The last time TV fans saw Michelle Dockery on their screens she was playing a (finally) happily married Lady Mary on Downton Abbey’s series finale. Since then, Dockery, 34, has moved across the pond. First up is her new drama Good Behavior, which premieres on TNT tonight; she’s also currently filming Scott Frank and Steven Soderbergh’s Netflix drama Godless in New Mexico.
On Good Behavior, Dockery plays Letty Raines, a drug-addicted con artist who becomes entangled with a seductive hit man (Juan Diego Botto). Show co-creator Chad Hodge told Vulture in an e-mail that Dockery — who didn’t audition for the role — was suggested in the casting process. When he heard her name, he knew he’d found his Letty.
“Even though Lady Mary might seem like a different role on the surface, it was never a question in my mind that Michelle was the one,” he wrote. “I was a Downton fan and marveled in every episode at the depth, honesty, strength, and dark humor that Michelle possessed and brought so brilliantly to the role of Lady Mary. She’s a committed and deep actress who isn’t afraid of ‘looking bad.’ She cares only about the truth of the character, and she happens to be brilliant at conveying that. Letty is a masterful liar, and to play a masterful liar I think you need to be a masterful truth-teller. That’s what Michelle is.”
To get what she wants, Letty transforms into other people — an aspect of the role that appealed to Dockery, since she got to wear wigs, sport a posh wardrobe, and play with different accents. Vulture caught up with Dockery to talk about letting go of Lady Mary, playing a chameleon, and the huge differences in on-set food consumption in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Were you done working on Downton Abbey when this opportunity came along?
I was still doing the last series. It was the middle of the last series, and I read the pilot and fell in love with the script and Letty. And then talking with [Chad Hodge] and [Blake Crouch], whom I also fell in love with. They’re amazingly talented writers. It just sprung from there. But I was so drawn to the character and, yeah, was very fortunate to land the role.
I heard you didn’t have to audition for the role.
I didn’t, no. Chad actually was familiar with my work way before Downton Abbey, which I was impressed with. An American creator of a show knew stuff that I’d done before, shows like Waking the Dead, British televisions shows that I’d done way, way back. So it was more a conversation. It comes from lots of talks about the show and about the character. Chad had a lot of faith in me that I could play this role, and I’m glad he did.
What did you see in Letty in the pilot script that made you want to play her? She’s a bit of a chameleon.
It was such a page-turner, the pilot. And I’m drawn to complicated women or characters that show all sides of women, you know, not just best traits, but their humor. There is a lot to this character. She’s smart, she’s complicated, and she struggles. I love playing her and I love this reckless sense of danger, which her life often involves.
There’s a certain tragedy to her, too. She’s an addict. She’s a mom but doesn’t have her son with her.
Yeah, there is. Ultimately, she’s trying to get her life back on track and she wants to do the best for her family. She’s reached a point where it’s now or never. And what’s really interesting is that Javier, quite unintentionally, helps her. I honestly think if he hadn’t had walked in, as you’ve seen in the pilot, if he hadn’t had come into play, she may have just kept going. And who knows where she would have ended up. So it’s this weird push and pull, this relationship with Javier and Letty. It’s like she depends on him, he depends on her. As you see the series go on, they need each other in a very, very messed up way. It’s a really unconventional love story.
Was it hard for you to leave Lady Mary behind?
The pilot was just a couple months later and, I mean, of course, it was hard to say good-bye to the show and the people. It felt like it was the right time for everyone. I think that six wrapped it up very neatly. I would say it was great to go from Downton straight onto something else. Hopefully, again — if people like the first series. You know, sometimes with Mary and Letty, you know they are worlds apart, but they’re, in their own way, there are some similarities, really. Mary was a complicated woman. There were ups and downs in that role like there were with Letty in a totally different way, but all characters have their similarities in some sense.
I was glad Lady Mary got her happy ending.
Yeah, me too. I was like, yes! Thank you! Finally! It was great. I loved the way it turned out.
What was it like working in American television, especially filming in North Carolina?
