‘Lockdown? It was an interesting time,’ says Michelle Dockery at the start of our Covid-compliant phone conversation about acting, the pandemic and her favourite whisky.
‘It certainly became an opportunity to ponder on things that I took for granted. We were in our “bubble” and I watched TV way more than I usually do. Hugh Laurie was brilliant in Roadkill [the BBC’s political drama written by Sir David Hare]. I loved that. And I became a big fan of podcasts.’
Which one in particular?
‘Desert Island Discs.’
She was close to tears listening to the actor and director Samantha Morton on the show.
‘She was a big inspiration to me in my teens.’
Has Dockery been invited to become a castaway?
‘I would leap at the chance,’ she says. And she’s drafted her list of favourite tunes already. ‘There’ll be a lot of Joni Mitchell.’
Dockery is best known to British audiences for portraying Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey. But her origins are far from aristocratic. She was brought up in Romford in Essex. Her father was a lorry driver and her mother worked in care-homes. They were keen for their daughter to expand her interests and they enrolled her in a local dance-school.
‘It was at the end of the street where I was growing up. My mum and dad encouraged me to have confidence and I loved dancing. It was my first passion.’
She saw her future as a ballerina. At school an influential teacher, Miss Birt, was keen to develop her pupils’ interest in the theatre and she arranged a school-outing to see Helen Mirren in Antony and Cleopatra. Dockery was hooked.
‘At a very early age I realised it wasn’t actually dance I wanted to do. It was acting, taking on characters. Miss Birt encouraged me to audition for the National Youth Theatre. And I loved it.’
But things weren’t easy after leaving drama school. She describes the uncertainty of an acting career as ‘like jumping off into a very unknown abyss. I went through phases of time-off and not knowing if the next part is around the corner. I gave in to the unpredictability of it all.’
The turning point was Downton Abbey and the part of Lady Mary. After that the offers started rolling in.
‘I enjoy playing complex characters and embodying people who are very far from who I am,’
Unlike some actors, she doesn’t deliberately set out to surprise audiences with dramatic transformations.
‘I don’t plan too much. I don’t think “now I’ve done that character I need to do something completely different.”’
She’s also a gifted singer. She was invited to perform at the 50th anniversary of Ronnie Scott’s in Soho and she occasionally appears with Sadie and the Hotheads, a band formed by Elizabeth McGovern who plays her mother in Downton.
Samantha Morton, her role-model, began as an actor and branched out into directing. Would she follow that path?
‘I’ve seen enough of the way in which directors work to give it a go,’ she says. The essence of the job is ‘forming a relationship with the actors.’ Her plan would be to ‘start small and build up my experience with an episode [of a TV series].’
Could she direct a film about the life of Joni Mitchell?
‘Maybe. If she’d let me.’
She’s in no hurry to abandon her on-screen career just yet. ‘Acting is still my main course.’
When not at work she enjoys visiting Hampstead Heath where she exercises her dog, ‘a Bedlington whippet with a bit of Saluki in him’. She chose the name Alfie – ‘as in, “what’s it all about, Alfie?”’ – after the iconic 1960s movie starring Michael Caine and Shelley Winters. Her other passion is reading which she finds hard to concentrate on while acting.
‘Your head’s in the script and that’s a distraction.’
She’s also partial to the odd dram of whisky.
‘My dad’s half-Irish so whisky has featured in his life, shall we say.’
She’s proud to have been asked to front a new campaign for Glenfiddich.
‘I’m keen on their readiness to progress the perception of whisky to new audiences and, as a woman, to encourage gender inclusivity in the industry.’
The campaign images were created by Misa Harriman, a UK-born Nigerian cameraman who was the first black photographer to shoot a cover for British Vogue.
‘A photographer for our time,’ she says.
The centrepiece of the campaign is the Glenfiddich Grand Cru 23-Year-Old. This rich single-malt is matured for over two decades in American and European oak casks.
How would she take the Grand Cru – with ice, water, soda or ginger?
‘Neat,’ she says.