On Downton Abbey, it’s been nearly two years since Lady Mary Crawley’s beloved husband, Matthew, died in an automobile accident.
It’s the 1920s — fashion, music and the social order are all in flux — and Mary, ever the proper aristocrat (save for that unseemly incident with the Turkish diplomat), is finally emerging from her mist of despair.
“It’s absolutely wonderful,” says Michelle Dockery, the London-born actress who plays Lady Mary. “It’s really quite interesting how Lady Mary’s story has evolved since Matthew’s death.”
Indeed. When American audiences last tuned in for the PBS Masterpiece series, they saw the beautiful widow wooed by multiple suitors — even as she was looking to take a stronger role in managing the sprawling homestead.
“I can report that Mary remains incredibly decisive and strong,” Dockery says of season five, which is currently airing across the pond. It bows in the U.S. in January 2015.
The actress talked to Emmy on a cell phone with spotty reception. So much for the mobile service at Highclere Castle, the 5,000-acre estate in Hampshire, England, where much of the series is filmed.
It’s been a tumultuous time for the actress, who’s gone from relative obscurity in England to being recognized while sightseeing in Amman, Jordan (where she appeared on behalf of human-rights organization Oxfam International).
“It’s been a period of adjustment,” she admits.
There has been nothing gradual about her ascent. In 2010, after the show’s very first episode aired in Britain, Dockery was at the grocery store picking up milk.
“There was a picture of the three sisters — me with Laura Carmichael [Lady Edith] and Jessica Findlay [Lady Sybil] — on the front cover of three newspapers!” she recalls. “I didn’t know what to think.”
The worldwide phenomenon has been a blockbuster for PBS, drawing 8.5 million viewers for its fourth-season finale stateside. For her work, the actress has been nominated for two Emmys and a Golden Globe. Meanwhile, Lady Mary’s perfectly arched eyebrows even have a Twitter feed.
It all seems a bit preordained, given that Dockery and her two older sisters all attended the Finch Stage School just down the block from their house in Essex.
“My mom was shy growing up, so she wanted us to grow up with a sense of confidence,” she says. “I don’t think she wanted us to be actors, but I loved it so much, I couldn’t think of doing anything else. My most cherished memories are from that school, when I was preparing for a show or waiting in the wings, getting ready to go on stage.”
She was a member of the National Youth Theatre and later performed at London’s National Theatre, where she received an Olivier Award nomination for her performance in Burnt by the Sun, a stage adaptation of the Russian film of the same name.
Dockery’s British television career began in 2005, but she was tackling Hamlet at the Crucible Theatre in 2010 when the role of Lady Mary came along.
“I completely fell in love with the material,” she says. “I thought it would be a dream to play this role.”
She didn’t realize the character’s contradictory nature until episode three, when Lady Mary has her indiscretion with the Turk — and he dies in her bed. “But that’s what I really loved, that she was incredibly complex,” Dockery says. “To me, she was this slightly spiky character, sort of a young Kristin Scott Thomas.”
The actress has also loved getting to know the other leading character in this period drama: Highclere Castle. Built in the 8th century, it plays the role of Downton Abbey in the 21st.
“It first took my breath away,” she confesses. “When you’re here, you can feel all the history that went on behind its doors. All the secrets are here.”
It’s all there, of course, except for 21st-century phone service.
Original story published in emmy magazine issue no. 05-2014.
Mekeisha Madden Toby also contributed to this story for TelevisionAcademy.com.