Since she burst onto our screens ten years ago as Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary, all cut-glass vowels and nerves of steel, Michelle Dockery’s kept us in a permanent state of emotional whiplash with the sheer variety of roles she’s taken on.
She was a drug-addicted con artist in the 2016 TV series Good Behavior, a gun-totin’ cowgirl in the acclaimed 2017 drama Godless, and a Cockney gangster’s moll in Guy Ritchie’s crime caper The Gentlemen.
One thing you will not see, she insists, is Michelle Dockery playing a piece of arm candy.
‘I like to play strong women,’ she says when we meet for coffee pre-lockdown in New England, where she’s been shooting her new TV mini-series Defending Jacob.
Michelle Dockery, 38, from Essex, is best know as Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary and said at 38, she’s finding herself feeling sexier than ever
‘And even if they’re not strong, they have to be interesting. Multi-faceted, complex, complicated, three-dimensional… and flawed too, because people are. Anything but boring!’
That doesn’t mean they can’t be sexy though, and she says the added bonus to playing these characters is that, at 38, she’s finding herself feeling sexier than ever.
‘Sexy is not about having anyone else make you feel sexy, it’s about how you feel inside, and I have certainly felt sexier as I’ve got older.
But I think that’s a confidence thing too. I’ve been lucky enough to play such strong, confident women, and when you do that you definitely take something from them with you into your real life – you sort of get inspiration from them.’
Her latest character in the thriller Defending Jacob is a straightforwardly good woman – although one thrust into bewildering circumstances.
Laurie Barber is happily married to handsome local Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber (Captain America film star Chris Evans), and mother to her wise-cracking 14-year-old son Jacob (Jaeden Martell).
She’s the sort of woman who goes for a run before breakfast, then quizzes her son on vocabulary over coffee before heading to her high-profile job managing a home for abused children.
She’s just so together… until her son is accused of one of the most hideous crimes imaginable – the cold-blooded murder of a classmate – and her entire life and social circle begin to unravel as the police investigate.
‘It’s a really gripping story, because it’s so difficult for this couple to comprehend that their child might commit any sort of crime, let alone a murder,’ says Michelle of the story, based on the 2012 novel by William Landay.
Michelle in Defending Jacob, with co-stars Jaeden Martell and Chris Evans. Her latest character in the thriller Defending Jacob is a straightforwardly good woman – although one thrust into bewildering circumstances
‘They’re both defending their son, and like any parent would, Laurie’s asking at the same time, “Where did I go wrong?”
‘There’s conflict between Laurie and Andy because at the start of the story she’s the emotional one and he’s the calm one, but then as the story goes on there’s a need for Andy to be emotional too.
‘So they’re always seeing things from a slightly different perspective.
‘It’s a very human, raw story about what something like this can do to a family, and what’s so interesting about Laurie is that as her life is turned completely upside down, she also begins to question things about her family – “How well do you really know your partner? How well do you really know your child?”’
Michelle’s own family background is modest but as stable as anyone could wish for. The youngest of three girls born to Irish-born lorry driver turned surveyor Michael Dockery and his redoubtable wife Lorraine, a former shorthand typist turned social worker, she was brought up in Romford, Essex, working class and proud of it.
THE MANY FACES OF MICHELLE DOCKERTY
HOGFATHER (2006): Michelle made a supernatural start to her career with this TV movie of Terry Pratchett’s book, in which she played Death’s granddaughter, Susan, alongside David Jason.
DOWNTON ABBEY (2010-2015): The role that made her was that of icy Lady Mary Crawley in Julian Fellowes’ period drama. The death of Mary’s husband Matthew was the TV moment of 2012.
GOOD BEHAVIOR (2016): A seductive thriller starring Michelle as thief and con artist Letty Raines, who falls for a hitman after being released from prison.
GODLESS (2017): She was cast as aloof widow Alice Fletcher (below) who sides with an outlaw in this gritty US Western drama, voted one of the ten best shows on Netflix that year.
THE SENSE OF AN ENDING (2017): She joined a top-notch cast in this film version of Julian Barnes’s novel, playing Susie, the pregnant daughter of main character Tony (Jim Broadbent).
THE GENTLEMEN (2019): Starring in a Guy Ritchie crime thriller had been her dream, and it came true with this role as gangster’s moll Rosalind Pearson (with Matthew McConaughey as Mickey).
‘My mum is loving but she’s also strict,’ says Michelle. ‘When I was about seven I stole some penny sweets from a shop. Mum caught me and made me go back and apologise to the shopkeeper, and I’ve never stolen anything since!’
