Jace Lacob: MASTERPIECE Studio wants you to know that Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is currently making its US debut in New York City. You’ll see Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, 50 extraordinary costumes, and so much more.
Tickets are available for purchase at www.downtonexhibition.com. The exhibition runs through September 3, 2018.
I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio, Uncut.
In this episode, we’re featuring our extended conversation with Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, the Crawley family’s eldest daughter.
This conversation was originally recorded in December, 2015.
We’ve released most of this interview already, in two different parts on our podcast. But, we also want to share it with you here, in one place.
Jace: And this week we are joined by Michelle Dockery. Welcome.
Michelle Dockery (Michelle): Hi.
Jace: Now I wanna, I wanna talk very briefly about the evolution of Mary Crawley. In the script for the first episode, she’s simply just described as, quote, “The family’s great beauty.” She changes significantly over the course of six seasons. What do you make of her transformation?
Michelle: She’s very much a brat in the first series, or at least those first few episodes. And it goes so much deeper than that. She’s been through so much in her life, you know, and she’s matured as a person, and yeah, I feel she’s really grown up. And at the same time, I’ve done the same. I’ve matured at the same time.
Jace: What did you think when you got those initial scripts for season one?
Michelle: There was certainly a buzz about it. Immediately I wanted to play the character. I just thought, “I can do it. I know I can do this.” You sort of have– It was like an instant love for the script and the character. And but I never thought– I thought, “It’s never gonna be me.”
And I went in and I did my scenes, And then I came out of the room and Dan Stevens was sat in the waiting area. And we had just done an adaptation of Turn of Screwtogether or just a few months before. And I was like, “Dan!” And he said, “How are you doing?” He said, “You up for Mary?” I said, “Yeah.” I was like, “Matthew?” He was like, “Yeah.” And I thought, “Oh that could work.” I just had a feeling like…cause we’d just worked together. And I looked at him, and it’s like I knew in some way.
And then I got it and it was just I knew it was– I knew it would be life changing but not on any level like this.
Jace: I had read that you considered leaving the show after season three as well.
Michelle: I did, and I really did. I was not gonna do it. I just thought, “No, three and I’m done, and that’s what I signed up for.” And it was a very personal decision. I didn’t really talk to anyone about it too much. I thought hard about it, and then actually, I had a conversation with one of our producers. And I walked away and I thought, “I’m not sure I could sit and watch the show, know it’s still going on and not be part of it.” And God, it’s the best decision I ever made. I just don’t– To not experience the last three years– I mean, I’m not a person– I never have any regrets. I don’t really believe in regrets…
Jace: But at the same time, the last three seasons have been incredibly strong for your character.
Michelle: Yeah, yeah.
Jace: You’ve had a lot to do.
Jace: Now, in episode one, Mary is surprised by how Robert handles blackmailer Rita Bevan, giving her 50 quid to just go away under the threat of prosecution, and his reaction isn’t actually one of anger, but pride in Mary.
Mary: You’re still out of pocket 50 quid. I must repay it.
Robert: No need. It was money well spent.
Robert: To learn that my eldest child is a child no more and quite tough enough to run this estate. Indeed, she could clearly run the kingdom should she be called upon to do so.
Jace: Does this mark the beginning of a real shift in their dynamic?
Michelle: Definitely. And I wasn’t surprised when I read that because I thought this is something that in some ways was quite similar with the Pamuk scandal, and that was a slightly different revelation, you know, when he found out and he was at first very angry towards Mary. And then it was more about her being vulnerable and, you know, she was still very young then, whereas this time, it’s different. And as you say, he’s very proud of her and the way she’s running things and how she’s grown.
And I guess he has, in some sense, an understanding of her actions. You know, Mary’s been through a lot in her life and at quite a young age, and I think that he, deep down, he knows that she’s just trying to figure it out and, She doesn’t really know who she is half the time and what she’s saying, and I think… She doesn’t like herself very much. You know, she’s quite hard on herself. And this series particularly is about… it’s not just about her finding the next love, you know, it’s about learning to love herself.
Jace: Wow. It’s like a psychoanalytic season of Downton.
Michelle: …learning to love myself. Yeah, yeah.
