I’m sitting in a Beverly Hills ballroom with Michelle Dockery. We’re the only two people in the room, which, though, lacking in grandeur, is large enough for a “Downton Abbey” soiree.
“I’ll need to project my voice,” says the British actress, surveying the scene.
Having grown up middle-class, Dockery’s accent isn’t as posh as that of her character’s on the hit series. In “Downton,” she plays Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of the Crawley family, owners of the vast country estate.
For most of the first three years of the show, Mary has had a decidedly “upstairs” attitude. On the other hand, Dockery — who is nominated for an Emmy as best actress in a series — comes across as pretty salt of the earth.
Created by Julian Fellowes, “Downton,” which is aired in more than 100 countries, is one of the of the most watched shows in the world and has a dedicated fan base. Now “Downton” fans are in a tizzy wondering what will happen to Lady Mary after the shocking Season 3 finale, in which her husband, Matthew (Dan Stevens) is killed in a car crash shortly after she has just given birth to their son and Downton heir.
“It’s an interesting season,” muses the 31-year-old actress, who only had a couple more days of shooting left in Season 4 when we talked. “It’s such a change – again – for the character. She’s gone through all these ups and downs. She started off quite hard and then she softened and finally got her man. Now that it’s all gone, she’s almost reverted back to being very cold again, which I admit I have enjoyed playing.”
Matthew’s death, says Dockery, sets off a domino effect of changes for the new season, which begins airing in Britain on Sept. 22, but not in the U.S. until next Jan.5.
For the record, Stevens’ departure was his own choice. His contract was up and he decided not to renew it, feeling that “Downton’s” six-month shooting schedule didn’t allow him enough time to pursue other roles. Fellowes had him go in dramatic fashion, though.
“I just felt I wasn’t ready to finish,” says Dockery, who had the same option. “It was sad to hear that Dan was going, but it also opened some storytelling opportunities for Julian.”
While the massive success of the series is as a surprise to her as it was to many people, Dockery says she can understand it. She, herself, was a “Sex and the City” devotee.
“I was completely addicted to it,” she says. ”I’d watch certain episodes when certain things were going on in my life and I felt those were comforting.”
The actress even dressed up as Miranda to go with her sisters and friends to the first “Sex” movie.
“I loved the clothes and the style. New York was so alien to me, being a Brit. And while I loved Miranda, Carrie always had the great clothes.”
Dockery believes “Downton” is comforting in its own way to fans. She credits Fellowes’ ability to write for 18 different characters as a key to the show.
“It doesn’t hang on one storyline too long. I think it’s more than just the nostalgia that people love about it. It’s the romance,” she adds.
The look of the show, the design of the costumes, and the endless views across the rolling hills are also important to its appeal, she says.
“We even wear two different shades of stockings so that the color is absolutely right and the seam goes right up the back like in the 1920s.”
When I raise my eyebrows and remark, “really,” she smiles and says, “So now you’ll be looking at our stockings.”
Fans of the actress will get a chance to see her in the first two parts of “The Hollow Crown,” the adaptation of four historical plays by William Shakespeare, which begins airing on PBS Sept. 20. She plays a lord’s wife whose husband is killed in battle.
“I’m only taking roles where I become a widow,” she deadpans.
Dockery will also star in the thriller “Non-Stop” with Liam Neeson, due out early next year.
At some point, the actress wouldn’t mind taking on a singing role. Though she’s played Eliza Doolittle in Peter Hall’s production of “Pygmalion,” she’s never been in “My Fair Lady” or in any musical. Earlier this year, she performed at the London Jazz Festival, although she doesn’t consider herself just a jazz singer.
“I do other genres as well.”
When I ask what she is listening to, she pulls out her iPhone to check her top 25 most played list, mentioning British singer Jessie Ware, Canadian Feist and Argentine-Swedish indie folkie Jose Gonzalez as some of her current favs. Dockery loves how fellow Brit Hugh Laurie has embarked on a musical career since “House” went off the air.
“I saw him live last year and it really inspired me. I’d love to do something like that and just dedicate my life to music, but you can’t do it halfheartedly.”
Dockery also admires her Emmy competition.
“It’s wonderful to be in a category along with such a brilliant women,” she says. “I love ‘Mad Men.” It’s so much about the women. It should be called ‘Mad Women.’” (Elizabeth Moss is a fellow nominee.)
“I feel like we’re in this fantastic time of TV roles written for women,” she adds. “There is this complexity about them. That’s what I love about ‘Homeland’ and Carrie (played by Claire Danes, who is also nominated.)”
Meanwhile, the actress is excited about decorating her new place.
“It’s my next project. I love this website called Apartment Therapy. It gives private tours of peoples’ houses and it gives me my ideas. I think I might’ve done something in that area had I not been an actor or gone into music.”
Lately, Dockery has been seen in Italy with a new beau, which has given the British tabloids something to speculate about. But in a couple of weeks, she will be back in Los Angeles for the Emmys (Sept. 22).
“I really enjoyed going the last two years and all of the events leading up to it. It’s really good fun,” she said.
Like a lot of people, though, she thinks it’s a shame that “Downton” doesn’t air in the U.S. when it does in Britain, making it hard to keep secrets about what happens on the series. Still, the question will be: Will Mary find love again?
“I think eventually she will,” says Dockery. “Julian has been very careful about her moving on too quickly, which I think you owe the audience because they invested so much into the Mary-Matthew romance.
“Like anyone who’s lost someone, she will never get over it. It’s finding ways of living and starting again. Essentially, that is what the fourth series is about for Mary. For a minute she had everything, and then it was all shattered.
Follow Rob on Twitter: @roblowman1