In Downton Abbey: A New Era, the alluring silent-film star Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) is quite literally losing her voice. Despite her fame, beauty, and a hairstyle so hot it might melt the scullery maids, she finds herself at the crossroads of a new Hollywood era when actors, well, have to actually start talking onscreen to make their living. And that’s a problem for Myrna, whose voice can perhaps be best described as in the same echelon as Mrs. Featherbottom’s. (“I’m here to record sound,” a technician declares after a failed scene of dialogue, “not perform miracles.”) This is the cozy world of Downton, of course, so Myrna leaves the estate in a position as desirous as her arrival but not before getting a taste of her career being over: She has her scenes dubbed over by none other than Lady Mary, a “humiliation” she comes to accept. When Myrna heads back overseas at the end of A New Era — with a new, mastered American accent in tow — you know she’ll be fine.
Haddock, one of several new Downton characters to appear in the film, told Vulture in a recent interview that she relished being part of a fictional world she had long loved as a viewer. We discussed a certain Crawley trickster, how she bonded with her wig, and the art of socializing with Maggie Smith.
If Michelle Dockery’s voice came out of my mouth, it would be like a gift sent from the heavens. What was it like watching those dubbed scenes for the first time?
Oh, I completely fooled myself into thinking it was my voice. I’m exactly the same as you. What a lovely, delicious, silky, cashmere-y voice to have. Michelle puts on an accent to play Lady Mary, so in total, there were four accents shared between us.
How did you master that unique dialect? Your regular speaking voice is obviously quite lovely.
I worked with an amazing woman who’s been my dialect and accent coach for several projects. She pinpoints the time period and who the character is, and then she lifts archival clips and sounds and voices to send to me. I absorbed myself in the world of this particular accent for a while. I watched documentaries and films. The process isn’t just sitting in a room with her for an hour trying to get vowel sounds — it’s more artistic and emotional. Personality is born out of an accent.
What archival footage did you find most helpful?
The BBC archives are amazing. You can go and type in the gender, time period, and exact location of where you want the accent to be from. They’ve recorded and filmed normal people on the street over the past century. You’re just listening to someone tell a story about their lives. It’s very rich footage and audio. It’s like a podcast but from 1928.
It reminds me of those scenes from Get Back when they’re interviewing people on the street if they like the Beatles or not. It’s a special slice of 1969 in London.
Exactly right. I loved Get Back. It’s changed and morphed over time, the rhythm of how people speak. My ear tunes into people’s voices quickly. I find myself listening to others at restaurants if I’m by myself — I’m not eavesdropping but listening to accents, I swear. [Laughs.] I feel a lot more comfortable working in an accent that’s different from my own.
You get to enter the Downton world in such a fun way: as a glamorous, holier-than-thou film star. How big of a fan were you before being cast?
I was obsessed with Downton Abbey. I watched every episode when it was airing. I have good friends who have starred in it, and I’ve thought to myself through the years, Well, wouldn’t it be lovely to star in it? When the job came through, it was International Women’s Day. I had just taken my kids back to school for the first time after the second lockdown, so I was ready to go home, take all of the Post-its off the fridge, and reorganize the worksheets that accumulated over lockdown. I was ready for a big spring cleaning. And then my agent called me about the role. I was like, This is the most gorgeous phone call I’ve ever received. I had no questions or worries. Yes, please, put me in this! Honestly, if this job had come in and we hadn’t been through the lockdowns and the pandemic, I would’ve been more apprehensive about going in.
Why would you have been more apprehensive?
The general presence of a dame?
It’s Maggie Smith! You need to step up if you’re entering that Downton world. She’s a legend. I think I watched her in Hook hundreds of times when I was a kid. She was a goddess of an actress and still is. When you’re sitting at a grand dinner table at Highclere Castle watching her work, and then you have to say a line after her? It’s mental. But everyone in that cast loves and treasures each other. They want new people to come in, have fun, and join the troupe. It’s like joining a company of theater actors.
So no hazing was afoot?
