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.
Violet: Don’t worry – your turn will come.
Edith: Will it? Or am I just to be the maiden aunt? Isn’t this what they do? Arrange presents for their prettier relations?
Violet: Don’t be defeatist dear, it’s very middle class.
Jace: I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
It took six seasons, but in the end, Edith finally found love, an identity, and a sense of purpose.
Edith: It’s so strange. I feel completely, completely happy. I don’t know I’ve ever felt that before.
Cora: But you will now, for a long time to come.
Jace: A bit like Edith, we’ve been waiting for our own stroke of good luck — a chance to catch actor Laura Carmichael in between rehearsals for her new play in London, and speak with her about her portrayal of Lady Edith Crawley.
Now, just in time to say a final farewell to Downton, Laura Carmichael joins us to relive Edith’s remarkable transformation.
Laura: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Jace: Who is more surprised about Lady Edith emerging as the series most modern character, you or the audience?
Laura: I don’t know. It’s been a sort of gradual evolution so I think I’ve watched it happen and it’s sort of been baby steps. So if I was to look back, if we could go back in time and tell me in the first season that she would end up being this modern woman, I definitely would be amazed. I guess it’s crept up on us, that’s how I feel about it.
Jace: Along those lines, what do you make of her trajectory from that sort of Season 1 mean-spirited schemer to the self-assured, independent woman of means that she ends up at the end of the series?
Laura: Well, I guess I view her starting point slightly differently. I think the thing that I loved from the first script that I read was I felt I could see her sort of pain really and that that was a way in. When I read it I thought, “This is someone who’s actually quite vulnerable and she’s sort of acting out.” From that point of view she’s been able to soften, I think, as different things have happened. It’s been this journey that’s been about overcoming the difficult things that even when you have these hard knocks that you keep going and that can make you stronger and more resilient and a sort of more rounded person, which I think is definitely true for Edith.
Jace: In the script for the first episode Edith is introduced thusly, “The upstairs echo of the rivalry among the servants is the relationship between Mary and Edith.” Do you feel that there’s a sense now that the sisters can perhaps finally break out of that dynamic that has been in place since Episode 1?
Laura: I sort of don’t really.
I love that, I think they’re in these grooves that they can’t get out of. I think there’s always going to be this slightly uncomfortable relationship. I think that that’s true of some families. I have to say this with a disclaimer — it’s not true of my own, I do have two sisters who I adore — but I think there are these relationships within families that are just always a little bit uncomfortable.
Jace: One of my all-time favorite Downton Abbey moments is when Edith coolly accepts responsibility for writing to the Turkish ambassador at the end of season 1.
Mary: Is it true you wrote to the Turkish ambassador about Kemal?
Edith: Who told you?
Mary: Someone who knows that you did.
Edith: Then why are you asking?
Mary: Because I wanted to give you one last chance to deny it.
Edith: And what if I did? He had a right to know how his countryman died. In the arms of a slut.
Jace: What do you recall of shooting that scene or reading it in the script for the first time?
Laura: Well, it’s another one where you go, “Well it’s a me and Michelle, juicy moment.” So yeah, we were looking forward to it and there’s always a bit of a feeling going around the set of “It’s that great moment where she gets to be awful to Mary.”
On a side note, I remember that I was wearing this headband that had these beads that drop down past my ears, which were quite tricky because I was doing this sort of dramatic exit and Brian Percival, the director, came over and he was like, “Can you do it again but try really hard not to move your head too much because it looks like you’ve got these dog ears flapping around in this jeweled headband.” It was a very funny day.
Jace: Now in many ways that was a no turning back moment for Edith’s relationship with Mary. Looking back do you see that moment as setting the audience against Edith in any way?
Laura: I think it did, sort of rightly so at that point.
I can remember telling my mom when we started, I said, “The character I’m playing, she’s a bit of a b*tch.” I think she texted me after the first three episodes saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about? She’s just misunderstood.” And then after that episode aired she was like, “No, you’re right. She’s the b*tch.” I think even my mother said that. It did make a different tone to the audience.
Jace: How do you play a character who can be so cruel and manage to keep her likable?
Laura: I don’t know. It’s down to Julian, I think he’s very … he’s so brilliant at writing these characters that are three-dimensional and none of us are saints all the time. For me, as an actor, the thing that’s so exciting about his writing is he’ll show you why, I feel like, you know why they’re being awful. And I think by showing us that, by giving the actors that information and the audience that information, you can see why they make these decisions and sympathize with them, I think.
Jace: What was your audition like for Edith?
Laura: Well I had a few. My first one I met with Jill — Jill Trevellick — who’s our brilliant casting director and I was in her house, and I really thought I was going to be going in for a sort of three line tops part. I had done no television before. I had barely auditioned for any television before. Honestly the only audition I’d had for TV before was for a dying woman. I just had to crawl across an audition room and die. I didn’t get that part either.