Jace: She’s one of the few characters that can toss off a line like “You’re not the first person to blackmail me” with such ice that your blood sort of runs cold, but she’s also an incredibly vulnerable person. How do you play a character that can be so icy and cruel but also likeable?
Michelle: That’s the brilliance of Julian’s writing and, you know, having a character, a female character, that is so complex was just so rewarding to play. You know, one minute, Mary is vulnerable and sweet, and then she, you know, in a second, she can turn cold and icy. She’s strong, she can be a coward, but complicated. I love that. Her vulnerability I think comes from her just not always knowing who she is or what to do or…
And seeing those moments with Anna have always been… they’ve often been my favorite scenes to play because it’s Mary when she’s at her most honest, because with Anna, she feels very safe.
She can actually be, you know, quite… not vicious with Anna, but she can kind of have a strop and then apologize. But she knows she’s forgiven, all is forgiven with Anna. And I love that relationship, that Anna really understands her and she won’t have anyone say a bad word about her. And it works both ways with the two of them.
Jace: Ladies and their lady’s maids.
Michelle: Yeah, yeah.
Jace: So we’re going to jump ahead to episode eight… Mary is just so terrible in this episode.
Michelle: Off the rails.
Jace: One of the most shocking moments in this week’s episode is when Mary very cruelly tells Bertie about Marigold. Why can’t she help herself when it comes to Edith?
Michelle: Well, in the previous episode, the whole tragedy has happened with Charlie and she…at some point she thought it might be Henry. And of course it brings back– the car crash brings back all those memories and it’s almost like a kind of second grief that happened. She just can’t– She can’t handle it. And so what happens is she just takes it out on her sister which, is often what she does. But this time it’s more– I don’t think in the past she’s ever been jealous of Edith. Mary’s always felt like top-dog and always been one step ahead of Edith. And then of course this happens and she becomes potentially this great lady and out ranks us all. And Mary can’t bear that.
Tom: So we’ll all bow and curtsy to Edith. You’ll enjoy that, Mary.
Mary: Hardly. If Bertie really is Lord Hexham, which I still don’t believe, he won’t want to marry her now.
Michelle: But it comes from just her not being happy in herself because actually I don’t think Mary does want that life. I mean eventually that’s why she marries Henry ‘cause she is wild at heart. She’s a free spirit actually.
But it was just– When we read it, me and Laura, we just– I remember texting her going, “Oh, my God. We’re gonna have such a good time.” Cause we love it when Julian write these great scenes between the sisters. It’s one of the core relationships in the show. I think particularly that scene at the breakfast table with Bertie when Mary lashes out at Edith…
Edith: The one thing Mary can’t bear is when things are going better for me than for her.
Bertie: I’m sure that’s not true.
Edith: You don’t know her… I’m getting married and you’ve lost your man. And you just can’t stand it.
Tom: Edith, there is no need for-
Mary: You’re wrong. I’m very happy for you. And I admire you, Bertie. Not everyone would accept Edith’s past.
Michelle: …I think it’s a great scene. But she does—Edith does provoke it. You know it’s not just one sided…
Jace: I’d expect you to take Mary’s side.
Michelle: I mean– and not because I’m making excuses for her — but there is this — so complicated — this sibling rivalry and just how well they know one another and you know I have sisters and I’ve never had that kind of relationship with my sisters. I mean we’re like best friends…
Jace: You’ve never sent a letter to a Turkish ambassador?
Michelle: No. So it’s something I guess I don’t understand personally. But of course as siblings you annoy each other and you– because you know which buttons to press. And I love it that Edith has kind of has grown…her confidence has grown so much and she’s become…she’s blossomed. And Mary just can’t stand it. I guess she never really believes that it would be possible.
Jace: Now I loved the fact that it does become sort of a full out verbal brawl in this episode between the two of them. And Edith actually calls Mary quote, “Nasty, scheming, jealous bitch.”
Michelle: Twice. She calls me a bitch twice.
Jace: I mean did you and Laura sort of have a laugh when you actually got that on paper?
Michelle: Yeah! And I’m sure audiences out there applauded that she said it cause she has it– She had it coming. I mean it was just such a great scene and we both loved doing it.
