Interview: ‘Downton Abbey’ star Laura Carmichael discusses the challenges of Lady Edith

It's a perfect Lady Edith moment.

I'm talking to Laura Carmichael a couple weeks back during the Television Critics Association press tour and early in our interview, she has to pause and take a call. She's all apologetic, but it's Ealing Studios and they've apparently forgotten that Carmichael isn't in England shooting “Downton Abbey,” but rather she's Across the Pond promoting the upcoming fifth season.


That's the kind of thing that just doesn't happen with Lady Mary and CERTAINLY wouldn't have happened with Poor Lady Sybil, rest in peace.

But for Edith? Well, she's always had it harder. Lady Edith has reliably been forgotten, sneered at or grumbled about, but she perseveres.

“Julian [Fellowes] has a theory that some people in life are lucky and some people are not. And Edith has not been lucky,” Carmichael laughs. “But I think, to her credit, it's helped her be a far more proactive person and the sort of a modern day woman in that way, because she hasn't laid down and let it all washed over her. She has gotten up and gone to work and created a life for herself.”

Two seasons ago, it seemed like Lady Edith might have turned a corner. Yes, she was still subject to withering scorn from Mary and general apathy from her parents, but she seemed to have found a reasonably good man and she also had found a job. 

But in Season 4, Michael Gregson vanished in Germany, leaving Edith to cope with an unplanned pregnancy, a plight that kept her so busy that she stopped mentioning her newspaper column entirely. 

In our conversation, Carmichael explains what Edith was up to last year and the importance of being the keeper of your own character when you're one piece of a 17-person ensemble. She argues for Edith's growth and evolution over the years and talks about the change in reactions to her. 

We won't be getting Season 5 of “Downton Abbey” until January, at least not via legal means. But since we started our conversation with Emmy talk and since there are no real spoilers at all, I'm posting now!

Check out the full Q&A…

HitFix: So first off, congratulations on all of the Emmy nominations that the show earned.

Laura Carmichael: Thank you!

HitFix: What do you make of how much Emmy voters seem to love you guys?

Laura Carmichael: I mean we're so surprised. We really are. It was funny, one of the publicist for the show was on-set and we were like, “Hey what are you doing here?” And they're like, “Well, the Emmy nominations come out today.” And I was like, “If we don't get any do you just drive home? Has that been a wasted journey?” And she was really thinking this sort two hour drive that day we were like it might be a waste of your day today, Jess. It was our lunch hour. It was amazing timing. And all our trailers were in a kind of row and we were all off scene and poking our heads out.

[The phone rings. “Ealing Studios. That's work. That's hilarious,” she says, looking at the number. “I'm in LA at the moment! I'm doing the TCAs,” she has to explain. She gets off the phone a minute later. “Umm… You do know you sent me to America to do press,” she laughs.]

Laura Carmichael: Sorry. So yes, we were there and they announcing them and we were amazed — Amazed! — to get so many. And thrilled. It's such a bizarre treat and we're very grateful. I mean it really is surreal.

HitFix: Have you been to the ceremony any of the other years? Will you go this year? 

Laura Carmichael: I haven't been to the Emmys actually and I'm not sure. I've been to the SAG Awards and to the Golden Globes.

HitFix: I had memories of red carpet pictures  of you, but I couldn't remember which show they were for. 

Laura Carmichael: Exactly. That's it. I know. But I'm intrigued by the Emmys, but I've never been. I know obviously Michelle and Jo are nominated and Jim so they'll be there for sure. But I'm not sure who else is coming. It's such a weird thing for us because there's always like two people from the cast of “Downton Abbey” there because the rest are in London. But hopefully, it would be lovely to come.

HitFix: Well, where are you guys actually in production right now?

Laura Carmichael: We've got three more weeks, four more weeks so I think that means we're done before the Emmys? I can't remember where the things are. They're soon aren't they?

HitFix: They're in late August. A little bit earlier this year.

Laura Carmichael: A little bit earlier. Yeah. But it's brilliant. And the TV being made at the moment is so incredible and so we were listing the people we thought it would be this year. So the fact that we were in the Best Drama is mad

HitFix: So, you guys were doing predictions and you were leaving yourself out?