She was also raised – as were her sisters Louise and Joanne – to speak up for what was right.
‘I was brought up to stand up for myself. To speak up when I felt passionate about something, when I felt the need to make my voice heard about something that mattered.
‘I think a lot of that comes from having sisters, because we’ve always supported each other all along.
‘If I’ve ever felt bullied or pushed into a corner, I’ve always been able to stand up for myself. And if I see it happening to someone else, especially younger actresses, I’ll stand up for them too.
‘I hate bullying. I have huge admiration for women in Hollywood and elsewhere who have come forward to tell their stories about that, and have stood up against people like Harvey Weinstein.
‘It’s horrendous what they experienced and I’m glad something has been done about it.’
It’s safe to say no one has succeeded in taking advantage of Michelle, and she says now that when she first broached the idea of going into acting to her parents they were not in the least bit concerned.
‘They weren’t alarmed by it at all!’ she laughs. ‘They made sure I had a good education so I had something to fall back on.
‘Both my parents are wonderful. My mum is the most incredible woman, she inspires me.
‘And my dad’s amazing too – even though he spent our growing-up years with a bathroom that was never free! They let me be who I want to be.
‘So between them and my two elder sisters, who are still my best friends, I’m very lucky. We call ourselves the Essex Mafia!’
Her career choice can hardly have come as a surprise to the family, as she says she wanted to be an actor ever since she can remember.
Michelle was cast as aloof widow Alice Fletcher who sides with an outlaw in this gritty US Western drama, voted one of the ten best shows on Netflix that year
When she and her sisters were small they attended a stage school in the evening, and they would put on plays at home to entertain the family.
Michelle apprenticed at the National Youth Theatre when she was a teenager, and as soon as she’d taken her A-levels she enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
‘I feel I learned more at drama school than I did anywhere else,’ she says. ‘Even when I was at regular school I was never out of the drama department, so I didn’t do very well in other subjects.
‘I just didn’t want to be taught anything else. But there’s a huge amount you learn in drama school besides acting, like history and literature, and that was where I came into my own.’
It was, of course, Lady Mary who made Michelle famous. ‘It happened overnight,’ she says.
‘Well, I’d been working in the theatre for seven years, so it wasn’t really overnight, but I remember after the first episode of Downton Abbey aired, walking into my newsagent’s where I was living and seeing a picture of myself, Laura Carmichael and Jessica Brown-Findlay, the three Crawley sisters, on the cover of three papers and that was huge.
‘Then the first time I was recognised on the street was in New York, and that was even bigger because that’s when it hit me how big the show had become if I was being recognised in America.’
With talk of another feature film in the works after last year’s hit Downton movie, she says playing Mary is as comfortable as slipping into a second skin.
‘I have huge fondness for her, she’s been a big part of my life. That was a very special show, and I hope it’s one that stays with people forever.’
It was through Downton that she met the man she thought she’d be married to now.
In 2013, her co-star Allen Leech, who played chauffeur Branson, introduced her to Irish-born public relations executive John Dineen.
She and John fell in love, became engaged and were in the process of planning their wedding when John was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. He died in December 2015 with Michelle by his side.
She joined a top-notch cast in this film version of Julian Barnes’s novel, playing Susie, the pregnant daughter of main character Tony (Jim Broadbent)
At his funeral, the day after her 34th birthday and a day before what would have been his 35th, she told mourners, ‘He was my friend, my hero, my king, my everything.
‘We celebrate him, we honour him, and we will miss him.’ She has not spoken out about her grief, but has admitted that it was her friends and family who helped her pull through, saying, ‘They are the ones who see you through the most difficult times.’
She has been dating Jasper Waller-Bridge, brother of Fleabag’s Phoebe, for a year now.
They met through friends and Jasper, who is six years Michelle’s junior and the creative director at a talent agency, accompanied her to red-carpet events before lockdown.
It was also reported that she bought a £1.7 million house in north-east London before Christmas.
Michelle hasn’t commented on the relationship but she does say that a sense of humour – surely a given with any member of the Waller-Bridge family – is vital in a relationship.
‘My parents always taught me to see the funny side of life and never to take myself too seriously.
‘I find that more and more as I get older – I’m finding ways to laugh things off much more than I used to be able to.’
Right now, Michelle Dockery would seem to have plenty to smile about.
- Defending Jacob is on Apple TV+ now (watch on TV, phone or tablet, see apple.com/uk/tv).