The fifth series of Downton Abbey romps to the starting line with a barrage of publicity, and I’m sitting with Lady Mary, played from the start by the ubiquitous Michelle Dockery, 32, a willowy 5ft 8in, friendly, but self-contained, and 25-year-old Lily James, now in her third series as rebellious Lady Rose. They are eager to help and laugh frequently, even after an afternoon of numerous interviews. “We’ll try to be as interesting as possible,” they say.
They have come a long way, but from different directions. Michelle, daughter of a van driver who subsequently became a surveyor, played Eliza Doolittle in Sir Peter Hall’s 2007 production of Pygmalion. Lily, whose late father was an actor and in a band, went to the £14,700-a- year Arts Educational School in Hertfordshire, and played Nina in Chekhov’s The Seagull on stage and Ethel Brown in BBC1’s Just William.
Six years ago, Michelle was working in a pub. There are traces of her Essex background in her accent, but she says she was “poshed up” by drama school at 19. “It’s mad to think I could barely pay my rent. Initially with Downton we thought we were on to a good thing – ‘Wow, Julian Fellowes has written it, Hugh Bonneville and Maggie Smith are in it – this is amazing.’ You hope it will be loved in the UK, but it ignited into this huge thing. My own personality is so different to Mary, which is why I find her fascinating. As a child I did lots of impersonations.” At the age of five, Margaret Thatcher was one of her favourites.
Now she’s on the front page of newspapers, particularly The Daily Telegraph, even for the most banal reasons. “I’m surprised how much is written about us. I suppose it’s because the show is not on all the time and people are fascinated.” During the summer she was invited into the royal box at Wimbledon with her boyfriend, John Dineen, a PR executive. “It was one of the most incredible days of my life. I couldn’t believe it, and felt so privileged.”
“It’s a crazy world,” adds Lily, giggling, as Michelle continues: “We bumped into Pippa Middleton, who’d come on set a few years ago with her brother and watches the show. I’m forever overwhelmed by all the lovely things that happen as a result of being in this, like the Met Ball [a highlight of the New York season], and Lily got to meet the Prince recently.”
“It was a charity event for the Royal Marsden hospital in May,” says Lily. “Ralph Lauren did this thing at Windsor Castle with Prince William. He’s a charmer and he said he watches the show, which I’m sure he does. It was an amazing night and surreal to be in those places.”
“Amazing,” says Michelle.
Lily was cast in Downton “when it was already huge,” she recalls. “I genuinely wanted to be in it right from the start, but it was more intimidating than a normal job because it already had such success. All eyes are on you and, sadly, sometimes people want you to fail.” She was besieged by internet trolls, calling her the “Tulisa of Downton”, a reference to former X Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos. “I was surprised people had an opinion about me, but now I don’t want to engage with that stuff. The internet is not a real person, so why would you want to read it? I did at first, but quickly got over it.
“You have to develop a thick skin as an actor, but also have a thin one because you need to be vulnerable at times. Mostly we’re the lucky ones, having the opportunity to do what we love. I had so much support from the cast and, in spite of all the hype, it’s a normal job of acting. Better still, it’s a real ensemble, which is what I enjoy about the theatre. We really like each other. Of course people are interested in our lives outside Downton. Some actors don’t care but I like to keep my private life separate, although if I’m photographed with my boyfriend [Matt Smith, former Doctor Who star] I can’t control that.”
Last month the show received only one Emmy for outstanding hairstyling, disappointing when it had received 12 nominations. In its first three seasons it won ten Emmys, and Michelle has been nominated three consecutive times as best actress. “It’s because of their fascination with our culture,” she says, “the same as we feel about certain American dramas, like The Sopranos.” She jokes that Lady Mary’s tangled love life has made men terrified of her since the first series, when her Turkish diplomat lover died in flagrante in her bed.
“It’s amazing the way Julian plants a storyline, lets it fester, then suddenly re-addresses it,” says Lily. “I find myself crying because I didn’t realise he’d planted something there. That’s what is exciting as an actor. You think it’s going one way, and then it’s all in different directions, so it keeps you fresh and on your toes. He manages to carry it out over the years, which is what I guess a soap does.”