Laura Carmichael: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We're like, 'We've got 'Mad Men' and 'Game of Thrones' and 'House of Cards' and 'True Detective.' Who got missed out because we were there?” I don't know but we were very pleased.

HitFix: So you're most of the way into this season. Is this the season that everything turns around for Edith and you're happy and smile the entire season?

Laura Carmichael: [She laughs.] I know. We were sort of reminding ourselves where we left her. It's a tricky place. She's on a knife-edge. And the thing that I think it makes this situation even worse, which sounds not-too-exciting is that nobody really knows. Even though she's having a horrible time and Gregson's disappeared and her child is separated from her, in the country but not living with her, the family have no idea. So it's like a private pain, which only sort of adds to that, “Oh pull yourself together Edith” kind of attitude from the family. So it's a lovely story. I mean the arc is great, but it's not a great place. In the same way that Mary last year, they've done that. You knew that coming into Season 4 that Mary was going to be under a cloud. And I think in Season 5 Edith will be.

HitFix: But she was only under a cloud for a couple weeks and then she had 15 different suitors, just everyone coming by the house.

Laura Carmichael: I know. I KNOW. They just line up. But yeah, Julian has a theory that some people in life are lucky and some people are not. And Edith has not been lucky. But I think, to her credit, it's helped her be a far more proactive person and the sort of a modern day woman in that way, because she hasn't laid down and let it all washed over her. She has gotten up and gone to work and created a life for herself. And throughout this season, it's not the sort of main push of the story, but we know that she is still writing and working and the newspaper is still coming into play. And I'm very pleased because I think that's a sort of cool element to her story is that she is a working woman. And that only came out of the agony of being jilted and not having a straight-forward match meant that she's had to diversify a bit.

HitFix: Well, you just mentioned something very important. The third season was all about sort of getting into that position where she was becoming a writer and then last season we didn't see her write a word. [“I know!” she agrees.] Was she actually writing the whole time?

Laura Carmichael: Yeah. Well, and this is an interesting thing. It's sort of there in an unsaid way and I'm always up for Julian to write more of it. I really want to see more of it. But yes, we are led to believe that it is still ongoing. And we do see her in the office in this series. It was very funny, this time last year in fact was when we did a panel and someone said, “What is she writing about?” And I sort of looked at Gareth and I was like, “Well…” But no, Julian sort of referenced the fact that she was writing for this sort of women's column. So that's when I pulled the “She's a Carrie Bradshaw of the '20s,” that line.

HitFix: But what are those conversations like where you sort of want Julian or anyone to tell you what's actually happening when you're not on screen?

Laura Carmichael: I mean well yeah, and I think that's the thing about being in a show that has 17 characters and spans nearly 12 years, we've spanned so far. There has to be an element of the bits that you tell and the bits that you don't tell. And it's actually been a brilliant exercise as an actor. And I think each department actually to everyone's credit is that in order to keep that thread alive, even though we're not focusing on it, the art department brings in the most incredible props and things of “This is your work briefcase.” And the costume department goes, “You have a watch. Mary doesn't have a watch. Mary doesn't care what time it is.” Do you know what I mean? It's sort of the things that everyone thinks about the world in which you live and you have to focus more on it. And between the director and the actors I think you have ways of telling that story in the most simplistic ways. And what you come into the room carrying and where you've been, it's your job to think about that. And Julian was very clear from the beginning that it's your responsibility to uphold your storyline. And that was the thing that him and Robert Altman discussed with “Gosford Park” and they had the most insane cast. For example Sophie Thompson, a brilliant actress, Emma Thompson's sister, who is a sort of underpinning character of “Gosford Park,” she has like three lines in the whole thing but you know who she is and you know her background and you feel like you know what it looks like when she goes into her room at night alone. It's a real character exercise and a gift for an actor in a way that you have to fill in those gaps and make the decisions for yourself. Obviously you talk to the producers, who talk to Julian or you get to talk to Julian about things and going “What is it that I'm doing here and how often am I submitting my column?” and all of those things.

HitFix: So is it weekly or monthly?

Laura Carmichael: It's a monthly. And I write quite a lot from home but I pop into the office occasionally. So it's sort of those questions that you have to identify, and then in the moments we see her in a London it has to be apparent of how I'm talking to that person, how well do they know me? Sort of it's that thing. So you have to build that for yourself in a lot of it. Because there are 17 characters and we've only got 47 minutes or something to do it in.

