How old are you, and how old is Lady Mary?
I’m 29 and Mary is 27.
How would you describe Mary?
Strong-willed but complex. She has this glacial façade, but underneath it, she’s terribly sensitive.
The scene in which she’s told Matthew is engaged to Lavinia encapsulates her quite well. While there are other people in the room, she shows no feeling, but when it’s just her and the maid Anna she bursts into tears. Behind that wall she’s built up a tumult of emotion.
The thing I love most about Mary is that she is not one of those people who needs to be liked. That confidence is very attractive.
Do you have siblings?
I’m the baby of three – though I don’t think my sisters would want me saying their ages in Radio Times! We don’t have any of that rivalry that there is between the Crawley sisters, but I certainly recognise that protectiveness that Mary exhibits towards Sybil as something that my oldest sister has towards me.
And her relationship with Edith?
Their rivalry has done damage to them both. Edith’s decision to reveal the truth about the death of Pamuk continues to have ramifications for the whole household, while Mary’ revenge – telling Strallen that Edith felt nothing for him – was horribly cruel.
This series, the war has meant there are more important concerns and they’ve softened to each other a bit, but neither has ever apologised.
Do you think Mary deserved what Edith did?
No, she didn’t, but from what Edith overhears Mary telling Cora – “Why not concentrate on Edith? She needs all the help she can get” – it’s no wonder that Edith reacts the way she does.
What would she say about Edith’s tryst?
She’d love that gossip and in some ways find it comforting that Edith got carried away. But I also think that there would be some real sisterhood there and I wonder if Edith would really like to tell Mary. You’d be bursting to tell someone.
How has Mary changed over the first two series?
Mary isn’t quite as vicious as she was. I think she has grown up a lot and she knows she made such a mistake at the end of the first series turning Matthew down.
I also think she’s very aware of her situation. Mary is in her late 20s and, by the standards of the day, she’s on the shelf. Most girls then were married in their early 20s.
Does that go some way to explain her relationship with Sir Richard Carlisle?
Perhaps. But I think she likes ruffling feathers by becoming involved with this man who is not “one of us”. He’s self-made, he’s a media mogul, he’s not aristocracy.
I think he appeals to Mary’s rebellious side. You have to remember that Mary never does what she’s told. Every suitor plonked next to her at dinner she refused to pursue.
Are Mary and Carlisle in love?
I don’t think so. If Mary had met Carlisle before she’d met Matthew, she’d be happier.
Carlisle represents everything she wanted originally – practicality, convenience – but now I do think she wants to marry for love, and she won’t get that from a marriage to Carlisle.
Do you think it’s wiser to follow your heart or your head?
Always my heart, and I think Mary feels the same. She would say head, but deep down, she knows its heart. One of the things that she admires about Anna is that Anna follows her heart without hesitation.
Could Mary ever have a happy ending?
She could, if she followed her heart.
Would that be with Matthew?
If she marries Matthew, that would tie everything up nicely. I love carrying that storyline because with it you carry the fate of Downton – whoever Matthew marries will become Queen of Downton – but I enjoy seeing unresolved love playing out.
I’m a huge Mad Men fan and I love the Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson story for that very reason. The minute those unrequited stories become resolved, it becomes less interesting. And what’s interesting about Matthew and Mary is that it’s unrequited and complicated.
Do you think Mary would go behind Lavinia’s back to get back with Matthew?
Absolutely not, because she knows how much Lavinia loves him.
In what way do you think the role of women has changed since then, and how has that affected women’s relationship with men?
We take so many of our freedoms for granted nowadays – I can travel where I like, I can have a baby when I like, I can do any job I want – but I do think chivalry has been lost a little bit.
Those old manners – such as men standing when women arrive at the dinner table or opening doors for you – are lovely, and it’s lovely when you see a man doing that today. But young men wouldn’t think about that for a second because it’s not the culture any more.
How do you think Mary would cope today?
Once she got over the culture shock, she’d be a society woman. Within the old aristocracy, she’d definitely be a mover and shaker.
Do you believe in happy ever after?
In fiction, yes. But not in real life, in the way I think you mean it. Happiness is one of the most important things in life but happiness is something you have to find in yourself – being who you are and accepting who you are – and no one can do that for you. I feel I’ve got to that stage, of being comfortable in my own skin.