Portrait of a Lady: Get To Know Michelle Dockery


Glacial and gutsy, the character of Lady Mary Crawley in the screen adaptation of Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey polarised public opinion, a testament to Michelle Dockery’s acting ability, reflected in the three Emmys and Golden Globe nominations she received for the role. Looking back at the series she reflects, “We all felt we were part of something special, but you just never know. The response surpassed anything we ever imagined.” Like the general public, she hopes the proposed film adaptation (in talks at NBC Universal) comes to fruition in spite of the translatlantic schedules of the original cast.

As well as the romantic predicaments, sibling rivalry, twists in plotline and a stellar cast line-up, the costumes and scenery were all part of the show’s appeal. When we speak, Dockery has just come back from New York where Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is currently on display (until April 2). “I never tired of those costumes. It was very nostalgic seeing them all at the exhibition.” It’s not a stretch to think that the current vogue for Art Deco and bob hairstyles can be traced to Downton’s reach and influence. Dockery reveals, “The timing of the bob was funny – I actually had my own hair cut into a bob after Series 3, but Mary wasn’t quite ready for a bob in Season 4, so we had to use extensions, which were a pain. Then I started to grow out my own bob for Series 5 and then Julian wrote that Mary gets a bob so I wore a wig!” Such are the tribulations of a character actress, but Dockery’s flawless Celtic complexion (her father is Irish), aristocratic mien and model-like figure made her uniquely suited the role.

She is currently on stage at The National, London playing what has been described as the “hard-nosed workaholic” Diana in the much-acclaimed, and some would say, prescient drama that is Network (until March 24). Directed by Ivo Van Hove, it describes a news anchor’s meltdown on air. Diana, meanwhile, is part of a romantic subplot – part male fantasy, part ice maiden. If that sounds rather like Lady Mary, Dockery tells me by way of explanation, she is drawn to complex characters which often develop as the role unfolds. “You don’t always have the luxury of time to prepare. But often a character develops as you are doing it. It’s never set in stone. It starts with the text, and where the words are coming from emotionally, and I just go from there. I will often find a hook within the text. Music also helps. I always create playlists for the characters I’m playing to listen to on my way to work or while I’m waiting on set.”

Given the diversity of her roles over the last year, it’s safe to say her playlist is quite eclectic. Prior to Network, the Netflix series Godless (co-produced by Steven Soderbergh and Scott Frank) sees her play the gun-toting Alice Fletcher in a very physical role. Filmed in New Mexico, the series is described as “a feminist Western.” Dockery describes her character as a “hardened widow and outcast” while the preparation for the role “was a lot of fun. We had shooting and horse riding training before filming, and it was amazing to work with the wranglers, some of whom actually appear in Godless.” Then there is the character of Letty Raines in the American television drama Good Behaviour. Letty flips burgers, cleans toilets and has a dodgy gangster boyfriend in an updated Bonnie and Clyde storyline. “As a con artist I get to play such a variety of personalities within the role, but it’s her complexity I am drawn to – her flaws. She is extraordinary.” Completing the quartet of roles Dockery has perfected in the last two years is that of Susie Webster in The Sense of An Ending – the film adaptation of Julian Barnes’ novel. It seems the most realistic role in many senses and I ask if the character has an affinity to the real Dockery. “Yes, for the simple fact that our accents are so similar. I’m lately playing roles that are entirely different accent to my own. The role of Susie is the first in a long time that was closest to the way I speak. It was such a beautiful film and I loved working with [director] Ritesh Batra and Jim Broadbent.” Other actors she has worked with recently include Liam Neeson (in Non-Stop) and Ryan Reynolds (in Self/less). The number of roles she has played in the last year is testament to her prolific work ethic and ease working between the mediums of stage and screen. Dockery trained at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, is a professional singer and has collected many awards prior to Downton for her stage and small screen acting.

Her fashion credentials are definitely A-list. Last year she collaborated with Aspinal of London on The Dockery Collection – the original inspiration for which was a vintage bag owned by Dockery’s grandmother. “I wanted the collection to be authentic and traditional, but with a modern twist,” Dockery says of the classic top-handled Dockery and Dockery Snap bags and elegant scarves. “Working with creative director Mariya Dykalo has been amazing and the collection is something I’m very proud of.” As for her flawless red carpet appearances, she credits stylist Micaela Erlanger (who also works with Lupita Nyong’o, Meryl Streep and Hillary Swank). Says Dockery, “She really encourages me to push the boat out a bit and have fun with different looks. She is always introducing me to new designers. I am far more interested in fashion now because of her.” Those who follow Dockery on Instagram will see the stylish polaroids of her fashion edits. She explains the selection process. “Micaela will show me a selection of all her favourites and then we go from there. Sometimes it’s the first one I try on, sometimes it’s the tenth. I like the element of surprise and try not to be too predictable. One of my favourites was the multi-coloured striped Elie Saab gown I wore to the Screen Actor’s Guild awards last year but it really comes down to feeling comfortable.” Off duty, Dockery says her preferences are for Cos, Whistles and Maje but she is always keen to find a bargain in TK Maxx. “I’ve been going to the one in Romford with my mum for years. I found a beautiful Michael Kors coat for her at Christmas.” Indeed she is one of several well-known stars including Dame Helen Mirren, Laura Whitmore and Nadine Coyle, who are partnering with TK Maxx to support its annual Give Up Clothes for Good Campaign. Dockery definitely walks the talk. “I think it’s important to recycle and not buy everything new. It’s also fun to find something unique, a one-off which is what TK Maxx is all about. Every January I have a clearout of books and clothes for charity.”

As for the future, surprisingly, she would definitely like a crack at musicals either on stage or film, “I was obsessed with Disney musicals growing up.” Returning to Dockery’s most iconic role, she admits she loved “Lady Mary’s complexity. You never quite knew what she was going to do say next. I loved her unpredictability”. The same could be said of Dockery’s career. I look forward to the next instalment.

Give Up Clothes for Good launches in TK Maxx this month. To take part, donate unwanted clothes, accessories and homeware items to any TK Maxx store. Each bag could be worth up to 20 for Enable Ireland. www.tkmaxx.ie.

Penny McCormick

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