HitFix: Well, do you think that newspaper world is the world in which Edith is the star? Do you think she walks in and people smile at her?

Laura Carmichael: I think so. Yeah. That's why I love doing that stuff. I love it. And I think it's a really cool side to her that I always want to see more of. But meantime, we are dealing with the tragedy of all tragedies. She's got her child living down the road and her parents got no idea why she's so miserable and they kind of think, “Come on just get over Gregson. He left a couple of years ago and you haven't heard from him. Baby, it's over.”

HitFix: That seems to be their position on everything involving Edith.

Laura Carmichael: Yeah. And actually to be fair they're not so bad this year but it's hard for the family to understand why she is so devastated because they don't know about the child.

HitFix: How much of the detail you feel like you know about what happened in Switzerland on the trip?

Laura Carmichael: Again, that's something that Sam Bond, who plays Rosamund, myself and the director talked through. And you hope that that's what we reads in the scenes that you see and what plays in terms of how we are with one another. And for me I feel that, you know, it's like any family member, but with Rosamund I think I enjoyed the idea of in that enormous time they spent together you could begin to feel quite smothered by the person who's doing everything they can to help you and selflessly doing everything, as you'll see. I think no one can help make it better. And I think the way that family tried with it you just get irritated because no one can truly understand how awful it is for you. But yeah, I think what Rosamund did was an incredible act of kindness. And I think that throughout that time they've become very close.

HitFix: So, over the years how have you sort of seen other people's reactions to Edith change? And to you as Edith?

Laura Carmichael: They've definitely warmed. We used to always just sort of joke about, “Poor Edith” and it's the catchphrase now, “Oh poor Edith.” But I think it's been lovely to watch her evolve and people warm to that. And I always felt, even in the early days of reading those scripts, I thought, “She's a misunderstood character.” I love the fact that from the get-go I was like, “Yeah sure, if you write down her actions you wouldn't go, 'That's a great person; I want to be their best friend.' But from my point of view is I understand why she's doing that.'” And that's because no one is given her any attention. No one is aware she's alive and how awful would that be? And I always felt like there were other clues with her as well about her being slightly bookish and a bit of a loner. I always felt like there was something to sympathize with, empathize with Edith. And so I think as Julian has expanded that and you sort of see a bit into the world and the family continued to brush her off… And I have to say for my fellow cast they find it very difficult sometimes to play those dismissive moments because they're like, “I don't get why I'm being so awful to her.” But I think, you know, it's sort of the role within the family that she inhabits. And I think for a lot of it it's a self-fulfilling prophecy with her that she sort of plays that downtrodden part quite well. But things have gone spectacularly badly.

HitFix: But you feel like people have sort of warmed to her and you don't get quite the same…

Laura Carmichael: I never felt like people were like, “You're the worst,” but I think…

HitFix: Well, it was never about you being the worst, but maybe a little bit on Edith.

Laura Carmichael: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. And that whole Turkish diplomat thing that was bad, writing to the embassy. But I think they've also grown up. They're older. We were playing 16/17-year-old teenagers who were all fighting, which I think is always very difficult in the costumes and the hair. We always seem ancient. But they were squabbling teens and they've since lived through a war. I think it's sort of right that they've found a new side to themselves in a way.

HitFix: You mentioned sort of that Julian has sort of explained that some people, good things just don't happen to them. Would Edith work if she got happy?

Laura Carmichael: I don't know. I think so yeah. I think now, for sure. I love that sort of phrase that you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. And I feel like I heard that in “Mad Men” or something about women and work and stuff. And I don't think you can with her. I think that she got the feeling of, the gratification of working, in that you feel that you've achieve something. I think that came from the war effort for many women and I don't think… not everyone is the same and obviously some people don't, you know, being at home is a job in itself and raising a family for sure. But I think if you are a writer I think she wants to write and that drives her now.

HitFix: And as a last question: How many people do you think that Bates has killed?

Laura Carmichael: [She laughs.] I don't know. I don't know. There's probably a half in there somewhere I think. A decimal point.

HitFix: So you're going with decimals. Okay. Excellent. Well, thank you so much.

“Downton Abbey” returns to PBS on January 4, 2015.