But it was very emotional. Laura and I have– She’s one of my closest friends and we grew up together on this show. I was 27 when I started the show and you spend so much time with one another. You become so close. And we knew that these would be our last scenes together and it was just really emotional. It was amazing actually.
Jace: I love that. The other scene, of course, that is as equally sort of gut-wrenching is in this episode when Tom finally puts his foot down with Mary after she sort of lashing out at everyone because he’s really the only one that can call her out for her bad behavior.
Tom: You ruined Edith’s life today. How many lives are you going to wreck just to smother your own misery?
Mary: I refuse to listen.
Tom: You’re a coward, Mary. Like all bullies, you’re a coward.
Jace: Is Tom right to sort of use those words to describe her?
Michelle: Yes. And she needs to hear it.
I think he knows her very well by now. He’s like a– I mean he’s her brother essentially. So I think coming from him is…it really hits home. And eventually of course it’s Violet who really turns the tables.
Violet: I believe in love. Brilliant careers, rich lives, are seldom lived without just an element of love.
Jace: I never expected the Dowager Countess to say something like, “I believe in love.” And it is Violet that ultimately is the one who’s able to get through to Mary. How do you see their relationship as sort of reaching a culmination in this episode?
Michelle: Well, I think Mary is very much her grandmother’s granddaughter. They’re very similar and she relates to her on a different level I think to her mother and father. And I– They’ve always been some of my favorite scenes to play with Maggie and I’m always– I still pinch myself.
And every time it’s like an acting lesson with her and Penelope. It’s just– You learn so much just by watching them. But I’m kind of— Sometimes I’m like, “I’m done. I’ve acted with Maggie Smith.” It doesn’t get much better than that.
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Jace: You mentioned Penelope Wilton. One of my favorite scenes I think in the entire series is when Mary and Isobel come face to face after Mary has visited Matthew’s grave.
Isobel: Well I don’t know if you have his forgiveness, but you don’t need to ask for mine. I’m delighted.
Jace: What was it like shooting that scene?
Michelle: Well, that– Originally I don’t think that scene was in that draft of episode eight. And it was something I think Julian and the producers talked about and it was added.
And Isobel and Mary, they interact within group scenes but they never have moments just the two of them or rarely they do. It’s another very moving scene and such a lovely moment to play with Penelope.
Jace: The Mary/Matthew romance was so central for so many seasons, and it could have been problematic had Julian just thrown Mary together with another guy. I mean, do you think it was wise to sort of delay this inevitable romance?
Michelle: I think so. Well, I think so because the world was mourning the loss of Matthew Crawley and Dan Stevens, so I think there had to be a bit of time. And with that story, I mean sometimes people say, “What would it have been like if Dan had decided to stay on the show?” In many ways, it actually did the show a lot of good, I think. As much as he was a loss to the show, you know, I’m not sure where it would have gone. I mean, they would have gone on to be happily married and have more children, but there would never have been the storylines that I had had he not have gone. I mean, I– It was great for me, you know, to play all of those, you know, that emotion and something that I really wasn’t expecting.
Jace: Now Mary and Henry actually finally do get married in this episode. What is it about Henry Talbot do you think that– in which Mary has finally met her match?
Michelle: Well I think he ticks all of the boxes or most of the boxes and she’s in complete denial of that. And I think she enjoys the rebel in him. She recognizes that in him and I guess because she’s like that herself. She’s a rebel at heart.
And he knows her quite well very quickly and he gets her. And of course she doesn’t like being called a gold digger and you know he’s really quite harsh on her…
Jace: She’s concerned that he’s going to be outranked by his own step son. She comes up with a lot of excuses. I mean that they are married what happens in terms of their relationship? Where do we go from here?
Michelle: I like to see them– You know me and Matthew think that they should just have a really fun life. You know, Mary’s been quite– In a way she’s been a bit of a recluse. She hasn’t really left the home much. And I see them sort of traveling with George and going to see Grandmama in New York, going to visit Shirley.
Jace: That’s the spin off.
Michelle: I think that could be a great idea for a film actually, if we came here. Just putting that out there Julian.
Jace: There’s that beautiful reconciliation scene between Mary and Edith on Mary’s wedding day…
Edith: …because in the end you’re my sister and one day only we will remember Sybil or Mama or Papa or Matthew or Michael or Granny or Carson or any of the others who have peopled our youth, until at last our shared memories will mean more than our mutual dislike.
