Laura Carmichael opens up about the last shoot, her plans to move into film  and why she’s worried she might be typecast as Lady Edith

Gerard Gilbert
Tuesday 27 October 2015 22:03
Downton Abbey actress Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith in the hit ITV drama
Downton Abbey actress Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith in the hit ITV drama

Robert, Earl of Grantham: “Poor old Edith, we never seem to talk about her.” Cora, Countess of Grantham: “I’m afraid Edith will be the one to take care of us in our old age”. Robert, Earl of Grantham: “Oh, what a ghastly prospect!”

This exchange between Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern’s characters during the opening series of Downton Abbey set the tone for Lady Edith Crawley, the middle sister overshadowed by the frostily glamorous Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and the romantically headstrong Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Fortunately for Laura Carmichael, the young, inexperienced actress in this seemingly thankless role, Julian Fellowes had big plans for Edith.

Not only was she to fall in love with a married man, the publisher Michael Gregson, she would also become a single mother, after Gregson vanished in Germany having followed his insane wife there. With her daughter, Marigold, entrusted to a local farmer, Edith pursued her writing and publishing career, later finding love afresh (with that nice Bertie Pelham) over cocktails, jazz-dancing and a midnight deadline for her magazine, The Sketch. Edith was to become Downton’s thoroughly modern young woman.

“This era for women is so exciting”, says Carmichael when we meet in a London hotel, a rendezvous charged with associations for the Crawley daughters. “The fact that Edith is a writer, and the Bloomsbury group is full of these women who were very bohemian and intellectual – that seems more interesting to me than her having a nice husband. Julian’s always said that she wants something for her life and I think it’s interesting the way that it has panned out.”

More than that, Fellowes entrusted the final piece of filming of the entire Downton Abbey project to Carmichael, an unusually long two-hander between Lady Edith and someone she will intriguingly only identify as “a character who is not in it very long”. Could it be the prodigal Gregson, played by Charles Edwards? Carmichael remains sphinx-like and pours herself a cup of tea.

“It was at one of these odd locations where you can’t film in the day”, she will say of this final scene. “And being a night shoot it just made it so much harder. Everyone had got dressed up, all of the crew were in period dress, so they’re having a jolly time, it’s four o’clock in the morning … and saying goodbye to something that’s been six years in the making. Julian was at the monitors. Michelle [Dockery] was doing the clapper-loader, and I was just, ‘Get the lines right…’ So it was quite a lot of pressure, and after [my lines] everyone’s going, ‘Are we saying cut? Are we saying cut? That’s a wrap.’ We’d got into this weird tradition of when an actor wraps they give a half-speech; I think I just cried.”

Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith in the fourth series of 'Downton Abbey' which aired last year

But then, says Carmichael, making the whole final season had been a wrenching experience. “It [series six] started and we felt very normal and it was about halfway through that we suddenly felt it getting to be the end”, she says. “But I guess it was when we started to wrap locations that we knew – the village, and Highclere Castle… We had to get out of there quite quickly because it opened to the public in August and we filmed through most of August. Very suddenly, very quickly, it turned from being a place where you felt at home into suddenly feeling like a tourist in the castle grounds.”

Would she go back? “They’ve offered for us to go back, so I don’t know. … It’s like leaving school. There was just something quite absurd that we would have ever thought it was our home. It was so odd how comfortable one could become in someone else’s home.”

Like Edith, Carmichael is the middle sister of three – though, unlike Edith, the 29-year-old actress gets on well with her siblings. “We’re very, very close”, she says. “We all live in London and I’m seeing them this evening; I’ve just been in LA for three weeks and it feels like a very long time not to have seen them.”

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Born in Southampton to Sarah, a radiographer, and Michael, a software consultant, Carmichael attended the Bristol Old Vic theatre school, before spending two years in various odd jobs while going to tiny auditions in fringe theatres. “You have this feeling you’re never going to get into the room”, she says. “I don’t know how it happened with Downton; it really was a miracle. I think it was because I had a good drama school on my CV and they had struggled to find someone for Edith, because she had to be quite different from the two other girls.”

Nevertheless it came as a bit of shock for the naturally beautiful Carmichael to read the first reviews and realise that she had been cast as what she has described as “the ugly one”. “I knew she was the unloved one, the mean one,” she says. “It’s just when there are so many comments, it’s quite strange when you’re only 22. But really I don’t feel damaged by it, but it’s definitely odd.” Yet she has enjoyed the role. “When I was at drama school I had quite a lot of wet, ingénue parts, so I’m delighted because it’s much more fun playing someone who’s a bit bitchy. But it’s interesting how one role can make people see you differently. Someone was talking about King Lear and I’d love to get into an audition for that, and they said, ‘You’d be a great Goneril.’ I thought I might be Cordelia…”

Any unflattering remarks about Edith were soon tempered by Downton Abbey’s phenomenal success worldwide, not least in America where the cast are treated like royalty, especially after Kate, the Duchess of Cornwall, visited the set this year. “They’re like, ‘How’s Kate?’, like we’re friends in real life,” says Carmichael.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith

When we meet she has just returned from Los Angeles, where she attended the Emmys (“I thought we’d lose everything to Mad Men but we lost everything to Game of Thrones, which is also valid”), and had “meetings” – though for the most part it was just a holiday, “because I’m not really available”.

First she is due to shoot her role in A United Kingdom, in which David Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, the future king of Bechuanaland (the British colony that would become Botswana). While studying at Oxford in the late 1940s, he fell in love with and married a white woman, Ruth Williams. Under pressure from apartheid South Africa, the British government exiled the royal couple from Bechuanaland. Williams is played by Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), and Carmichael plays her sister, who introduces Williams to Khama.

Meanwhile, Burn Burn Burn, a comic road movie in which Carmichael plays one of two female friends who embark on a picaresque journey across the UK to scatter the ashes of a dead male buddy, recently premiered at the London Film Festival. All that and a new ITV drama of which she cannot yet speak.

“It will be impossible to sustain,” she says of her Downton prominence, laughing nervously. “But I’ve been very lucky, I think, to have done six years on something and come out feeling that the world’s your oyster, really.

“I feel that I’ve had another six years’ training. I can be a very nervous person and I’m really grateful that I’ve had this time where I’ve felt so comfortable, working with these legends who you genuinely see as friends… to have that freedom to learn how to do the acting is so great.

“Hugh Bonneville told me early on, ‘They’re not all like this,’” she says, referring to the show’s success. “But from day one I thought this was the best thing that had ever happened, because I had a job after two years and I was working with the most incredible people and I loved the scripts. It wasn’t that I thought everyone was going to be bananas about Downton, but when they were, it just added to the happiness I felt.”

The final series of ‘Downton Abbey’ continues on ITV until 8 November, with a concluding special episode on Christmas Day

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