Michelle Dockery thinks “an icon is a funny thing to be called.” Yet, that is exactly what she is, receiving the first-ever award from Variety to be presented at international TV celebration Canneseries at a MIPTV gala April 7.
But even in the early prime of what promises to be a long and fruitful career, the British actress has recently delivered a enviable string of indelible television performances — as “Downton Abbey’s” mercurial Lady Mary, “Good Behavior’s” reforming bad girl Letty Raines and “Godless’” hardened frontierswoman Alice Fletcher. She is now appearing in Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” at London’s National Theatre.
“I’m very honored and flattered to receive it,” Dockery says of the award. “If I can encourage young actors out there, like other actors did for me when I was younger, then I’m very proud to accept that.”
Dockery welcomes the opportunity to serve as a professional role model, including as an occasional hands-on mentor to up-and-comers with whom she works, after having received similar assists from her own idols when she was starting out.
“I get a call every now and then saying, ‘Michelle, can you give me advice on which agent I should sign with? What publicity should I do for this?’” she says. “Lesley Manville was a big influence for me, and we did a play together when I was very young. I used to call Lesley for advice [and] now I’m getting young actresses calling me. It’s a wonderful feeling to be in that position and support other young actors.”
Dockery admits she was surprised to so quickly find another television character even remotely as juicy as her breakout role in “Downton Abbey,” let alone two.
“I thought it would take a little bit more time for the dust to settle after ‘Downton.’ And then midway through ‘Good Behavior,’ ‘Godless’ came along. It was unexpected to do three shows in a row like that. But it’s been just wonderful to play such different roles, and to have the opportunity to be versatile within such a short space of time — two years, really!”
She knew “Downton” would be a personal game-changer from the moment she landed the part.
“When I got that role, I remember exactly where I was at the time — it was one of those moments that I will never forget. I went into that audition just going, ‘I’ll see what happens, but I’m pretty sure this is going to go to somebody much more well-known and experienced.’ Although I felt like it was mine, I had equally the same amount of doubt that I wouldn’t get it. So when I got it, I could even feel it then.”
Buzz was high for “Downton” before it even aired, but Dockery still couldn’t envision the magnitude of its impact on her life.
“That first season when it took off in the U.K., I walked into a newsagent’s to pick up a pint of milk on the Sunday after it aired, and suddenly, there we were on the front covers of newspapers,” she recalls. “I never dreamed it would be as huge a success as that. Then of course, once America fell for the show, it became even bigger, and then suddenly we were flying all over for the Emmys and all sorts. It was life-changing.”
Her subsequent series proved that she wouldn’t constantly be asked to deliver variations on Lady Mary.
“Often I get asked, after ‘Downton,’ am I typecast? And actually, I haven’t had that issue. I’m really glad that the roles that I have done since have been very different.”
Both “Good Behavior” and “Godless” also allowed her to experience extended stays abroad. “I was living in America, really, for almost two years, so that was a real change for me, but a welcome change,” she said of shooting the former in North Carolina and the latter in New Mexico. “I saw a lot of America the last two years, which was a lot of fun and a great experience for me, but I missed my bacon and my English breakfasts and roast dinners and London pubs, so I was very happy to get home after a while.”
Along the way Dockery has been gratified to be able to harness her public profile in the service of good causes, including Stand Up 2 Cancer, a charity she calls close to her heart.
“If you have a voice and a platform, then you should use it,” she says. “It’s a wonderful position to be in. If you can make a difference and encourage people, to give support where it’s needed, I feel it’s part of my job.”
While she, like the rest of the world, awaits formal news of a possible “Downton” reunion project (“The further away we get from each other as a cast, the more we want to get together and see each other again,” she says), she is also planning to “throw [herself] into things that scare [her].”
“I like a challenge, so that’s what I will continue to do,” she says.