‘Downton Abbey’ Actresses Talk on Upcoming Season
Sophia McShera at the PBS’ MASTERPIECE “Downton Abbey, Season 4” session at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles, CA on Tuesday, August 6, 2013. © Rahoul Ghose/PBS

Sophia McShera at the PBS’ MASTERPIECE “Downton Abbey, Season 4” session at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles, CA on Tuesday, August 6, 2013. © Rahoul Ghose/PBS

Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Cast members of the hit British TV series “Downton Abbey” were on hand here for the Television Critics Association Summer Tour. Among them were Michelle Dockery, who plays the impossibly proper Lady Mary Crawley, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Downton Abbey in the early ‘20s, and Sophie McShera, who plays downstairs assistant cook Daisy. Both play characters that have lost their husbands under very different circumstances. Young, impressionable Daisy married a co-worker she hardly knew when he returned from World War I mortally wounded to make his final hours happy ones. But Lady Mary lost the love of her life just hours after giving birth to their son.

Though Season Four of the hit period drama created by award winning scribe Julian Fellowes doesn’t premiere until January on PBS, Dockery and McShera spoke about their characters and being part of the worldwide phenomenon that is “Downton Abbey.”

Q: Mary has a new love interest this season called Lord Gillingham, played by Tom Cullen. Can you tell us a little bit about their relationship?

Dockery: She actually has more than one love interest, greedy girl! (Lord Gillingham) is an old family friend who she’s known since the girls were children, and they haven’t seen him since she was tiny. She’s kind of slowly, throughout the series, coming back to life. And of course, it’s important for her to eventually move on. So he is a potential love interest, yes.

Q: Will the girls actually take their dresses off this season?

Dockery: (Laughing) This is “Downton Abbey,” not “Game of Thrones.”

Q: When you first learned that Dan Stevens (who played Matthew Crawley) was leaving the show, was your first reaction, “Oh, Lady Mary’s going to get to do lots of interesting things that I never expected,” or was your first reaction, “Oh, crap?”

Dockery: My first reaction was “Oh, crap. What is going to happen?” Because I thought, “Where can the story go now? We’ve spent all this time having this on‑off, will they/won’t they relationship, and then suddenly it was coming to an end.” So, initially, I was concerned about what would happen. But I think that, as much as it was sad to see Dan go, the same as it was to see Jessica (Brown Findlay, who played Sybil) go, it opens up opportunity for Julian to write a new chapter of something quite different, not only for Mary, but the knock‑on effect it has for the other characters. So yeah, initially I was concerned. But now I’m not because it’s a great series, and it’s a very different series to what it could have been.

Q: Given what tends to happen to Lady Mary’s lovers, wouldn’t most men in the town be a little wary of courting her?

Dockery: The new actors coming into the show as suitors are really brave because God knows what can happen. I’m pretty sure that Iain Glen (who plays) Richard Carlisle is somewhere dead and we don’t even know about it.

Q: You play a new mom in this upcoming season. How’s that going?

Dockery: (Smiling) George is a very special baby.

Q: Certainly Mary has softened a little bit, hasn’t she?

Dockery: She has, yeah.

Q: How is she as a mother?

Dockery: She was never going to be a very maternal mother. She’s within the aristocracy. They didn’t really see their kids very much. So there’s a nanny, and eventually there will be a governess looking after baby George. So you don’t see much interaction between the baby and Mary. It’s hard to bond with the baby because, of course, she’s going through the grief. When she looks at him, she sees Matthew. So, yeah, it’s a slow process, I think, with motherhood for Mary.

Q: Do you follow any of the fan communities on Twitter or Tumblr? What memorable encounters have you had with fans in real life?

Dockery: I’ve had moments of thinking maybe I should go on Twitter. Maybe it’s this thing that I’ve been shy about, and maybe I should do it, and it turns out that the Lady Mary’s Eyebrows have beaten me to it. I can’t believe it. There’s an actual page called Lady Mary’s Eyebrows.

Q: You are quoted as saying that you would stay with the show through its entirety. Are you getting offers from Hollywood or would you consider offers across the pond in afterwards?

Dockery: What’s wonderful about the show is that it’s opened doors for all of us. I mean, so many of the cast are off doing other things in between. Dan is obviously doing brilliantly since he left the show, but we can do other things in between. As far as we know, we are all doing Series Five next year. Beyond that, we really don’t know. That’s in the hands of Julian and our producers. So we’ll see. I think so as long as the core cast remains. If other actors start leaving, I think that would be a worry. I think it’s been fine so far, as long as it remains as an ensemble, which, essentially, that is what the show is. So we’ll see.

Q: How do you like the actors who’ve been cast as your suitors this season?

Dockery: They are all quite handsome!

Q: Would you call this the year of girl power?

Dockery: That’s who we haven’t cast—one of the Spice Girls.

Q: Mary and her widower brother-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech) seem to have some things in common. Will they be spending some time together this season?

