Michelle Dockery is about as different from Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary as is imaginable. Dressed in Totême boyfriend jeans, white Adidas trainers and a black cashmere turtleneck, she is warm, effusive and quick to laugh where Lady Mary is frosty and composed, and she has an accent not dissimilar to Victoria Beckham’s. “It may come as a bit of a shock to everyone when I open my mouth in the film,” she smiles.
“The film” is The Gentlemen, a classic gangster caper written and directed by Guy Ritchie in a return to the genre that first made him famous. “Charlie [Hunnam, one of Dockery’s co-stars] is calling The Gentlemen ‘vintage Ritchie’, and I think that’s right,” she says of the British director behind Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. “I play Rosalind, who is the wife of Matthew McConaughey’s character, Mickey,” Dockery explains. “He has these marijuana farms that are growing underneath stately homes, hence the title The Gentlemen.”
Marijuana farms? What would Carson say? Dockery laughs. After six years playing Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey – first in the well-loved TV series (which has won 15 Emmys and been watched by an estimated 270m people worldwide) and latterly in the movie – her role in The Gentlemen was a great departure for the 38-year-old British actress. “Rosalind runs a car dealership, which she’s inherited through her family. She’s a real, tough, east-London girl. I grew up in Essex, and my family has a sort of east-London background, so it was great to step into that world.”
“So often, when I’m WORKING, the process is very much word for word, and on this film it was MALLEABLE. It was LIBERATING”
To say the cast of The Gentlemen is “stellar” is an understatement: in addition to Dockery, McConaughey and Hunnam, the movie stars Hugh Grant (who plays equally against type and appears as a corrupt and predatory reporter), Colin Farrell, Henry Golding, and Jeremy Strong, most recently seen as the troubled Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession – of which Dockery is a huge fan. “I mean, this whole interview could be about Succession,” she laughs. “It’s absolutely brilliant, the best thing on TV. Every single character is Shakespearean. I loved working with Jeremy. We only had one scene together, a dinner-party scene, and I would never have seen his character the way he played it. He was a joy to watch, and worlds away from Kendall.”
Working with Ritchie – and the laugh-a-minute, largely male cast – was, Dockery says, a dream. “There’s one scene where I arrive at my garage, and Guy wanted to add a bit of dialogue, just off the cuff. I had to be on my toes, and I really enjoyed that. So often, when I’m working, the process is very much word for word, and on this film it was malleable. It was liberating.” She also relished collaborating with Ritchie on Rosalind’s look. “Even though Rosalind works in a garage, I get to wear the most beautiful Balmain jumpsuit, and the first scene is me walking into the garage in a pair of Louboutins, which is hilarious. Rosalind has clearly worked her way up to where she is, really enjoys the lifestyle and having money, but still wants to work. I love that about her character, that she still gets her hands dirty.”
Dockery says she is happy with the quality of roles she has been offered in her career (she graduated from London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2004), while being aware that, in the past, female actors have lamented the paucity of fully rounded female characters. “I do feel I stepped into this industry at a time when things were really beginning to change, especially for women. It’s the golden age of television, where creators have the luxury of writing 10 hours as opposed to just two, so there’s room to explore a character in greater depth. It’s now becoming much more normal to start a job or to read a part and for me to have a dialogue with the creators – if there are moments where it’s felt the female character is not involved, for example – whereas I guess in the past, it would have felt like more of a fight.”
Does she have any aspirations to write or direct herself? She laughs. “I do think about, you know, doing other things. Right now, I’m not sure exactly what, but…” she tails off, laughing. The glint in her eye suggests she has something in the pipeline.
“I’m an INTROVERT… but I do like to go out and DANCE. Every couple of months, I just NEED to dance”
After a six-month stint in Boston, where she was filming Defending Jacob, a harrowing miniseries about a family whose lives are torn apart after the death of a boy at their son’s school (“it’s not a comedy,” she notes wryly), she is very much enjoying being home in north London, where she lives close to her two sisters (Dockery is the youngest of three). “It’s a cozy time of year to be home,” she smiles, nursing a cup of tea. “It’s great catching up with friends and family – and, because I travel a lot for work, every time I come back to London, I appreciate it much more. Recently a friend came over from LA and we went to the Antony Gormley exhibition. It took my breath away.”
Can she walk around London fairly anonymously? “Yes, more so here than in America. But that’s the thing with our culture. Brits are too cool to approach you, but in America people have more confidence to come over and say something. It still takes me very much by surprise, but it goes in waves. When the Downton film came out, it peaked again.”
She laughs as she explains that she can never tell who’s going to be a Downton fan. “I got into a cab a little while ago, and the driver was this big, burly Guy Ritchie type. ‘Where you going, love?’ he said. And then it went a bit quiet. And then he was like, ‘You alright?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and told him about my day. And he suddenly went, ‘Shame about your sister in season 3.’ And I just laughed out loud. People really surprise me sometimes.”
Would she say she’s an introvert or an extrovert? “I’m an introvert.” Although not the stay-at-home type. “I do like to go out and dance. For me, it’s not a night out unless I’m on the dance floor. Every couple of months, I just need to dance; have one of those… dance-y nights.”
“I love CLOTHES but can be ignorant of CERTAIN designers. I like supporting YOUNG ones coming up”
Her interest in fashion is modest rather than craven. “I love clothes but can be ignorant of certain designers. I like supporting young ones coming up.” She’s also what she calls “a coat girl”, with more coats than shoes. But her most cherished possession is a St Christopher necklace her mom gave her. “It comes everywhere with me. I’ve had it for 15 or 20 years.” She recently started donating her old clothes to Smart Works, a British charity of which the Duchess of Sussex is a patron, which helps unemployed women get back to work. “They’ve got all my skinny jeans.”
Our time being almost over, I finish with the question few subjects want to answer. Is she in love at the moment? She laughs and draws an imaginary zip across her mouth. The line of enquiry is especially sensitive as Dockery’s fiancé, Irishman John Dineen, passed away in 2015. She is now rumored to be dating Jasper Waller-Bridge, brother of the feted Phoebe, creator of Fleabag and Killing Eve. If this is true, perhaps we’ll see her in a comedy soon? “There are things on the back burner, but I can’t say,” she says. Then, in a quick flash of Lady Mary, she concludes with a polite, “Thank you so much. It’s been really lovely.”
The Gentlemen is released on January 1, 2020
Michelle Dockery is put on the spot with PORTER’s naughty-but-nice Etiquette Challenge. Will she admit to monkeying around with Matthew McConaughey? Who most deserves a bottle of festive fizz this Christmas? And will her secret admirer really be sipping champagne from her shoe?…
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