A soap written by a poet, as Michelle quotes someone saying to her. “It’s whatever viewers want it to be,” she adds. “If they see it as a soap or a high-class drama, that’s fine – so long as they enjoy it, which is all we want, really. An audience is the main thing, not awards.”
The show is closely controlled in order to consolidate its success in 250 territories. I wonder if there are restrictions on their private life. “It’s not like…” Michelle begins. “Don’t sit in the sun, or you’ll melt,” adds Lily, laughing, noting Michelle’s pale complexion. “If we had a tan it would be hard on the make-up people.” And they can’t fall out of a nightclub? “We wouldn’t want to do that, anyway,” she giggles. Not that they read much about themselves. “There’s no point,” says Lily. “Things get twisted so easily.”
Michelle was taken to task last year for letting down the sisterhood by being quoted in a Sunday Times interview alleging she feels nostalgic for the demure “kind of femininity” of the women characters. “I didn’t say that. I was asked if I’d like to have lived in that time, and I replied I wouldn’t. Absolutely not. We have moved on a long way and have more freedom and choice, especially as women. We get to play and dress up and it’s lovely to have a taste of what it was like back then.”
I ask Michelle if she thinks class divisions exist today. “I can’t answer that,” she says. It must be difficult for ordinary people to be thrust suddenly into worldwide fame because of a TV programme. “There’s definitely been an adjustment for me and the rest of the cast,” she says. “You travel the world, and Lily is beginning to experience that now. For me it was gradual, particularly in America, because it didn’t hit until series two. I’m recognised in Britain but it’s only difficult if you become irritated by it.
“I find it quite easy to accept now, although at first I was nervous of complete strangers coming over and wanting to talk. Sometimes they want selfies, and I’ve said no occasionally, although you don’t have to be rude. There’s a time and place. If I’m with my godchildren having a meal in a restaurant and someone wants a picture, which I realise might make their day, it’s not appropriate. Generally in London no one even looks because they’re going their own way, but in Los Angeles people expect to see someone off TV or in a film walking the dog, so you’re approached more, but there aren’t many disadvantages to being in a show like this.”
“And,” says Lily, “if you start focusing on them, and making it into a huge issue, you’re in danger- ous territory, because we are incredibly lucky, and it’s not that bad in the grand scheme of things. I treasure advice from Michelle, but you do have to make rules for yourself about how to cope with it.”
“You can still pop to the shops for a pint of milk, or go on the Tube,” adds Michelle. “That’s the last place you’re recognised because people want to get on with their own lives and don’t make eye contact.”
When she’s recognised in the US, Michelle sometimes pretends she’s “rich Britney, from Beverly Hills”, who happens to look just like Lady Mary. “It’s a silly spoof, but it passes the time. We’re always sending ourselves up. Even on set, when you’re doing a serious scene, you can’t help but see the funny version.” Lily adds, “If you can laugh at it, you’ll be all right.”
“One advantage of Downton for me,” says Michelle, “is the security of knowing I have a job for the next six months, which is a luxury. As an actor you have to get used to being completely out of control of your career, never knowing what’s round the corner.”
“A nine-to-five wage slave,” says Lily, smiling. It has been reported she will leave after this series to concentrate on promoting Kenneth Branagh’s film of Cinderella with Cate Blanchett next year, but says that’s not true. “I have commitments, but they can be worked around, and if there is another series, which we’ll be told by Christmas, I’m keen to do it.”
They have branched out and made films. Lily did Wrath of the Titans, a 3D epic, and Michelle was an air hostess in Non-Stop, an action thriller released earlier this year. “It’s very different to Downton, but I don’t worry about being typecast. Everyone does something else because we have six months off, and it’s opened up a lot of other opportunities.” Hugh Bonneville, for example, was in the film Monuments Men, directed by and starring George Clooney, who’s rumoured to be making an appearance at Downton. Lily’s about to start work on the film of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Michelle is in a sci-fi thriller, Selfless, in which she plays Ben Kingsley’s daughter.
Michelle says her own character has devel- oped alongside Lady Mary’s. “I was 27 when Downton started, and Lady Mary has grown in confidence. I have, too. A stage play doesn’t move the characters forward, but with Downton there’s an arc, and it doesn’t always go the way you think. It’s interesting for us to see how it all pans out.”
Downton Abbey series 5 begins tonight at 9.00pm on ITV