It was quite a new experience and I went in thinking, “I’m going to be in and out as a maid and say, ‘Yes, my Lord,’ and bob and go out and that would be the whole scale of the part.” So I was amazed to arrive at the audition and be given these pieces of paper, as it was all top secret at the time, and discover that she was a principal character and an excellent character and one that I immediately thought, “I really want this part and I think I can do it. I really believe this is in my capability.”
That was a surprise and I was delighted to be discovering in the room who was attached to the project: Maggie and Hugh… It all became quite exciting in that initial audition.
Jace: You mentioned Maggie and it’s not every role that comes with Dame Maggie Smith as your grandmother. What was it like working with Dame Maggie?
Laura: It was wonderful. She’s a very special woman and she was incredibly kind to us, particularly us girls. I think her grandkids, we really had a ball with Mags and she was a phenomenal actor, she really is. Every take you are just treated to another lesson of how to do it really. I think that does frighten some people that she has higher standards, but she’s always right, that’s the thing, she always is. Yeah, on a personal level she’s been incredibly kind to us and I feel very, very lucky to call her a friend and to have the many laughs that we’ve had.
Jace: I love that dynamic that has slowly evolved between Edith and Lady Rosamund, who becomes in many ways, Edith’s protector and advisor over the last few seasons.
Rosamund: But the question remains. What is your future? Hanging around Downton, being sniped at by Mary? Charity work? Travelling? Publishing? What?
Edith: Well, that’s the problem. I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Jace: What do you make of the Edith/Rosamund relationship and your time with Samantha Bond?
Laura: I love Sam. I truly do. She’s a dear, dear friend. I love how Julian responds to people working together. The Rosamund/Edith relationship, I think, he really ran with. They were both the kind of outsiders in some way and there’s lots of similarities between them, that they’re these smart women with a London life and yes, just slightly on the edge of everyone’s focus, I think. And I loved that she became this friend and confidante to Edith and yeah, her champion really.
Jace: Never in a million years would I have predicted that the series finale of Downton Abbey would balance on the happiness of Lady Edith Crawley, professional career woman. But by the end of Season 5, it seemed clear that Edith deserved a happy ending. Where do you think that that shift came from?
Laura: I don’t know really. I think you saw Edith go through many, many trials and that she kept going. I think that sort of set her at a very endearing quality, is that despite the many difficult events she was a bit of a fighter, you know, and she kept going and she didn’t feel sorry for herself and she pursued an interesting life.
I think Gregson was a really exciting storyline; I think you really, for the first time, saw Edith in a whole new light, in a London surrounding with sophisticated characters and this exciting man. For me, personally, it felt like I was working almost on a different show.
Edith: It feels so wild. To be out with a man, drinking and dining in a smart London restaurant.
Laura: We were in sort of the London scene, far away from Highclere Castle and Yorkshire Grounds. It was very different and I think that was really fun, really exciting.
Jace: Do you think she’s strengthened ultimately by her career, by motherhood, by age, or by love?
Laura: Well I think all of those things, I do.
I love that the career and the writing gave her such a sense of self and of purpose and that ultimately came out of being jilted, that she gets frustrated that she doesn’t have the right to vote and if she had been married or over 30 she would’ve done. That was what spurred her to write to The Times and that’s the letter that Gregson saw and that’s what got her into the newspaper world.
Edith: The editor of “The Sketch” wants me to write for him. He saw my letter to The Times, and wants to give me a regular column.
Robert: How regular? And what about?
Edith: Once a week, and I can write about whatever I like. It would be the problems faced by a modern woman rather than the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but even so.
Laura: I love that it came out of sort of a romantic tragedy, that she found some strength and that that gave her a new sense of purpose.
I think there’s a lot to be said for all of these young women, these characters; it’s true of Rose, it was true of Sybil, it was true of Mary, that when they had a purpose, a career drive, that they found themselves and I think that’s great.
Jace: After the near misses with Strallan and Michael Gregson, did you ever give up hope that Edith would find a match by the end of the series?
Laura: I guess I sort of dreamt about alternatives. Would she give up men entirely and just focus on work, become a radical lesbian? We all loved that.
Yeah, we would think about and talk about it on the set amongst the cast, but I don’t think any of us predicted the sort of fairytale that he gave her, that it was sort of this final Julian wink to the audience, that of all of them, she ends up with the grandest title, the biggest house and the man who truly knows her and loves her and adores her I think.
Jace: Looking back at the final season, what is your take on Edith and Bertie’s courtship and it’s resolution?
Laura: I love that we see him again in the season, when he runs into Edith and she’s having her mad dash to edit the newspaper.
Bertie: All right, I’ll come with you.