Dockery: We are aware that there are suspicions about Tom and Mary’s relationship, but they are very much friends, and he is her brother‑in‑law still. They become close because of what they’ve both been through, having each lost a partner. Also, Mary becomes far more involved in the running of the estate with Tom. So we do have a lot of scenes together. But, romantically, I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I hope not. It’s very inappropriate.

Q: Sophie, you look quite different in person than you do on the show. Do you get recognized on the streets as Daisy?

McShera: Not so much, but then it’s not very appropriate in London to walk up to people and say, “I know you off the telly.” We all hang out together and nobody bothers us. We get recognized more when we come to (to the U.S.) If I’m talking, people will recognize my voice, but it’s not that often that I get recognized. It’s usually when I’m looking my absolute worst, like if I’ve just gotten up and am wearing no makeup or whatever. Then they’ll go, “Oh my God, you’re in ‘Downton!’ Could I have a picture?” So, yeah, that’s not ideal.

Q: Daisy’s such a sympathetic character. Do you feel that way when you’re playing her?

McShera: Yeah. I’m always on Daisy’s side. In between scenes, when they say, “cut,” Matt (Milne) who plays the butler Alfred Nugent, I say, “Why doesn’t he fancy (Daisy)? She’s great.” And then everyone goes really quiet. It’s way obvious; Ivy’s way prettier. I guess I’m as delusional as (Daisy).

Q: Are you surprised at how popular this show is around the world?

McShera: I had no idea that people in China and America were going to love “Downton Abbey.” I really hoped that people in England and my mom and dad would like it. I really really love it. I love the script. Everyone wanted to be in it. It was ace. But I’m sure nobody imagined it would be a worldwide hit. So we’re all excited and happy.

Q: We’ve seen Rob James-Collier (who plays the butler Thomas) with his head shaved recently. Is that for the show?

McShera: No. It’s for a different (role) he’s playing. He’s got his normal hair on the show. It’s a wig.

Q: Does Daisy get to go out on a date this season?

McShera: No. But Ivy (Cara Theobold) gets to go out on a date to the theater, while Daisy has to stay in the kitchen making soup.

Q: Do you think young viewers can relate to some of the relationship issues that Daisy has to deal with?

McShera: Yeah, there are some common issues like when you fancy a boy and he fancies your friend. That’s pretty timeless. The bitchiness that the girls have between them. There’s a version of that in this.

Q: Daisy fancied Thomas for a time.

McShera: Yes, but that was never going to happen. (She laughs.) She didn’t know he was gay. She’s so naïve. My favorite scene ever is when Mrs. Patmore (Leslie Nicol) is trying to tell her that Thomas is gay. It was like she was talking to a brick wall. She wouldn’t say the actual word because she’s Mrs. Patmore. She said, “He’s not really a ladies’ man.” Daisy’s so pure. She was like, “Whatcha mean?”

Q: Do you get fan mail from China?

McShera: Yeah. I have gotten some mail from China. It’s amazing. They all want a picture. Sometimes people of other nationalities recognize me at airports. That’s kind of strange.

Q: Are you like Daisy?

McShera: There are loads of elements of Daisy that I have. Sometimes I wish I could be more like her. She’s very brave. She eventually asks for what she wants and stands up for herself. She’s got a lot of impressive qualities I admire.

Q: What’s the feeling on the set between the actors who play the upstairs characters and the downstairs cast?

McShera: We’re actually in separate buildings. The house is about an hour and a half from the studio. We’re in the studio and house is miles away. So we don’t cross paths too often. We don’t work together that often. It’s nice when we do.

Q: Daisy has had quite a journey over the past three years. I think she’s gotten to do some more personal development than some of the other characters. What do you think the biggest difference is now from when she started, and what hasn’t changed at all for her?

McShera: What hasn’t changed at all? My outfit. (She laughs.) It has a bit, though. I’ve got a drop‑waist now. I’m great. Yeah, she’s growing up. Someone asked me how old she was now and how old she was when we began, and I couldn’t work it out. She was about 10 when we started. She’s had such a journey. Even during her terrible teens, you know, at that bratty teenage stage, which she’s still in a bit. She’s been a bit of a jealous girl with (the other young cook) Ivy and everything. Yes, she’s had an amazing journey. I’ve really loved it. I like that we get such a long time because, you know, you can grow up on screen, which is always exciting.

Q: What kind of personal research did you do for your character in this era?

McShera: We get a talk at the beginning of every series from Alastair (Bruce, historical adviser), which is brilliant. He just tells us everything we could ever need to know at all times as well. His talk sort of sets you up for the year. He’s just amazing. I probably ask him a question every time I shoot a scene because he just knows everything. I was getting a bit beyond myself bossing people around in the kitchen because I’m an assistant cook now. Then a maid came in, and I started bossing her around. (Bruce) came over to me and said, “No, no. You can’t boss the maids around. They are way above you.” And I was, like, “Oh. I thought I was really, like, high status now.” And he’s, like, “No.” So he’s really helpful because he just tells you exactly what to do in situations like that.