January 2012

Noble Acts

She may be just the right mix of nice and ice on Downton Abbey, but the woman who bewitches as Lady Mary has her feet on the ground and a song on her lips  by LESLIE GORNSTEIN / photographs by PERRY OGDEN / styling by GRACE COBB

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Leave it to Downton Abbey to bring out everybody’s inner dowager. “Lady Mary,” a British reporter recently swooned over the show’s leading female character. “Those fabulously arched brows, the porcelain features...the dark-eyed sensuality of her tryst with the Turk. There was surely not a dry eye in the land when she was spurned by cousin Matthew at the end of season one, for snootily, foolishly dithering over his marriage proposal.”

Pass the smelling salts, old girl! Then again, it’s tough to discuss the work of Michelle Dockery, who revisits the role of Lady Mary Crawley for a second season on PBS’ Masterpiece starting Jan. 8, without lapsing into such swoony prose. Brits already know Dockery from a few hit projects in the U.K., but for us Yanks, Downton has provided a formal introduction, if you will. And the result, particularly with “Downton groupies,” as Dockery lovingly calls the show’s devotees, is something close to obsession.

Yes, her expressive geisha eyebrows and snowy complexion do conspire in a pleasing fashion, as Mary’s grandmother Violet might say. But then there’s Dockery’s almost acrobatic range. Lady Mary’s inner circuitry is a delicate tangle of vulnerability and high-handed bitchiness most 30-year-old actors couldn’t easily pull off—at least not with the chilly reserve expected of a World War I–era blueblood. If Dockery played Mary a touch crueler, she’d alienate the audience; any more relatable, she would cease to seem the eldest daughter of an earl.

Dockery doesn’t just balance all of those moving parts, she practically pirouettes on her own taffeta high wire. When Britain’s Daily Mail noted that she is not, in fact, a prickly aristocrat but rather the approachable daughter of working-class parents, it did so in the spirit of surprise: “What’s an Essex girl doing at Downton Abbey?”

Like any savvy actor, Dockery credits her show’s creator, Julian Fellowes for her character’s depth: “At first I loved Mary’s hardness, but as the series went on, she started to soften. It’s like all of Julian’s characters—they’re never one-dimensional but rather so rich with personality.”

Still, good writing can’t explain away Dockery’s electric ability to captivate and piss us off at once. That knack hasn’t been lost on Americans. If her own experience is any indication, 2012 is shaping up to be her biggest year yet on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I stumbled across a café in Greenwich Village,” she says of a trip to New York last year. “I ordered some food, and the couple next to me were talking about Downton Abbey—two random New Yorkers! I just sat there, having such a wonderful feeling. As they got to up to leave, one of them turned and said, ‘Congrats on the series.’ It really hit me then what a huge phenomenon the show has become.”

Lady Mary’s inner circuitry is a delicate tangle of vulnerability and high-handed bitchiness most 30-year-old actors couldn’t easily pull off—at least not with the chilly reserve expected of a World War I–era blueblood.

And what Dockery has become along with it, of course. Like many a British actor, she had a classical-acting education, training at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama. She trod the boards for years before slipping into Mary’s overtightened corset, tackling everything from Henry IV to Pygmalion.

In 2006, she anchored a telly adaptation of the Terry Pratchett fantasy Hogfather, playing the redoubtable Susan, granddaughter of Death and the savior of Pratchett’s doolally version of Christmas. “Impressive newcomer,” the Guardian sniffed.

And since Downton, the world has Dockery fever. Even the Wall Street Journal has taken to detailing her passion for fashion, including a taste for sweeping Burberry gowns and Victoria Beckham’s designer label.

All helping to forge an identity apart from Lady Mary. “There’s always a danger of wearing a floor-length gown to an event and having it look like a dress I wear in Downton,” she muses.

Brits, meanwhile, have begun to follow Dockery’s other love—jazz singing. The press now routinely reports where and when she is appearing. (That was her at last year’s London Jazz Festival, channeling Peggy Lee in a live version of “Sans Souci.”)

“It’s much more exposing than acting,” she says. “It’s me up there—I’m not playing a part. I like the nerves and the adrenaline that go with that. It’s the same with my acting. I like to do things that really challenge me, rather than pick things that are easy.”

And along with the obligatory Facebook page and Downton groupies are fan-generated blogs like F--k Yeah Michelle Dockery, which proclaims itself “a celebration of all things Michelle.”

Not that Dockery lets such things go to her head. Dan Stevens, who plays love interest Matthew Crawley, says she may drip in jewels onscreen but is still more downstairs than upstairs.

“She’s really a very down-to-earth girl,” he says. “Not the person you’re going to see falling out of a nightclub steaming drunk. Yes, there are now people out there who spot someone from Downton Abbey and say it’s worth stopping and taking their picture, but Michelle herself is still very much feet on the ground.”

That trait should serve Dockery well, especially now that Hollywood has taken notice. After last year’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part in Hanna—as a CIA agent who gets offed by Saoirse Ronan—its director, Joe Wright, has called on her again, this time for his take on Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law.

Look for Dockery among the nobility.

PRODUCTION: Gawain Rainey / 10-4 Inc. London
HAIR: Ben Jones / Jed Root
MAKEUP: Kelly Cornwell / Premier Hair and Makeup
MANICURE: Adam Slee / Streeters