Laura Carmichael on moving from Downton Abbey to The Secrets She Keeps
Laura Carmichael says Downton changed her life, but now she’s swapped crinolines and canapés for a very modern thriller...
This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
Laura Carmichael's latest BBC thriller is a far cry from Downton Abbey, with opulent period costume and pristine lacquered curls exchanged for modern-day dress and an unkempt bob. Gone are the backdrops of English stately homes, replaced by an Australian suburb. Carmichael plays Agatha – a complicated 30-something who strikes up an unlikely friendship with yummy-mummy influencer Meghan (Jessica De Gouw).
In series 1, the pair bond over their pregnancies – but, as the title forebodingly suggests, a dark secret turns their relationship on its head. The series culminates with Agatha behind bars, charged with the abduction of Meghan’s newborn.
The much-anticipated second series picks up several months later, centring on Agatha’s trial, while Meghan and her family are still navigating the repercussions of the kidnapping.
It’s a world away from the crinolines and canapés of Downton Abbey, where Carmichael’s role of Lady Edith Crawley has cemented her as a star of British TV, and more recently on the big screen in the franchise’s two hit films. After such a career-defining role, has she found it difficult to escape the clutches of typecasting?
“You can’t control what other people think of you,” she says. “I enjoy a challenge and I’m keen to try on different hats. When you do something for a long time, things become comfortable – you want to push yourself. I’m also conscious that if people have enjoyed watching you in something, that’s a complete privilege. It’s been such a gift being in Downton. It’s opened so many doors. If another period drama came across my desk... if I loved the script, I wouldn’t be too nervous of entering that world. But at the moment I’m drawn to things that feel different.”
Hence The Secrets She Keeps, with its troubled but resourceful protagonist Agatha keeping audiences guessing right through the first series and now its follow-up.
“Agatha is a very complicated character,” says Carmichael. “There was the opportunity to play with the fun of a thriller – for an audience, not knowing where their allegiances should lie or who to sympathise with. For me, the most important thing is feeling like this is a world or context or character that is 3D. It felt like something that I could dive deep into.”
More like this
The series taps into a televisual zeitgeist – dark thrillers and true crime are on the up. Perhaps the aspect that most distinguishes The Secrets She Keeps is that it’s led by two women, both grappling with the relationship between womanhood and motherhood.
It also highlights the gap between lives: glossy public versus complicated private. “The series works around themes that are universal,” agrees Carmichael. “Women presenting as perfect, then having their worlds crashing down.”
Carmichael posts frequently on social media, but generally limits herself to sharing updates on press tours and promoting her latest work. She’s aware, though, of the traps that lie in wait for those seeking to present the perfect life. “That happens to Meghan – her social media is all smoke and mirrors. There are things that people are thinking about and talking about – women particularly. You find yourself relating to these women, which makes it more thrilling.”
Based on the novel by crime writer Michael Robotham, the storyline is inspired by the true-life kidnapping of a newborn in Nottingham in 1994. In between shooting series 1 and 2 Carmichael and her partner, Downton Abbey co-star Michael C Fox, had a son. Did having her own child impact her feelings towards Agatha?
“It’s really intense to do any research around real moments like these; I found that in the first series. Now I’ve had a baby, these things run that much deeper in terms of separation from your child. It hits in a more intense way.”
Shot in Australia, it was important for Carmichael that her family were able to join her for the duration of the shoot. “Australia is far away – there’s no popping back for a weekend!
“I felt so lucky to be there. I was working with loads of amazing women – and men as well. Loads of departments were fronted by women and it was an amazing team to be a part of. One of the biggest differences [between working in the UK and Australia] was that I spent the whole time looking for spiders, the crew found it ridiculous and hilarious.
“It’s a British thing that happens when you go over there – all you want to do is ask people about spiders, snakes and sharks. The major difference for me was checking under tables, tapping my shoes and making the crew laugh with my insane spider paranoia!”
Australian TV seems to be turning the heads of some of UK telly’s top talent – Jenna Coleman starred in gripping 2018 drama The Cry, and last year Jamie Dornan had a big hit with The Tourist, set in the outback.
“Australia has got loads of excellent writers, producers and directors. So many of their writers are ones to watch. It’s a very mobile world we live in now and talent moves around. There’s something in the water over there! They’re all good-looking and brilliant.”
She may now be in demand on both sides of the world, but things weren't always plain sailing for Carmichael. After graduating from the prestigious Old Vic Theatre School, she found it difficult to get her foot in the door.
“I didn’t have an agent for a while. I was doing bits and bobs of theatre but mostly I worked as a doctor’s receptionist, a teaching assistant, bar work... Looking back, I probably learnt as much about being an actor in that time.
“I went to drama school at 18, very enthusiastic and green. I didn’t really know anything about anything. Those years I had living in Dalston trying to figure out how to pay my rent were really informative. There were definitely points in those three years – I felt like I was so far away from the action [and becoming an actress] felt so unlikely.”
Carmichael is the first to admit how radically being cast as Lady Edith altered her life.
“When the Downton audition came up, I couldn’t have been more surprised that it was for a proper part – I thought I’d have a line or two. At the time, I didn’t know what it would mean to join a cast like that. Thank God I didn’t, or I’d have thrown up immediately! It was a life-changing moment. I was starstruck by the cast, and constantly surrounded by brilliant actors. It was such a gift.”
Having tried on both the period drama and now thriller hat, what’s next? “I’d love to do some comedy. I’ve done that more on stage than on screen. Maybe that’s a reaction to The Secrets She Keeps – I need to do some light stuff! I’d like [to do] something like The Thick of It. I want there to be more of those style of comedy shows – they’re perfect.”
The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.