Edith: Come with me where?
Bertie: Back to the office. I can make coffee, I can fetch sandwiches. I can carry bits of paper around.
Laura: I love that because again it feels like a modern romance in this time that we’re set in. He’s interested in her and her brain and who she is and her life, not just her title or what he stands to gain from her in that way.
Jace: What did Harry Hadden-Paton bring to the role of Bertie that just made this dynamic click?
Laura: He’s so great, Harry, he really is. How can I describe it? I just think he has this brilliant ability to be so truthful and so in the moment and to show you in his big brown eyes, just to take you there, show you all the feels, as it were, he’s having.
Jace: I also never thought I’d hear Lady Edith Crawley say the words, “All of the feels.”
Laura: All of the feels. All of the feels.
Jace: Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors.
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Jace: In the penultimate episode I felt so keenly for Edith when Mary very cruelly tells Bertie about Marigold.
Mary: You must’ve told him? You couldn’t accept him without telling him?
Bertie: Tell me what?
Mary: About Marigold. Who she really is.
Edith: Marigold is my daughter.
Jace: From your own perspective, why can’t Mary help herself when it comes to Edith, particularly when Edith’s happiness is actually on the line?
Laura: I think the great thing about that episode that’s running alongside Edith about to get everything that she wants is that Mary’s sort of having a bit of a breakdown. She really is. She’s fallen for someone who she loves very much but is mad into cars and that’s of course how Matthew died so I think she’s frightened on two levels. Frightened of loving again and frightened of losing another man that she loves.
Jace: And I think the fact that “poor, old Edith”is suddenly sort of top trumps here is… and will outrank them all potentially I think is a knife in her back that she can’t handle.
Now their long simmering feud explodes into a verbal brawl in which Edith calls Mary quote “…a nasty, scheming, jealous bitch.”
Laura: Yes. Snap.
Jace: What was it like filming that scene with Michelle given how close the two of you are in real life?
Laura: It was great actually. The great thing about working with Michelle, for me, we’re great friends and we really understand each other and we were aware that day that we were filming a scene that would be a sort of shocking moment in the episode. In fact, my dad had come to set that day to have a look around, and sit at Carson’s desk, and take photos, that sort of thing, and I said, “You have to go before I start filming this scene. It’s too big. I can’t have you here watching it. It’s too much pressure.” So…
Jace: He didn’t sneak back in to watch?
Laura: I don’t think so. I remember he texted me when it was aired over here and said, “Oh, I understand now…why I couldn’t watch.”
Jace: While heartbreaking, one of the most beautiful scenes both in this episode and the series, is Edith and Bertie breaking off their engagement outside the house. What was it like filming this particular scene where Edith and Bertie are trapped by circumstances beyond their control?
Laura: It was a really great scene to shoot and David Evans, who directed that episode, was so smart about it and he spoke to Harry and I beforehand and he was like, “You can’t give away how crushing this is. They’ve got to keep it together and that’s going to break our hearts watching it more.”
That’s the truth of what these characters would do. They weren’t falling on their knees and sobbing and wailing, they were quietly, politely saying, “I should get my train now.” I think you feel all that they’re feeling without them having to say it. It was a sort of– It was a real test of our nerve to not cry and to not let my voice break. You were sort of feeling all of those feelings, as you do when you’re so caught up in shooting something. Trying very hard to suppress it. Yeah so it’s a very sort of “of this time” sort of break-up…terribly English.
Jace: Hindsight might be 20/20, but do you think that Edith would have come clean to Bertie eventually?
Laura: I hope so. I sort of wanted to suggest that. In the excitement of that breakfast scene, Edith actually technically the night before hadn’t said “Yes.”
Bertie: Give me your answer. let me go to Tangiers with the sense that my tomorrows are beginning. Please.
Edith: I love you, Bertie. I’ve been in love before. I won’t pretend that I haven’t. But I really do love you.
Bertie: Then I’ll take that as a yes.
Laura: I think her intention would’ve been to tell him before they got that far, but Mary didn’t let that happen.
Jace: Edith does return for Mary’s wedding and they have a scene where they acknowledge that they’re the ones who will keep the memories of their loved ones alive.
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 this scene and does it mark a major turning point in the Mary/Edith dynamic, do you feel?
Laura: Yeah, it was another very emotional day. It felt– It was scheduled very late on in our filming so it was in the weeks that we were saying goodbye to the show so I think that was playing on my mind as well. Talking about Matthew and Sybil and we were the only people that would remember them, genuinely moved us both to tears. Again, it was another moment for David to say, “Remember. Bring it back and suppress that emotion to get through it as these women would have done.” It was that same Englishness again.
I think it shows Edith’s strength, that even after Bertie breaks if off, that she’s going to carry on and keep going and be the strong woman who she’s turned out to be, even if that means celebrating with your sister who’s just ruined your life essentially. I think it’s a great moment and so beautiful that it comes so close to the end of the season.
