Michelle Dockery moves from ‘Downton Abbey’ to Massachusetts in the TV series ‘Defending Jacob’
American moviegoers and TV watchers who were not fans of “Downton Abbey” might not be familiar with Michelle Dockery. On that hit Brit show, which ran for six seasons and spawned last year’s successful theatrical film, she had a leading role, the icy but open-minded Lady Mary Talbot.
But there’s a good chance that both fans and those who never even caught an episode have seen Dockery’s work, just not realized it. With a knack for being chameleon-like, she was an unlucky government agent in “Hanna,” a close friend of Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina in that film, a flight attendant with a couple of surprises up her sleeve in “Non-Stop,” and most recently a powerful businesswoman in “The Gentlemen.” She also had leading roles in a couple of TV series - “Godless” and “Good Behavior.” She’s all over the place; you just didn’t recognize her.
The Essex, England, native co-stars, with Chris Evans and Jaeden Martell in the new Apple TV+ limited series “Defending Jacob” as Laurie Barber, a wife, mom, and career woman whose life is turned upside down when her teenage son (Martell) is accused of murder, and her husband (Evans) reveals a lot of secrets he’s been keeping inside.
Dockery, 38, spoke by phone from her home in London, where she’s obeying self-isolation instructions.
Q: I couldn’t find any acting credits for you till you were in your mid-20’s. Had you done much work before then?
A: I was performing from a very young age. My sisters and I would be playing around, making up stories, performing them for our parents. Then I went to a local stage school - a dance school. It was a hobby at first, and then it became something I really loved doing. When I was at high school, I wanted to pursue a career in some form of performing, whether it was dance or acting. Dancing was my earliest passion, but I had a very encouraging teacher who suggested that I should apply to drama schools. I did that, and I became qualified in acting - you know, meaning I got my degree. And that’s when it became something I wanted to do as a profession.
Q: So, you were doing stage work before TV and movies?
A: Yes, I started out doing theater. My first professional job was in (the stage adaptation of) “His Dark Materials,” and it was a wonderful start into the industry. In some ways it felt like an apprenticeship because it felt like an extension of drama school. I was understudying various roles and playing other roles. At one point when I was doing that, I had something like nine different parts in my head at one time. That was really good training! Television came much later for me. I was in my late-20’s with “Downton,” and that was really my break into television.
Q: Did you go after the part in “Defending Jacob” or did it come to you?
A: I was sent some of the scripts, then had a great Skype meeting with (showrunner) Mark Bomback and (director) Morten Tyldum. For me, there’s always been a real gut instinct with scripts. It’s all in the writing. I was instantly compelled by the story, and I hadn’t yet even seen the ending. I wasn’t familiar with the book, but of course then the book became a good source as research. I’m really into crime-drama and thrillers, onscreen and in books. What I loved about “Defending Jacob” is that it’s not simply a thriller or a courtroom drama. It’s a family drama, and it has universal emotions about family and children. It’s a very touching story, but it also has to do with this awful case about this young boy accused of murdering a student in his school. You can’t quite put your finger on what genre it is.
Q: Who is Laurie Barber?
A: She and her husband and son live in Newton, Massachusetts, where she’s a real pillar of the community. She’s got close friends who see her as motherly, not only to her family but also to her friends. She’s a great mother, and is doing the best for her family. It’s a normal setup you see them in at the beginning. Then of course the murder case rocks the neighborhood and the town, and very quickly, the story turns on them. They begin to go on this journey that is unfathomable. You can’t quite imagine what it would feel like.
Q: Everyone has plenty of dialogue to tell the story, but both you and Chris Evans also have long periods of distraught silence, where you’re just thinking. Is that kind of thing tough to play?
A: It’s certainly a challenge playing roles like this, that do require a certain amount of emotion. I have to get good sleep when I’m playing a part like this. It requires a lot of focus, and immersing yourself in what you would imagine the person to be going through is how I go to that place.
Q: One last technical question. You have a strong British accent, yet you’ve done many versions of American accents, and done them well, especially in “Defending Jacob.” What’s your secret?
A: Well, I do use dialect coaches. But we grew up with American film and television, so I feel it was ingrained in me from quite a young age.
“Defending Jacob’ premieres on Apple TV+ on April 24.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.