Michelle Dockery on Playing "Brilliant, Complex Women" from 'Downton Abbey' to 'Godless'

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Michelle Dockery

The British star was honored over the weekend at the inaugural CannesSeries television festival.

For Michelle Dockery, it's all been a matter of timing.

In 2010, the British stage actress got her TV breakthrough role, playing Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey, a big-budget period drama that launched at the start of a global boom in high-end series. After six hit seasons of Downton (which earned Dockery a Golden Globe and three Emmy nominations for her performance), she shifted to the U.S., playing thief and con artist Letty Raines on TNT's Good Behavior, one of a new wave of cutting-edge dramas from the American cable channels. And last year, she starred as Alice Fletcher in Godless, Netflix's female-focused take on the revenge Western, which landed as streaming-only series are receiving the same attention, and often similar-size audiences, as those on traditional TV.

More than anything else, Dockery has come up in a golden age for actresses on the small screen.

“I feel very fortunate to be among this surge of great roles being written for women,” Dockery said, speaking at the inaugural CannesSeries television festival on Saturday. “Particularly in TV, you are seeing fewer and fewer stereotypes and more and more real women. I feel extremely fortunate to play three such brilliantly and complex women, who are all so different, but what they have in common is this truth of the way women actually are.”

It all started with Downton. Dockery had a handful of TV roles under her belt when she auditioned for the role of Lady Mary in Julian Fellowes' classy soap set in the early 20th century, but she never thought she'd land it.

“I walked out of the audition thinking, 'They'll give this to someone with more experience.' Then I saw Dan Stevens [who plays Mary' s love interest, Matthew, in Downton] waiting outside. We'd done a play together, and I thought: 'Well, that could work.' And it did.”

Three years after Downton's final episode, Dockery says "I loved, I still love” Lady Mary, and admits to relishing the waspish side of the character. “Mary is one of those characters where you love her more when she has that sting in her tail. If ever she got too nice, I wasn't sure I liked it,” she said. “When Mary and her sister Edith [played by Laura Carmichael] weren't fighting, we both used to complain that it was getting boring.” Her last scene with Carmichael — the two sisters' last fight — was “tremendously emotional. I just wanted to cry and hug her,” Dockery said. “Laura and I are actually the bestest of friends, believe it or not.”

Making the jump to U.S. TV has been seamless for the 36-year-old actress, who traded the rolling hills and period charm of Downton for the dingy diners and run-down motels of South Carolina in Good Behavior. Dockery said it was “a bit of a dream” to act in America, having grown up on U.S. films and TV series. An expert in dialects (she famously smothered her native Essex in Lady Mary's crystal tones), the actress had no problem slipping into the various American dialects that Letty Raines tries on, along with her many wigs, as she changes identities in her various con jobs.

“The wigs on the show are just hilarious: We named them all. The blond one is Britney, obviously,” Dockery said.

Aside from accents, the biggest difference between a U.S. and British set, she said, is the food. “You get a lot more food on an American set: 90 different colors of M&Ms, everything you want, anytime you want it. On a British set, you're lucky if you get a biscuit.”

But Godless, Dockery said, was truly different. Calling the series  “the most exciting, powerful thing I've ever worked on,” she noted how the show, created by Scott Frank, turned the genre of the Western “on its head” by putting the focus on female characters: a group of women in the town of La Belle, widowed after their husbands were all killed in a mining accident.

“It was incredible and truly unusual, because we aren't used to seeing a Western with such strong, complex roles for women,” she said.

Dockery has just finished her run, alongside Bryan Cranston, in the London stage adaptation of the Sidney Lumet film Network. While she said returning to the stage after six years in TV was “terrifying,” the show, and her performance, garnered rave reviews.

Now, with no immediate plans on the horizon, Dockery said she's taking a break.

“The play finished two weeks ago, and now I'm on holiday, I'm looking forward to having a bit of time off,” she said. “I've got no idea what I'll do next, and that's exciting.”

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