Jace: Do you think at that point she realized that she doesn’t need a husband to forge her own happy ending?
Laura: Yeah, I think there is an element to that and I think when you’ve seen how many times you had to live with the idea of being without Marigold and being separated from her child, I think in that moment on that sunny day, she could just watch the children play and feel happy that she has her daughter and a life and a career. I think she’s definitely going to feel that sadness. Weddings always do, in that way; if you go to a wedding and you’re heartbroken I think there’s always a bit of pain there.
Jace: It’s Mary who intervenes and brings Edith and Bertie back together again. What did you make of Edith and Bertie’s dinner at the Ritz and their rather sweet reconciliation?
Laura: It’s a great scene and quite a rare scene for Downton to be three pages long of dialogue, they’re normally so quick. It was our last shot, the last moment that we ever shot on Downton and we shot it at the Ritz in the middle of the night. I think we started at 1:00 AM so by the time they got to my close-up it was about 4:00 AM and as I mentioned three pages of dialogue, I was trying to stay awake and stay focused. But yes, it was a really important scene and beautifully written, beautifully crafted and we wanted to get it right and there was, behind that, this huge emotion for the whole crew and the cast.
Michelle came in in the middle of the night to do the clapperboard and Julian was there. Our exec was there, our executive producer Gareth Neame, he plays the maître d’ who shows us to our seats at the top of the scene. It was special, all of the crew were dressed up to be extras in the restaurant. It was a really unique and exciting moment. We just were trying so hard to get through it without blubbing, you know without crying. But we did and it was a really electric couple of…well many, many hours that we spent on it.
I love that scene for lots of reasons and not just spying all of our crew in the background.
Jace: Did you feel that immense pressure given the fact that this was the final scene of the entire series?
Jace: What was the mood like when the director finally said this was a series wrap?
Laura: It was amazing. I absolutely did feel the pressure. I’d nip out for a cup of tea and seeing more important people arriving to watch these last few frames. It felt like a lot of pressure and I was very emotional. This job has been so important to me, so huge, so life changing. Here I was, the lucky girl who got to see it to the very end in the last shot.
I think as soon as they said, “That’s a wrap,” we all had to a very silent “whoop and cheer” because we didn’t want to wake up the guests at the Ritz with whoops and cheers. But yeah, I think I just dissolved into a puddle of happy tears. It was a really special night.
Jace: Is there an irony in Edith long thought to be on the shelf, suddenly outranking everyone at Downton?
Laura: I think there is, yes. I think Julian’s very aware of that and I think it’s beautifully done. Yeah I mean it was funny for me as an actor, I remember Gareth Neame, our executive producer, saying, “She’s going to get it all Laura. It’s going to be the happy ending to end all happy endings.” It was a real treat for me to play and I think a satisfying way to answer that question, “Will Edith ever be happy?” I think she really, really is.
Jace: Now that the final season has aired, what emotions do you have about the ending of Downton Abbey?
Laura: All the feels, all the feels. I’m so happy. I feel so grateful to have been part of it. I keep looking back and thinking … it was like being at a really, really great school. I had the best teachers, you know the best actors to follow their example. As a young actor that’s not only do you get to make great friends but I think as well, it really gives you the chance to feel very comfortable around them and to really push yourself and feel that you’re sort of protected by people who know you, and love you, and support you, which just sounds all so cheesy but it’s so true. I do love everyone involved in the show.
Yet the fact that audiences responded the way they did was truly incredible. We really didn’t expect it.
Jace: What will you miss most about Lady Edith herself?
Laura: That sort of playing someone with that status and obviously it shifts with Edith. But yeah. Playing someone who’s a Lady and very important is quite funny and is very different for me. I’m very scruffy so there’s something great about being in those scenes, stepping out of the car and someone carrying your bag. It’s a mad world to be part of even if it’s just pretend for a couple of hours. It’s very exciting.
Jace: Finally, who or what will you miss most from the production?
Laura: Hmm. I’ll miss the people, all of the people, all of the cast, and all of the crew. I guess Michelle and I are very, very close and I think getting to hang out all the time will be hard…hard to say goodbye to. She’s in the States, at the moment, working on her show. I hope we find, at some stage, something that will mean we can act together again because it’s a real laugh.
Jace: Laura Carmichael, over the last six seasons you have given me all of the feels.
Laura: Thank you very much.
Jace: Thank you so much for joining us.
Laura: That’s great. Thank you.
Jace: We want to say, “Thank you” to Laura and every member of the Downton cast and crew who shared their time and memories with us this final season. And we want to thank every one of you for listening to the podcast.
For Downton Abbey at least, it’s time to say goodbye.
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