Michelle Dockery Talks Returning to Downton Abbey and the "Mary Effect”
She’s famed for a ’20s bob and flapper dresses on Downton Abbey. So who would have guessed Michelle Dockery's secret fashion fetish is grunge?
LAURA BROWN: So here you are, in Burlington, Mass.
MICHELLE DOCKERY: I am.
LB: You’re shooting Defending Jacob, one of the new series for Apple TV+, with Chris Evans. It’s a thriller?
MD: Yes, and I am physically defending Jacob, my son. This show is based on William Landay’s novel Defending Jacob. It’s a really different genre for me.
LB: Do you have a Boston accent?
MD: I don’t. But I’m hearing a lot of Boston accents, which is a hard accent. I’m glad I don’t have to do one. Lately I seem to be playing Americans all the time.
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LB: Well, you only need to play one English person, and you do that quite well.
MD: It was funny — I’d been so used to playing Americans that when we filmed Downton Abbey [the upcoming movie, out on September 20], I think [my character] Lady Mary started off being a little too posh.
LB: Did you walk in going like [in American accent], “Hey, guys, it’s Mary”?
MD: [laughing, saying in American accent] “Hey, it’s Mary.”
LB: How has it been working with Captain America?
MD: Chris is one of my favorite people. The content of the show is very intense. We are playing the parents of a boy who has been accused of this awful murder of a boy his age in his school. But Chris is a laugh, and we share the same sense of humor, so it’s so brilliant to work with him.
LB: And he has a shield!
MD: And he has a shield.
LB: Did you have to reacclimate to playing Lady Mary? How many years had it been since you left set?
MD: Three years, but it felt like no time had passed at all. [I realized] I’d taken some things for granted. Like driving up to that house [the setting for Downton Abbey], it honestly took my breath away. But I think the three-year gap was perfect, because we’d all been off doing our own thing, and it was enough time to really, really miss it.
LB: How’d you get your “Mary muscle” back?
MD: I had forgotten how still [the characters] are. It’s that thing of going away from a character and coming back to her. There were things that you didn’t realize you were doing at the time, and Mary’s quite still, whereas I’d been playing Letty in Good Behavior, and, you know, she was not still. She was high the whole time. [laughs] For my first Downton fitting I felt quite emotional putting those dresses back on. Some were reused, but because it’s a film, we also dialed it up a notch. We could afford to go slightly grander.
LB: So, tell me everything that happens.
MD: It’s a very intricate tapestry of all these Downton characters — and [the story line] surrounds this one main event, the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary [circa 1927]. Each character has a role to play in this momentous occasion, and mine is at the helm of it.
LB: Damn, Mary better sharpen up her bob.
MD: Yeah, Mary’s bob is really sharp — and she’s got sharp bangs too. She means business. “The king and queen are coming to visit. I know what to do: I’ll get bangs.” [laughs] That wig is just amazing — that hair is really the thing that stands out for 1927.
LB: Have you ever walked around in London just in your regular clothes with the bob?
MD: I’d probably get recognized more if I had the bob on. When Downton was in its height, we were recognized all the time. I actually get recognized more here in the States. Americans have more confidence to come over and say hi, whereas Brits just don’t give a shit, especially in places like London.
LB: What’s your typical overture from a fan?
MD: If it’s Downton they recognize me from, they come across as, like, slightly afraid. Which is the Mary effect, isn’t it? I disarm them by going, “Oh, hi there, love!”
LB: Then you do a chimney-sweep dance.
MD: Yeah! The film is very much a continuation of the show and everything that people loved about it. It really is for our brilliant, loyal fans. Downton played a huge part in shaping me as a person.
LB: You’re in nice shape. [laughs]
MD: Yeah, I’m in nice shape. [laughs] We all went through our ups and our downs over the years, and in some ways the show supported us. Going back every year kept our feet on the ground.
LB: So, is it just a be-all and end-all in one movie?
MD: I mean, we’ll see. As Elizabeth McGovern, who plays my mother, just said, “All doors are left open.”
LB: Let’s talk quickly about grunge. Because we shot you in grunge fashion, for which you have a secret fetish.
MD: I think that may be my favorite shoot of all time. I was in Dr. Martens, which I used to wear. I was a grunger.
LB: How old were you when grunge was around?
MD: I was 13, 14. I was completely obsessed with Alanis Morissette. So when I went to bed, I’d put two braids in and then take them out in the morning so my hair would wave just like hers. I’d wear white shirts and jeans and just want to be her. I was also really into Green Day and Nirvana. My first boyfriend had long, blond hair and looked nothing like Kurt Cobain, but because he had long, blond hair, it was close enough. [laughs] Then I went through a phase when I cut my hair really short. I had a crop. And I feel like that was the beginning of me wanting to be an actress. I was sort of copying people and playing characters.
LB: Grunge made Lady Mary.
MD: I think so. My mom used to make a lot of our clothes when we were growing up, and when I got to that grunge phase, she would make my skirts. That was her way of going, “I’ll make it look pretty and not really horrendous as if you just bought it from Camden Market and it’s dragging on the floor.”
LB: Maybe for the Downton press, you could just go grunge.
MD: Go grunge or go home!
Photos: Robbie Fimmano/Walter Schupfer Management; Styling: Julia von Boehm; Hair: Diego Da Silva/Streeters; Makeup: Rachel Goodwin/Streeters; Manicure: Yuko Wada/Atelier Management; Set design: Todd Wiggins/The Magnet Agency; Production: Sister Productions
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