British actress Michelle Dockery, who receives the Variety Icon Award at TV drama festival Canneseries in Cannes, Southern France on Saturday, spoke at a masterclass earlier in the day about her career and roles in TV series like “Downton Abbey,” “Good Behavior” and “Godless.”
Dockery said that even when she was a child she was a performer – impersonating politicians and other famous people for her parents’ amusement. Her training at Guildhall drama school gave her a classical training best suited to a career on the stage. It also ingrained in her the idea that she should see herself as part of an ensemble, she said.
When she was “stressing out” about whether she was “intelligent” or “educated” enough to be an actor she was reassured by her acting teacher that acting is “more about instincts and intuition than anything – it doesn’t matter how many books you have read or how much you have researched the character – it all comes from within,” Dockery said. Young actors need “patience” while they wait for auditions, and “they should not expect anything,” she said, but should “have as much fun with it as possible and not take it all too seriously.”
Early in Dockery’s career, Lesley Manville, who was Oscar nominated this year for “Phantom Thread,” was a mentor for her, advising on such decisions as the choice of agent and other issues regarding life in the industry. Dockery appeared in several relatively low-profile TV parts before “Downton Abbey,” starting with 2005 costume drama “Fingersmith.” “I remember having absolutely no idea what I was doing on set,” she said. Speaking about the actor’s place within a TV production, she said: “You have to do what you are told. [‘Downton Abbey’] ran like a machine.”
When the opportunity arose to audition for the role of Lady Mary Crawley in “Downton Abbey,” Dockery videoed herself practising the lines from the script she’d been sent, and she still has those videos. There was a “buzz” around the series within Britain’s acting community, so she knew competition would be intense. “I thought they would give it to someone with more experience,” she said. But when she met Dan Stevens, with whom she had recently acting alongside, as he waited to audition for the role of her beau and husband to be, Matthew Crawley, she recalled thinking: “Yes, that could work.”
The initial contract for “Downton Abbey” was for three years, but she had no hesitation in taking on that commitment. Initially she took inspiration for the role of Lady Mary from Kristin Scott Thomas’ character in “Gosford Park,” she said, but as time went by Lady Mary became “far more vulnerable, far more complicated.” “The more complex it became the more I loved it,” she said. “I loved it when her guard dropped during scenes with [her lady’s maid] Anna [played by Joanne Froggatt].”
However, she conceded that Lady Mary is “one of those character who you love more when she has a sting in her tail.” Regarding Lady Mary’s relationship with her sister, Edith, played by Laura Carmichael, she said that “if the characters weren’t fighting it was boring … it was boring when they were nice to each other.”
However, she loves Carmichael, and when the series was coming to an end and the sisters engaged in a climatic clash where Edith called Mary a “bitch” Dockery actually wanted “to cry and hug her.”
Dockery described her character in “Good Behavior,” Letty Raines, a thief and con artist with a nasty drug habit, as another “brilliantly complex” woman, as is her character in “Godless,” Alice Fletcher. “I feel lucky to have played such fascinating and real characters,” she said. Letty was a particularly challenging role as she has multiple personalities, each with their own wigs, which Dockery said were given their own names – the blonde one, for example, is called Britney, for obvious reasons. “She struggles with who she is. These identities are a way of getting what she needs,” Dockery said. Playing in an American drama was “a bit of dream” for Dockery, who had grown up watching U.S. movies and series, and was “such a different experience” compared with British drama.
From North Carolina, where “Good Behavior” was shot, Dockery moved to New Mexico to film Western “Godless.” She described Scott Frank’s series for Netflix as “the most exciting, most powerful, incredible thing I have ever worked on.” When she was sent the script she said she was “blown away by the story.” “I don’t think I took a breath [while reading it],” she said. Television series like this offer roles that have “far more developed characters,” she said, than those available a decade ago. “There was this strength to Alice that I loved.”
The part presented challenges, such as the need to ride a horse cowboy-style, in contrast with the more lady-like way seen in “Downton Abbey,” and to shoot a gun, which she’d never done before. She said she found the guns very heavy and had to develop the muscles in her arms to wield her weapons effortlessly. After the audience watched a clip from “Godless” in which the women band together “to fight off the bad guys,” Dockery said: “It’s what is so unusual about ‘Godless’ – it is a Western with these incredibly brilliant female roles that we are not used to seeing in a Western – it has turned the genre on its head.”
“I feel very fortunate to be among this surge of great roles that are being written for women, and we are seeing – particularly in television – fewer and fewer stereotypes, and real women. I have been very lucky to play those three [roles] – they are so different but what they have in common is this truth of the way women actually are and a complexity that I am always drawn to,” she said.
Next, she plans to take a career break. “I am actually looking forward to having a little bit of time out, and so who knows what is next, and that’s what’s so exciting about what I do,” she said.
Whether her future commitments may include a “Downton Abbey” movie has yet to be revealed, and was not addressed in the masterclass, which was moderated by Le Figaro’s Constance Jamet at Cannes’ Miramar Hotel.