You could argue that Lady Mary Crawley has had one of the more transformative character arcs on “Downton Abbey.”
Even the actor who plays her, Michelle Dockery, acknowledges that Mary, the eldest daughter of the fictional Lord and Lady Grantham, was quite a snob when the TV series began (in 2010 in Britain and 2011 in North America).
“When I first read for the role, ‘Gosford Park’ was of course a perfect reference,” Dockery said in a Zoom interview, citing the Oscar-winning movie featuring a houseful of aristocrats and servants that Julian Fellowes wrote years before he created “Downton.”
“Kristin Scott Thomas’s character (the haughty Lady Sylvia) was sort of how I saw Mary … in those first few episodes, you know, she’s very arrogant, stubborn, refuses to kind of accept what her responsibilities might be … and she had a real unkindness toward her sister (Edith).
“She’s changed a lot over the years and I love the way that her character has evolved. Through various storylines, and losing a sister (Lady Sybil) and losing Matthew (her first husband), she’s really softened and she’s matured,” Dockery continued.
“She is, as you say, holding down the fort now and she’s running the house, really.”
Indeed, in the new movie “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” which opens Friday,while the rest of the family travels to the South of France, Mary stays behind to supervise the making of a silent movie at Downton (in real life, the English estate Highclere Castle).
The arrival of Hollywood has Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and former butler Carson (Jim Carter) fearing the worst from louche, sticky-fingered actors, but the roof needs fixing and the Crawley family needs the film company’s money.
Mary ends up becoming much more involved in the filmmaking than she anticipated. It’s 1929 and the production is threatened due to the increasing popularity of talking pictures.
“We had a historian who, during a rehearsal, took us through the history of that time,” Dockery said. “I hadn’t appreciated how difficult that transition was from the silent movies to the talkies, and how difficult it was for those actors who were big stars in the silent movies, but they weren’t necessarily ready or had the talent for the talkies.”
The actors of “Downton Abbey,” of course, have had no such hardships.
Asked if there were any downsides to playing the same character for more than a decade, Dockery, 40, couldn’t think of any other than the fact that shooting a season of the TV series for six or seven months straight could be tiring, although she added that it was more work for the crew.
“It feels like such a privilege to be able to go back to something that you love so much,” she said. “We all love being back together and they’re quite rare these jobs that end up being part of your life for 12 years. None of us would ever have expected it.”
Indeed, “Downton” became an unanticipated and massive hit when it began airing in the U.K. By 2013, more than 120 million people around the world were estimated to have watched.
“It’s been completely life-changing and it felt like it happened overnight,” said Dockery, who was born in Essex and began her career on the stage. “Suddenly we were all being recognized on the street. America then fell in love with it … Suddenly we were being flown to the States for awards.
“I didn’t even know what the Emmys were before I did ‘Downton.’”
Dockery describes the large cast of the TV show and movies as a family. Her favourite scenes to film are the rare ones in which everyone is together, usually involving a visiting dignitary, with the family and servants lined up outside the house to greet them.
But she also loves shooting scenes with Carter and Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna Bates, lady’s maid to Mary.
“Mary is really closest to Carson and Anna,” Dockery said. “She kind of is much more guarded with her family in a way but, when she’s with them, it allows her to open up and be vulnerable and, as an actor, those things are some of the best things to play.
“Jo and I love doing those things together because we tend to have a full day or two days of just Anna and Mary scenes. And I really look forward to those days.”
Dockery did not, however, look forward to certain scenes in the movie with a departing actor, who shall be nameless.
“I had them marked in my diary and was just sort of counting down the days dreading them,” she said. “There have been lots of moments over the years where we’ve lost certain characters and they’re always really moving moments because we’ve worked together for so long.”
It’s anybody’s guess whether the close-knit group will reunite for another instalment of “Downton.”
“We never really know whether we’ll do another one,” Dockery said. “The end of this film, some could say that there is a definitive ending and, without giving too much away, there is one storyline that really does highlight that, but then there is this feeling of the new generation, the new era. So anything’s possible.”
And if mastermind Fellowes does come up with a new story, Dockery will be there, eager to slip back into Mary’s period costumes. “I love her. I love playing her.”
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