We did it in Wilmington, which is a really special place. I loved it. It’s a lovely coastal town. I mean, as far as the work goes, it was a very similar pace to Downton. You know, in television, we shoot about ten pages a day. It’s pretty fast. For that side of it, it was very similar. I’m always astounded by the amount of food that’s on set on an American show. There’s craft service all day long. You’re lucky if you get a biscuit at 11 o’clock when you’re shooting at a British TV show. So there’s ups and downsides to that, of course. And I really enjoyed the climate of North Carolina, and now I’m in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is a dryer heat, but it’s been lovely to be in the sunshine for nearly eight months this year.
I didn’t realize that you’re still filming Godless in New Mexico.
Yeah, I’ve been on the next one, which we can talk about at another time.
Letty gets to play with wigs and pretend to be other people. Do you have any favorites?
That was another thing that drew me to the role, is playing characters within a character. I love the character with the long blonde hair that she plays. You see her in the red wig when she’s stealing from the hotel, but you don’t really see her speak much as that character.
When we looked at a scene in the pilot with Javier and Letty in a restaurant, Chad and I just thought, Well, what if she had an accent? You know, she could be from a different part of America just to pull Javier even more. I just love playing her because she’s kind of playing a Southern belle in that character. She comes across as a little what-you-see-is-what-you-get, and a little ditsy, but underneath it, it’s very, very calculated.
Is it easy for you to do the different accents? I saw you on Colbert. It was really funny, when you were doing Downton in an American accent.
Well, we grew up with American television and films, so I think Brits have it a bit easier. It’s kind of a given, really. It’s like at some stage it’s maybe a good idea to get to nail the accent. But I had some dialect coaching on it, someone that I have used for a long time now. And Chad is very, very good at pulling me up on things when I flick into British. With accents, the voice is where it begins with a character for me. So finding the voice is essential.
When you were thinking about Letty, what did you visualize?
Well, what’s interesting about Letty is that she’s so multifaceted. Some of the most interesting moments for me are when she is in the parole office with Christian in that first episode and she’s in jeans and a tattered sweater and with no makeup. That is her at her most spare, but is that really her? It’s questionable because she doesn’t really ever want to be one thing. And part of the high for Letty is the disguise, is the pretending. She’s not doing drugs or drinking or thieving, she’s dressing up. And it’s part of her way of feeling alive, I think. So it was fun to create these different roles that she plays within the role. And even the makeup, we tested every single look because it was very, very specific. And the thing is, she’s very, very good at it. It’s okay for the makeup and hair to be absolutely fabulous because Letty is an expert at all of it. She knows the clothes. She knows the designers. She knows what looks expensive, what makes her look believable as this person, so you would never imagine that behind it all she’s looting an entire hotel.
How did you like working with Juan Diego Botto?
He is one of the best actors I have ever had the pleasure of working with. I loved every minute of working with him. Juan comes from a theater background as well, so we work quite similarly. We love rehearsing. We like talking it out as much as we can because in television, you work so quickly that there’s not really a lot of time to rehearse, so you do have to put the work in in your own time. Some actors like to do that, some don’t. You really have to adjust according to whom you’re working with because sometimes it’s on the spot. It’s something that some actors want to do spontaneously. We also laugh a lot. We have a lot of fun. We’ve got the same sense of humor. I think his portrayal of Javier is so unexpected as well. It really is quite different to what it was on the page originally. And also, as it’s written, he’s a very unconventional hit man. He’s not scary-looking. He’s quite sensitive. He’s a gentleman. Sort of the things that you don’t expect as the stereotype of a hit man, and that’s credit to Blake and Chad. But Juan brought something even more to it, which is a sweet spot that I can’t really put my finger on, but he was so wonderful to work with.
When you watch the first episode, you’re not thinking this show in its essence is a love story. It seems like it’s good guys versus bad guys, a criminal enterprise. But you described it earlier as a love story.
It’s incredible where it goes actually. People will be quite surprised, I think. And it’s constantly changing. Each episode is like a play within itself. For me, it’s like nothing else I’ve ever read before or seen before. And what I love about it is there’s no message or morals. It’s an observational sort of drama. People’s behavior is what it’s about, so the audience will take from it what they will.