Laura Carmichael on ‘Downton Abbey’ and Working Alongside Dame Maggie Smith: ‘It’s really one of the greatest privileges of my life’
Few television shows have achieved the level of cultural impact as “Downton Abbey.” Just three and a half months after its September 2010 debut in the U.K., it made a splash on this side of the pond, becoming PBS’ most-watched series ever. Throughout its six season run, viewers followed the aristocratic Crawley family, and those who worked for them, on their sprawling English estate as they dealt with romantic entanglements, family rivalries and scheming colleagues, along with the darker moments of a sexual assault, a murder trial and several tragic and untimeely deaths. As a family saga that is both soapy and high brow, it has a timeless quality.
Now, 11 years after the debut of tee beloved British period drama, creator Julian Fellowes presents what might just be the final chapter, “Downton Abbey: A New Era.” This second film, which is partly set in the picturesque south of France, is a treat for fans, who get to see their favorite characters evolve, including Lady Edith Crawley Pelham, (Laura Carmichael), the current Marchioness of Hexham and second daughter of Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), who is content in her marriage and career after years of playing second fiddle to her more glamorous and financially secure older sister, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery).
In an interview with Entertainment Voice, Carmichael discussed some of her favorite moments of making the series, and the latest film, “A New Era,” which culminates in an emotional goodbye to matriarch of the Crawley family, Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, who was portrayed brilliantly by the magnificent Maggie Smith. Carmichael takes us inside of filming that final farewell, the experience of working alongside Smith all these years and what her departure means for the world of “Downton Abbey.” The actress also spoke about her on and off-screen relationship with Michelle Dockery, the genius of Julian Fellowes, and what she hopes audiences will take with them after watching “A New Era.”
Lady Edith has had this incredible journey with ups and downs throughout the series and the first movie. Now she’s finally in a great place with her family life and career. What was your reaction when you first read the script for “A New Era”?
I was so excited. I was part of the lucky team that goes to France, so I was thrilled to read that. I was also really excited to see that Julian had picked up that she wants to carry on writing. She’s become a mother again, but she still wants to write. I think that people who’ve watched Edith’s journey think that’s really satisfying, to see her keep doing that.
How much fun it must have been to film in the south of France. Were there any particularly memorable moments?
It was an amazing experience… It’s so beautiful. The locations we were in were completely stunning, as you’ve seen on screen. I guess what was amazing as well was that we all had to quarantine together for ten days in a hotel, all in the same hotel together. We sat by the pool waiting to start work. It was really kind of nice. It was a relaxing time rather than a stressful time. We felt like we were on a big holiday together, cast and crew. I know that we’ll always remember that.
In “A New Era,” there’s a plot involving a film being shot at Downton Abbey, and Edith is there to see the end of production. It kind of mirrors Downtown life, as it does parts of Highclere Castle’s history. What has it been like spending all these years filming in this living, breathing historic estate with such a storied past?
It’s wonderful. We sort of take it for granted. It’s become like a second home to us, driving up that driveway. And actually filming that stuff, the film within the film, Lord and Lady Carnavon will relate to the feeling of chaos descending on your home. I loved shooting there. It’s a really special place for me.
There’s an emotional goodbye to Maggie Smith’s character at the end of the film. How did you prepare for that scene?
To be honest, we were sort of geared for it. Knowing it was coming really got us into that headspace. I do think we had to hold back, if anything, because it was really emotional. It did feel like a moment of acknowledging how wonderful it’s been to work with Maggie. It’s really one of the greatest privileges of my life to be able to work with her and call her a friend. That scene sort of just played itself. In terms of everyone else in the room, we were just watching Maggie and being moved by what she was doing.
Assuming there will be another “Downton” reunion in the future, what’s the world of Downton going to be like for you without the Dowager Countess of Grantham?
I really don’t know. It’ll be the thing that has a question mark for us going forward. It certainly won’t feel the same. I don’t know what that will look like. We’ll have to wait and see.
The bond between Edith and Mary seems to be in a good place after so many years of rivalry, and they lean on each other for support at the end. What has been the most rewarding aspect of filming with Michelle as that on-screen relationship has evolved?
She’s just my best mate. We really got to know each other in a way that is like family. There aren’t, other than my sisters, people who know me as well. We have a real laugh, and all of the times [Edith and Mary] were being awful to each other, that was our favorite stuff to film. In the shooting of this film, they still nudge each other, but now there’s a slight warmth between them. It feels very natural and very easy to slip into that with Michelle.
Out of all the Edith storylines in the series and the films, which one would you say is your favorite or was the most challenging to film?
I really have a soft spot for the end of the TV show, because it just felt like a trumpet blast for Edith’s story. I loved shooting the scene where Bertie breaks off the engagement because he finds out about Marigold, just because it’s so painful in the way that they’re unable to really look at each other or say, “What are you doing?” It’s all unsaid and very [restrained]. It was a huge challenge for me to do that, because I think I’m very emotional, a very demonstrative person.
The director, David Evans, was really helping me, telling me, “We can’t show that emotion. She wouldn’t be able to do that. They’re in so much pain. This isn’t what either of them wants, but she lied to him and he needs to end it.” That stuff was great, and it was followed by the brilliant scene with Michelle where Edith calls Mary a bitch (laughs), [which we] wanted to play for a long time.
Where do you see Edith going from here?
I hope if we see more from her, it will be her as she’s powering ahead being the editor of this magazine. She’s crushing it and she’s able to balance that career and family. We all know that that’s hard to do, but you know that she wants to do it, and I think that’s brilliant, that drive that’s in her.
You filmed “A New Era” just a few months after welcoming your first child. How did being a new mother impact your performance and the way you relate to Edith?
It was such a whirlwind. He was so little when we started. But, honestly, it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had working, to be able to bring him on set and keep going. I feel very supported by the “Downton” family, the cast and the crew and the producers who did so much to make it easy for us. I certainly relate to that story with Edith wanting to keep working, and I felt very lucky that I was able to do that.
What have been some of your favorite aspects of working with Julian Fellowes since the beginnings of “Downton Abbey”?
He’s extraordinary. He’s the most articulate person. Being around him is always fun. He’s hilarious. He always has brilliant stories to tell, which is why he’s so good at what he does. He really does manage to keep the plates spinning in a way that is unique to him. Something that seems so small on the page translates in the most beautiful way on the show. It all comes from him. I think people are still surprised to hear that, but there isn’t a team of writers. There isn’t a writers’ room. It’s just Julian.
And, what do you hope is the biggest takeaway for “Downton Abbey” fans after watching “A New Era”?
I hope that people feel like they can go and watch in the cinema. I think it’s going to be the first time for a lot of people in years that they’ve done that. It feels like an event to go to the theater and watch something that hopefully will make you feel good and move you, make you laugh, make you cry, to sit and watch it in the dark with strangers in that magical way that you do when you go to the cinema. I think it’s the perfect experience.
“Downton Abbey: A New Era” releases May 20 in theaters nationwide.