Well, Hugh Bonneville did tease me once. It was quite early on in the filming, and he said to me, Listen, Julian Fellowes doesn’t mind if you take the words and make them your own. You can really adlib here. You don’t have to stick to the script. I was thinking that didn’t sound right, but all right, Hugh has been here for years, and he wouldn’t try to trick me. So I took his advice and did a bit of improvisation — added a few bits of dialogue. No, you don’t do that. [Laughs.] I very quickly realized you’re not given any chance to deviate from the page.
Damnit, Hugh, that’s a low blow.
Cheeky monkey, that man.
You get to be the recipient of an excellent Dowager Countess burn, when she insults Myrna’s voice by saying, “How musical you make that sound.” Did you get to spend some quality time with Maggie?
I did, and it was beautiful. There were many times during filming where I was able to take some picnic chairs out and sit around and chat with the others. My resounding memory of Maggie is what an amazing storyteller she is. It doesn’t really matter what the story is — it’s the way she says it. She has people captivated. She’s so funny and quick-witted. She remembers everything. Her life has been in this industry, and it’s amazing to sit with someone who has a wealth of experience and is still incredibly captivating. I kind of just went with the moments and hoped I didn’t say anything stupid.
Did you get to bond much with Myrna’s bleach-blonde wig?
Oh my God, I insisted. The wig — she had many colors and iterations. The wig we saw onscreen wasn’t her first rodeo. It had a lavender rinse at one point. Another time it was grayer, but it didn’t feel edgy enough. We finally found this icy blonde color that worked best. We wanted it to be starkly different to everyone else in the house. This woman could afford to have her hair bleached and looked after. Nobody at Downton was doing that yet. It was something brought over from Hollywood, the idea of using peroxide to dye hair or these beauty looks that were popular in America but hadn’t quite yet made it to England. She was trailblazing this look.
I know you enjoyed researching silent-film stars of the era, such as Norma Talmadge, to prepare yourself for the role. What was the most significant piece of information you learned about Old Hollywood?
I had a preconceived idea of how these actresses performed. It wasn’t anywhere near as “big” as I thought. I assumed they were displaying emotions very energetically, and they would have to run through their whole bodies. When we first started rehearsing, I went to a place that was overly expressive, like in a Charlie Chaplin way. So I had to learn and bring it back down to something that felt more truthful. When I was watching the old films, I realized the intricacies of the expressions were smaller. Another surprising thing was how many of these actresses made the transition from silent films to talkies — or, rather, how it was incredibly rare for an actress to make that transition in the late ’20s. A lot of them weren’t American, so English wasn’t their first language. You can’t learn a new language overnight. They had no time, so they were forced to retire. A lot turned to drugs and alcohol. They never recovered from this fall from grace.
Also, from a technology standpoint, it was easier to record male voices in that era. The recording equipment was in its infancy, but a man’s voice had a basal tone. Women’s voices are higher pitched, and the industry didn’t yet have the equipment to level those voices out. A lot of actresses in those early talkies had low and gravelly voices for that reason. Hell, there’s always been an imbalance for us women. Every decade, there are more reasons why. Women have had an uphill struggle in this industry since day one. Myrna never felt comfortable or at ease, which I relate to. It wasn’t a comical situation for her. She thought she was looking at the end of her career.
When did you, as Laura, start to feel at ease being an actor?
After I had my two children. All of your eggs aren’t in one basket anymore. I spread out. I could breathe oxygen into different areas of my life as opposed to focusing only on one. I had to realize, yes, this is what I wanted to do, but I could be the CEO of my own choices. It’s not a gregarious sort of confidence; it’s now a strong, soft, and subtle confidence that I didn’t have. I was running on adrenaline and trying to please people. Now I’m rooted. Comparison is a thief of joy — just let it go. I feel successful on days when the family washing basket is empty. Or when everyone is asleep by 8:30? That is such a good day.
How many vases did you get to break in Myrna’s tantrum scene?
We were given three vases by the prop department, but I only needed two. Have you ever been to a Greek restaurant where they break the plates at the end of a meal?
I’ve never had the honor.
Me either. I tried to channel what I would do at a Greek restaurant through Myrna!