Jace: What was it like shooting that scene with Laura Carmichael having this be the culmination to their struggle?
Michelle: There were such strong parallels in that dialogue– That Laura and I have this closeness and I guess memories that we will only share. You know, having spent so much time together on and off set. When she was saying those words there was a double meaning to it. So it was really– I was really tearful when she was saying that speech.
And what I love about that scene is– I was watching it with my sister and as Edith walks in and Mary tells everyone to leave. My sister went, “Come on Mary.” She just sort of said it out loud, “Come on Mary” as if to say, “Come on you need to be the bigger person and apologize to your sister.” And what’s interesting is it’s Edith who takes the reins and she actually, I think it turns out, that she’s possibly the stronger one in many ways. And I love that that Edith actually becomes the adult in the room.
Jace: I love it. That made me very upset.
Michelle: Me too and I wasn’t expecting it when I watched it. And it’s so…Yeah. That was one of the scenes that I was crying at when I was watching it. And as I say because it had that double meaning.
Jace: Also in this episode Mary visits Thomas after his suicide attempt and Thomas says quote, “I’ve done and said things. I don’t know why. I can’t stop myself, and now I’m paying the price…”
Michelle: And she understands him.
Jace: …Is that Mary?
Michelle: Of course it is. And I love that relationship, Barrow and Mary and in some ways that there had been more interaction between them.
She understands him. She understands his actions and his meanness and his meddling because it comes from a place of discontent and unhappiness at times. And I think it really– It goes very deep with Mary when she hears about his attempted suicide because I think there’ve been moments with Mary where she’s possibly, you know, maybe not considered going that far. But she’s been so down that she thinks, “I just don’t want to go on anymore.” And so yeah certainly there’s something about Thomas that she really connects with.
It’s like the kind of mirror. It’s like a mirror in some ways. And that’s the show essentially, isn’t it? It’s those interweaving storylines between above and below stairs and those– when those relationships come together… My last scene was with Phyllis, Jim, and Hugh downstairs. That was my last scene. And it was something really poignant about that I was finishing Downton and I was actually in Carson’s office as opposed to my bedroom with another suitor.
Jace: Hopefully not another suitor now that you’re married.
Michelle: No, no.
Jace: But I love that notion that Mary is sort of downstairs; that that’s the final scene for you.
Michelle: That was my final scene. I mean it’s not the final scene in the show but yeah that was the last take for me. And actually my first scene was with Hugh in series one. And it was his last scene as well with Carson and Mrs. Hughes. So it was really poignant for us ‘cause we were finishing on the same day…
Jace: I mean when they say, “That’s a wrap for Michelle Dockery” what goes through your head?
Michelle: I felt sick, physically sick.
Jace: It was weird and I didn’t expect to feel that way. I thought I’d feel emotional and I was. I was feeling all these things. But it was weird. It was like– and I kind of knew. You know it’s coming and Gareth Neame, our executive producer, he’d been on wrap for each character. He’d been giving a small speech. And I kind of knew that was coming as well and I– that also I was like, “Oh, no. I’m gonna be the center of attention.” It’s a weird feeling. And I just can’t quite believe it that it was all coming to an end.
Jace: Was it hard to leave Highclere? I’ve read that you had a difficult time leaving the set.
Michelle: I didn’t think I would. Because you work– We’ve been working there day in day out for six months, and I thought I could walk away quite easily from Highclere. And Laura had finished early that day and she waited around to the wrap at seven o’clock and til we finished. And we sort of didn’t know what to do and it was like, “This is really weird. Isn’t it Laura?” And then she was like, “It’s really weird.” And then all our eyes filled up. And I was like, “Oh my God. We’re done. That’s it.” And she went, “Come on let’s walk around the rooms.”
We held hands and we walked through the dining room together. We walked into the hall through the library, into the drawing room, the painted room and we were just in floods of tears. We couldn’t believe it. And then we walked out onto the grounds to Matthew’s, I call it Matthew’s bench cause it’s all those scenes with Matthew and Mary in those early years, and we went and sat on the bench and looked out at the view, and we were just crying our eyes out.
