“It starts with something like Back to Black…,” says Michelle Dockery. “Then I will have a drink – because everyone has a drink when they are doing karaoke.”
In New York last year, filming the thriller Non-Stop, she and the cast would head out to Koreatown and bond over their varying abilities to blast out a tune, while getting progressively ever-so slightly pissed.
“Then it’ll be Total Eclipse of the Heart, and by the end of the night, I’ll be desperately trying to do Whitney Houston, which never goes down very well for anyone.”
The last time she and InStyle spent some quality time together, it was 2011. Following the InStyle BAFTA party, I’m told she insisted the fun carry on, which resulted in Dockery, designer Christopher Kane, and unnamed members of the InStyle team heading back to Birdsong actor Joseph Mawle’s east London flat, where the after-party trotted on ‘til the small hours.
Happily, I can report that what theInStyle team found back then – Dockery being about as far away from Downton’s glacial Lady Mary Crawley as Dame Maggie Smith is from becoming the next cast member of TOWIE – still holds true. The notorious bottom-clencher of fame – whereby once the plaudits and red carpets start rolling out, personality is sacrificed for image – has failed to take hold.
Because Dockery is now beyond the cusp. She is Emmy- and Screen Actors Guild Awards-nominated. As Lady Mary, she is bona-fide festive gold – that special-place-in-our-hearts kind of character who will ensure that, come 8:30pm on Christmas Day, you will unequivocally flick over to ITV for the Downton special. Beyond TV, after parts in Joe Wright’s Hanna andAnna Karenina, she is crossing into blockbuster territory, starring alongside Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson in Non-Stop. An action romp set in mid-air. Dockery plays Nancy, an air stewardess and ally of Neeson’s air marshall. She spent four months in New York, arriving just as Hurricane Sandy hit. “I was staying on the 34th floor of a building and it completely blacked out.”
In a slightly feeble sort of coincidence, our interview is taking place the morning after Storm Jude has not quite ravaged the south of England. We meet in The Zetter Townhouse, in Clerkenwell, east London. Before we start, we gasp at photos on her PR’s phone of uprooted trees on nearby Brick Lane. Thank God she’s here with me, I say. “Yeah exactly,” she deadpans.“I’m great in a crisis. Completely prepared.”
Like the self-deprecating humour, her appearance has also escaped a bland A-list glossing. She still looks normal. Beautiful, yes – striking. Tall and lean. Intensely dark eyes and gorgeously pale skin. But in she rolled in her “old faithful Topshop jeans that I’ve had for years” and a navy top that was a recent Reiss purchase. There’s a nice touch of luxe on her feet – navy Prada high-tops – but the look is unpretentious and inconspicuous. And it means that, despite being in the homes of 120 million people worldwide, she can potter around London fairly easily. The litmus test of fame: does she still take the Tube?
“Absolutely,” she says. “When I was a kid and my parents allowed me to venture out on my own, I’d take a train into Liverpool Street from Essex and get on the Tube to Camden with my Walkman in. [Besides], everyone’s just going about their way.”
She does have an effect on people, of course. I see it in the time we’re chatting. In fact, it’s only the reaction of others that blunt the lines of Michelle Dockery, the actress, and Lady Mary, the aristocrat. Earlier, we’d shut the doors to the room we’re sitting in to give us a little privacy. Thirty minutes after we’d ordered them, an apologetic waitress delivers a plate of croissants. “I’m sorry,” she stutters, before edging away. “I didn’t know if I could open the door or not.”
“Ha. It’s like Downton Abbey,” laughs Dockery.
She finds it all a bit silly, this fame thing. Not in a thankless way. She just treats it with the sort of irreverence that keeps things in perspective. She says that’s why she got on with Julianne Moore during filming for Non-Stop. “Because we keep humour at the heart of everything. And she’s a big Downton fan so she’d want to hear the gossip – I’d try not to give away too much.”
Though we’re officially here to discuss Non-Stop, it’s interesting how so much of what she talks about comes back toDownton. She loves that show and she’s grateful for it. She says she’s signed up for the fifth series and, beyond that, she doesn’t know what will happen. Come on: does that mean she’s thinking along the same lines as Dan and moving on? “It really is in the hands of Julian [Fellowes]” she insists. “But it’s amazing what’s happened and I feel that anything else is a bonus.”
Perhaps it’s because she’s not a movie star, not intentionally. She didn’t just rock up with a dream and an easy charm. She’s an actress and she grafted her way up the career ladder. It’s a journey that goes back to her childhood – an upbringing that people find weirdly fascinating by virtue of its total normality.
The Family Dockery sound rather great. There’s her dad, Michael, a surveyor since he began studying again in his fifties to get a degree; her mum, Lorraine, who delivers meals on wheels to the elderly (“We still call it that, even though there’s a much more professional term for it, I’m sure”) and two older sisters, Louise and Jo, the former an English teacher and the latter also an actress. Home in the true sense is still when the five of them are together in Essex.
“It’s the same house I grew up in,” smile Dockery. “My parents are incredibly proud of me and my sisters but when it comes to all of this [her fame] they’re not fazed. My mum will be like, ‘Oh I loved that episode of Downton,’ then, ‘Anyway, I found a plant pot for your garden and it was £2.99.”
Michael and Lorraine were no the pushy sort. They just thought that sending the girls to the stage school down the road would be good for their confidence. “The wood floors were falling apart; we got splinters; it was freezing. But we loved it.”
Michelle had found her place. She was so certain of it that, at the age of 12, she asked to change schools so she could go to one with a drama department that offered the subject at GCSE. Later, she won a place at the National Youth Theatre – “like a three-week drama-school taster” – then, while doing A levels, she auditioned for drama school. Guildhall called back.
She spent her twenties in theatre, learning and earning better parts, so by the time Downton happened when she was 27 – appropriately after she’d been spotted by the producers playing Eliza Doolittle in an Old Vic production of Pygmalion – she was ready. “I’m not sure I would have dealt with it all if I was 22. You learn an incredible amount doing theatre. Not just about how to behave.” I mean, sharing a scene with Dame Maggie at 22? “Exactly, I think I would have fallen to pieces.”
Whatever confidence she may have lacked at 22, she’s found now at 32. “In my twenties, I was a bit of a worrier; it bothered me what people thought of me, what job I was doing. But then, the day I hit 30 I didn’t give a shit anymore.”
I’m not sure 30 did that for me, I say. Though, to be fair, I don’t have a globally successful TV show behind me. “Yeah, it’s also something to do with Downton, which is a very solid and successful job; it just gives you that sense of security, I guess.”
The money’s nice for starters. “I mean, I own a flat now,” says Dockery. “I worked out I moved 16 times from the age of 19, just hopping about from different flats, because I couldn’t always afford to stay. It’s lovely to feel stability now. And I travel. Until I was 27, I’d maybe been to America once and, like, Ibiza when I was 18. That was it.”
And, of course, Downton opened up other worlds too. The critics and the audience weren’t the only ones to embrace it; fashion fell for Downton and, as a result, Dockery has enjoyed a speedy ascension to the front-row crew. “It was like I was invited into it. In the past, I might have gone, ‘Oh, it’s not really my thing,’ because I wouldn’t have got it, but now I do.”
“I was such a novice [before Downton], I didn’t know one designer from another and didn’t really think about what I was wearing.” Now, she loves the girlie red-carpet thrill of dressing up, and has started working with a stylist, Micaela Erlanger. “It makes it a lot easier when it comes to awards,” she says.“It’s just not that easy to pick up a dress. It’s about building up a relationship with a designer you like, and Micaela is wonderful.”
So, as far as her personal life foes, she set out her stall early on.“If you don’t mind, I’d like to keep all of that private,” she says when I mention reports that she is in a relationship with Irish financial PR John Dineen. But it’s all still on, though? “Yes, those reports are correct, and yes, Allen Leech [Downton’s Tom Branson] did introduce us.”
So you have Downton to thank for your love life as well as your professional life, I suggest. She laughs. “Yes! It all comes back to Downton in the end. I’m very happy.”
I wonder, given her parents’ happy marriage and how much she clearly loves her family, if she wants all of that too. “I do,” she nods. “I kind of look to it like that’s when my real life will begin. Not that this isn’t real – this is my life and it’s wonderful – but I do look forward to that [having a family] more than anything.”
“It puts everything in perspective,” she continues. “My best friend has two children and when I’m with them, I don’t even look at my phone. As much as I enjoy the show and everything around it, the most enjoyment I have is when I’m with my family and when I’m with her and the children.”
So who knows what’s next for Michelle Dockery? Going behind the camera is a move she’d eventually like to make. In the immediate future, she’s off to Jordan with Oxfam to film a piece on Syrian refugees. In her typical self-aware fashion, she says of it: “I know some people might think, ’Why is an actress doing that?’, but I think if you have a voice it’s a good thing to use it.”
For all she is fun, Dockery can be serious. She’s mindful and genuine, she’s dedicated to her career and protective of the people she loves. She just knows in life you have to laugh too.