Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael on modern romance, vintage magazines and dressing like a granny

"If you were wearing those dresses today you’d either have to be incredibly cool, I guess, to pull it off, or you’d be a granny"

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Laura Carmichael has played the middle Crawley sister Edith since the show’s inception in 2010. Once spiteful and stubborn, Edith has overcome adversity and series four finds her embarking on a career as a writer and on the brink of an affair with a married man.

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Before the series starts on ITV, RadioTimes.com sat down with the star…

Is it nice that Edith has finally got a bit of romance?

It’s great. It’s lovely for me that the romance is so different from anything we’ve seen in Downton before. You know, he’s not arriving at the house on a horse or anything. What they’re doing in episode one even, by dining out together – a married man – it’s quite shocking really, but really fun for us to play.

It feels quite modern. It’s somebody she’s met at work really.

She’s glammed up quite a bit too…

Our costume designer really took to heart what these characters would be experiencing on a day-to-day level. It’s not just about the whole look. She was really aware that Edith would have been going to London more and seeing those new changes in fashion. Edith would be the one experiencing that and there’s also a real kind of ‘lets just go for it’ attitude that Edith has which I think kind of feeds into the story… you know, her brother-in-law has been killed in a car-crash having survived WW1. Life is scary and short. And yes, [Gregson]’s married, but he’s interested in her in a way that is different from any of the other men in Edith’s life.

London in the 1920s really was so changing. When you think about the Bloomsbury group and those writers in London… I think costume is just another layer, another way of telling that story.

Edith has become quite a strong and independent character, hasn’t she?

I thing I loved about playing Lady Edith from the beginning was, as much as you could say that she was insecure or she wasn’t confident, there was this confidence of being a lady, confidence of her class, of having that power. I think is really interesting to see her now entering a different world where that matters less and having found that confidence in herself.

She could have rolled over after the jilting and become a spinster and stayed with her parents but all of these things happened. Her sister was killed in childbirth – she was the rebel, she was the potential suffragette of the family – and all of a sudden she’s a single woman and she’s got a voice. It’s really interesting to portray that.

How do you feel about her becoming journalist and going after a career?

For me it’s felt like a really natural evolution for Edith to change from this bratty middle child to a strong, independent woman writer. It’s great.

I don’t think it’s what she had her heart set on as a child. I think she would have been the most conventional of the three of them had it not been for luck – she never found the right man and through the war she found a job, she found a purpose, and you can’t then undo that.

You’ve been quoted as saying she’s like the Carrie Bradshaw of the 1920s…

Well, she’s finally got some great dresses!

There was a line in the last series where she talks about the problems face by a modern woman and I was constantly joking on set. I was sat there going ‘I couldn’t help but wonder…’

I think it’s great. We have all of these amazing props on set. Original copies of these newspapers that did exist with adverts for face powder. I get a big kick out of it because it doesn’t feel too far away from what you read in our modern day magazines. People should publish these old magazines because they are hilarious. Face cream. Honestly, they claim more things than our face creams do now!

Have you experienced any of the reaction to the series in America?

It’s great. We are all just kind of fascinated by how it’s happened. I’ve only just recently been over to do my first round of press there so it’s nice to kind of see it in reality…  It’s really crazy that they’ll just very confidently talk about you in the same breath as Mad Men.

Do you find you get recognised a lot more now?

I don’t really that much. I think the hair is really quite a disguise. It so puts you in that era, it puts me in my zone. I’m a lot scruffier so… I don’t think I’m sort of instantly recognizable. [But] if people do notice they are very nice.

You look a lot younger in person, actually…

I think it’s a period drama thing. Everyone does. There’s something about wearing clothes that your grandmother might have thought were nice… Me and Lily actually got hysterics one day because we were both wearing dresses and pouring tea and… and we started doing this old woman acting.

We were in these really cute dropped waist twenties dresses but, you know, if you were wearing those today you’d either have to be incredibly cool, I guess, to pull it off, or you’d be a granny.

Downton Abbey returns on 22 September.     


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