And she said to me, “It just doesn’t seem fair. Some people don’t experience this much joy in a lifetime. What we’ve had in six years.” And it really will stay with me her saying that. I think she just hit the nail in the head. Like it’s just been the most glorious time and we never, never would have imagined that it would’ve become this huge huge thing.
Jace: How do you cope with being on a global phenomenon?
Michelle: I found it quite overwhelming at first. It was pretty quick. It was– I mean even after the first episode aired the following week, I walked into a new agent’s where I lived at the time, you know just to get a pint of milk in the morning. And three newspapers us girl, the three sisters, were on the cover of each newspaper on the front page and, you know, I took a picture of the three papers. Like I couldn’t believe it. I’d only gone to get a pint of milk.
So that was you know exciting and amazing. But then of course you begin to get recognized and then all of the publicity and you know interviews and things. That was something I really had to get used to.
And I used to get really upset. I’d walk away going, “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that.” And, “Why did I say that?” And tearing my hair out because I was just wasn’t used it and I didn’t really understand that side of it. So that was something I really had to learn.
Jace: Where was the strangest place that you were ever recognized?
Michelle: I was in Jordan a couple of years ago. And I was in this gift shop. And someone came over to me and gave me this souvenir and said, “We’d like you to take this.” And I was like, “It’s really nice. They’re giving out these free gifts.” And he said, “I love the show. I absolutely love the show.” And it was the last place I thought I’d be recognized. But yeah it’s strange.
I mean and often it’s people you don’t expect like cab drivers. Like, “Oh, hello Mary.” You get in the cab and they’re like, “Me and my wife love that show. God you’re awful to your sister.” You know these big grown burly men who are getting emotional about the show. Sometimes it’s the people you don’t expect to love it. So yeah in some ways I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it.
Jace: Do you have a favorite Mary moment, and do you have a favorite behind-the-scenes moment?
Michelle: One of my favorite Mary moments is the train station scene in series two with Dan.
Matthew: Mary, if I don’t come back…
Matthew: No, if I don’t. Then do remember how very glad I am that we made up when we had the chance. I mean it. You send me off to war a happy man.
Michelle: I loved playing it and I also loved watching it. I thought it was a lovely scene.
Behind-the-scenes moment, God, there’s so many. Me and, me and Laura, sometimes they would like…there would be mistakes in bookings, hotel bookings, and they would overbook, and so me and Laura would sometimes share a room. This…You’re like, “Where’s this going?”
There was this one night where we were all… we used to sit in this kind of private room, but sometimes, you know, people would walk through, and occasionally they’d recognize us. And there was this party of, like, you know, fifteen guys who were staying in the hotel. They were obviously on some sort of conference or something, I don’t know. And they walked through and they recognized us.
And then that night, me and Laura were trying to sleep, and we were up early, filming at 6:00 or whatever. And we started hearing this like… (muffled shouting) this party going on underneath us. And I was like, “I just can’t,” and I hate being woken up — bear with a sore head. And I said, “Right, I’m going down there.” And Laura was like, “No, don’t, don’t. You know, it’ll make it worse. We’ll just put earplugs in and try to go to sleep.” I said, “No, I’m gonna do it.” I went down and I knocked on the door, and he opened the door, and it was like I switched into Mary-mode. I said, “My friend and I are above you and we can hear every word you’re saying. Can you please keep it down?” That’s how Laura said it sounded. I came back up and she said, “Michelle, that’s hilarious.” She said, “You turned into Mary.” And of course, they slammed the door and were much quieter. And then she looked at me and she went, “Oh my God, look at the state of you.” Of course I’d been asleep. My hair was all standing on end and I had this Pink Floyd t-shirt on and just a pair of knickers.
So can you imagine what– He must’ve just gone, “I’ve just seen Lady Mary in a rock t-shirt and pants.”
So yeah, that’s one of my favorites. I mean, but there’ve been so many, just such joyous times we’ve all had as a cast.
Jace: What will you miss most about playing Lady Mary?
Michelle: I just miss her. I do, I love her as a character, and I, um…I guess she’ll be part of me really forever, and I know that of course, that’s the character that, you know, essentially, it started my career and yeah. I think it’s something that should always stay with me.
Jace: MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
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