Devoted Downton Abbey fans went through quite a bit with Lady Mary. We watched the dashing Kemal Pamuk die in her bed and witnessed her subsequent marriage-free trysts with Lord Gillingham. But those risqué plots don’t compare to Michelle Dockery’s latest TV role.
In the new TNT series Good Behavior, Dockery headlines as Letty Raines, a drug-addicted con artist who just got out of prison. Even with her parole officer (Terry Kinney) watching her every move, Letty quickly returns to her grifter ways and gets involved with a dangerous but very sexy hit man (Juan Diego Botto).
Suffice it to say, Dockery couldn’t be further from the English countryside of a century ago. Paste recently had the chance to chat with Dockery about her latest TV role and what it’s like to play such a troubled American.
Paste: This role is obviously so different from Lady Mary. Were you looking to really shake things up in your first post-Downton part?
Michelle Dockery: We were finishing up Downton Abbey and this part came along. It wasn’t something I was sort of consciously looking for—something so extremely different so quickly. But I was completely blown away by the character and the script and loved her and wanted to do it.
It was a great way of getting over Downton Abbey because I would have missed it so much had I not gone into something else. But essentially I was just looking for another job. I wasn’t being particular about where or what that was. For me it’s always down to the writing and the character and this was a script that I just couldn’t put down and I knew I had to play her and I got the part so all of that felt great.
Paste: I would imagine you don’t have a lot in common with Letty. What is the most challenging part about playing her?
Dockery: Mary had its challenges because she was a character where there’s a certain amount of rules physically as far as the way she speaks and everything that was very, very different from who I am. Then to come out of having gotten used to that and to play an American was a challenge and a great one. But like I say, it was great that it came at that time, so I wasn’t missing Downton too much. Mary will always be in my heart and a character that I love playing. I’ve been very fortunate to go from this into something quite different.
Paste: Was it important to try to find common ground with Letty? To relate to her in some way?
Dockery: I never really compare myself to characters I play. I think it’s tempting to want to draw comparisons but I never think of it in that way. They are characters that I’m playing.
Paste: How did you prepare for the role? How do you get into the mindset of someone like her?
Dockery: The original chronicles by Blake Crouch [the series is based on Crouch’s novellas] were quite useful because it goes into a little more detail about the character. That was sort of my main initial research. The character sort of developed as I went along. What’s amazing about her is she plays these characters within the character. Her disguise is a way of escaping who she is, escaping her problems and her struggles. If she becomes someone else for a few hours it helps her in a way, it lightens her. For me it was just navigating my way through who is she in this moment? Does she speak slightly differently? Is she different physically? You see Letty through these characters. It’s always her. She’s just putting a mask on. It was a lot of fun to play and do and explore these different disguises.
Paste: Going in, how much did you know about how the first season would unfold?
Dockery: We got the scripts as we went along similarly to Downton Abbey. We got the first four episodes every year and then we got the rest of it as we went along. It’s a funny thing as an actor because you kind of want to know and then you don’t at the same time because then you’re expecting it or you’re playing what you already know. The past is important, I think, but what’s coming ahead, that spontaneity is exciting. But it’s always a challenge not really knowing what’s coming ahead. The person that you know at the beginning [of the season] is not the same person at the end. Much like life you’re not the same person [as] six month ago.
Paste: Is this the first time you’ve had to do an American accent?
Dockery: It’s the second time. I did a film called Selfless with Ryan Reynolds a couple of years ago and I was American for that.
Paste: How hard is an American accent?
Dockery: It’s something that I had coaching for originally. I had a great dialect coach that I often work with. And the American accent is something we grew up with as Brits. We watched American TV shows and films. We probably see much more American television and films than Americans see British. It’s something I don’t fixate on too much. I try to get the accent under my belt as soon as possible so it’s not something I constantly think about when I’m acting because then it becomes more about that rather than what the character’s doing and saying.
Paste: And you do a few different variations of an American accents.
Dockery: The Southern accent is easier in some ways. I think a lot of British actors feel the same. You don’t have to work quite as hard. It’s a drawl, it’s a slightly lazier accent. I find that one much easier.
Paste: You’re also working on the new Netflix series Godless, which is set to premiere next year.
Dockery: We’re still doing it. I’m in New Mexico now. It’s six episodes. I play a character called Alice Fletcher. The story centers around Jeff Daniels, an outlaw. It’s really a feminist western. There’s a group of extremely fascinating female roles in this which makes it different from any other western and again it was another different thing to do. I’ve been very fortunate this year.
Paste: Now that you’ve worked on two American TV series, what’s the difference between an American TV set and a British one?
Dockery: They work very similarly. They run a tight ship. The main difference for me is just food. There’s a lot more food on an American set than there is on a UK set. We have biscuits, then lunch, then a sandwich in the afternoon. But the craft services here is all day long and it still fascinates me. There are M&M’s on standby all day long. And the climate is very different. It’s been a lovely change to be in the sunshine for so long, but I am ready to go home. I miss London.
Good Behavior premieres Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 9 p.m. on TNT.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal ®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog.