Michelle Dockery is sitting in an over-the-top hotel restaurant in the Hampshire countryside, so chosen for its proximity to Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed. She is staring at a sliver of lemon sole covered in foam and delivered with swishy, unironic circumstance. It’s the most Lady Mary meal ever—and yet … “God,” she says between giggles. “Should we order some potato?” She sips a glass of red wine and muses on the endless imbibing of the aristocratic Crawley family. “Sometimes during filming I’ll think, No, I’m not going to have a brandy because I just finished my glass of wine at the table.” After all, how is Mary supposed to be imperious when she’s inebriated? “Exactly!”
As might be expected by anyone in modern society, there is not a whole lot of Lady Mary in Dockery, who plays the haughty heroine of the obsessed-over period drama. She does have a superb speaking voice (originally from Essex, she credits drama school at 19 for “poshing you up quick”) and posture that would make a mother proud. But that’s about it. The most Lady Mary thing Dockery has done to date is wear a fascinator to the Epsom Derby last year. “They are not fascinating,” she observes of the first, and likely last, time she will ever wear one. Today she’s in the cool-girl off-duty uniform: a navy-and-white-striped T-shirt and jeans, her hair still in slight kinks from a marcel wave. (It’s now 1920 at Downton.)
Dockery, 30, was cast in Downton after her winning turn as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion on London’s West End, following a few years spent in television dramas. “Until then I’d played much more vulnerable parts, but I remember coming out of the audition, and Dan Stevens [who plays Mary’s handsome love interest, Matthew, and with whom Dockery previously appeared in the TV movie The Turn of the Screw] was in the waiting room. I said, ‘Who are you up for?’ and he said, ‘Matthew.’ She laughs. “I walked out and thought, Oh, that could work.”
She is often asked why she believes Downton is so celebrated, especially in the U.S. “I think some period drama can be quite alienating, but Downton isn’t,” she says. “This is going to sound quite, um, pretentious, but someone said that it’s like a soap written by a poet.” She’s right. The writing, by Gosford Park scribe Julian Fellowes, and the cinematography are so elegant that Downton’s campier qualities (the dreamy Turk dying in flagrante delicto, the noble valet Bates in jail for murder, Lady Sybil running off with the chauffeur) wash right over you. “I used to get quite defensive of people saying it’s soaplike,” she says, “but it kind of is.”
Dockery has some fancy fans too. One night at New York’s Waverly Inn, she happened upon Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann. “My mate was like, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve got to meet him!’” she recalls. “But we were going, ‘We can’t say anything.’” As the pair left, they ran into the Apatow group outside. “He said, ‘We’ve been looking at your table, wondering if we should come over.’ We couldn’t believe they were doing the same thing.”
Indeed, Dockery is funnier than you might think. “I have this character I’ve created called Britney.” She switches into a fantastic-terrifying L.A. twang: “She’s a huge fan of Downton, and she looks just like Lady Mary. She comes from a very rich family in, like, Beverly Hills.” Back to British: “We do these videos of me going—” American: “Oh, my God. The waiter just came overrrr; he so thought I was Lady Mary. Oh, my God. Oh, my God!”
She’s also highly amused by her newfound mass appeal. She is the star of a cult Tumblr called Fuck Yeah Michelle Dockery, which, along with fulsome praise, plays fabulous GIFs of Lady Mary overwhelmed with emotion. She has even been immortalized in animal form. “Have you seen ‘Dollhouse Downton’ on YouTube? These two girls have created this whole thing where they act out episodes of Downton with Sylvanian Families.” (Lady Mary is a rabbit; Cousin Matthew is a cat.) “They do this whole bit with Mary in bed, and a naked hedgehog, who is supposed to be the Turk, comes in. He goes, ‘Mary!’ She goes, ‘What?’ ‘Let’s have sex.’ ‘Okay!’”
She is finishing Downton’s third season, which will premiere in the U.S. in January. Before that, Dockery will appear on the big screen in Anna Karenina, with Keira Knightley, in November, and in the fall she begins filming Restless, a TV adaptation of the William Boyd novel, with Charlotte Rampling playing her mother. Set in the ’40s and the ’70s, it’s positively contemporary compared with the rest of her résumé.
Dockery thinks Mary would be very modern if she lived today. “She’d be in charge, her own boss. She’d have married very well and maybe had kids, but I don’t think she’d be particularly maternal.” She laughs. “She’d definitely have help.” As for modern Mary’s style: “Armani. Simple, clean.”
She characterizes her own look in a similar way. She’s a fan of actress Charlotte Gainsbourg’s boyish aesthetic. “Very French, understated. That’s the kind of style I go for.” In May, Dockery wore Ralph Lauren to the Costume Institute Gala at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, where she was the designer’s guest. “I loved it,” she says. “It was the first dress I tried on.” Lauren’s Fall 2012 collection was also inspired by Downton, down to playing its soundtrack during his show. “It’s amazing, really, how it has affected fashion.” Of course, she wears gorgeous dresses on Downton too, and she’s grateful that the passage of time has freed the Crawley girls from their corsets. But it’s the hairstyles that take the longest—about an hour to get the marcel wave just right. The makeup needs only 20 minutes because, sadly, a lady didn’t wear mascara then.
But who needs makeup with those glorious pale complexions? Dockery’s last tan was “in 2006! I had to be darker-skinned for a part and really went to town.” She maintains her sylphlike figure with workouts at her gym in London’s Shoreditch—and by eating “small bits of fish,” she says, guffawing at the remains of the tiny meal. On location, however, it’s harder to work out: “Once you’re in costume, you can’t really exercise in a corset.”
Offscreen, Dockery has worn a corset, much like her poor fascinator, only once. “I wore a lingerie one to a fancy-dress party years ago.” She adds, with the merest dash of Mary, “I have photos somewhere that I think I will destroy.”