Interview: ‘Downton Abbey’ stars talk ‘cold’ twist and ‘complications’

Season 4 of “Downton Abbey” is old news in the U.K., but here in the U.S. we’re finally getting a chance to see the show this Sunday (Sun. Jan. 5 at 9:00 p.m. on PBS). I had a chance to talk very briefly to two ladies of the house — Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith Crawley) and Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley) during press tour last year, and, while they couldn’t give any clues, they did discuss the changes to the show, their characters, and (perhaps) a hint of what’s ahead. Sure, you can skulk around the Internet and find tons of spoilers, but what fun is that? 

Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith)

In street clothes, you’re almost unrecognizable as Lady Edith. Do you get recognized often?

No, not much, no. I feel like the hair is such a disguise, the wig. Yeah, it’s a nice thing in some ways, but people are always so kind when they figure it out. 

In season 3, Edith really blossomed. What’s your take on her transformation into a modern woman?

I think it’s really that point of how much time we cover. I think that the eras that it takes, the war, how it affected them, and then the really hard circumstances she’s lived through have forced her into a corner where she’s had to get strong. And she could sit down and moan about it or she could find something to do.

At the point when she decides to write the letters [to the newspaper], it’s just after Sybil dies, and I think she’s feeling the loss of the rebel of the family. I definitely feel the loss of the characters in the last series informs the decisions that Edith certainly makes. Matthew was a champion of hers and Sybil certainly was as well. There are moments in the series, I can’t tell you when, when they really figure into her decision making. 

Given that Matthew and Sybil were supporters of Edith’s, their deaths are devastating. What was it like for the cast when you learned Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown-Findlay were leaving?

We did discuss it. We’d initially planned to do three series, so we had to make a decision, as a whole, about whether we wanted to do more. Jessica had already been tied to another project, so that was her decision made, but with Dan wanted to do other things. He’s one of the busiest and most multi-talented people I know.

He managed to do “Downton Abbey” whilst producing and starring in his own film, and judging the Man Booker Prize in the U.K. — which involves reading 125 books in three months — and having his second child. I think this is something you need to know about Dan Stevens, he is so smart, he needs stimuli. So that was his decision, and we understood that. He has a young family and he wants to travel. I know it felt like such a [complication] to the world; I know it did to us, because we do miss Dan, but it’s a job and it’s a decision you make. Julian [Fellowes] was devastated, but I think it’s really helped to inform the series. 

Should we worried for Edith?
I can’t possibly tell you. 

Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley)

Mary’s a widow now — has that changed her? Has she reverted to her old ways? 

I think everyone will understand the predicament she’s in, because she’s lost a husband. But she certainly does revert back a little to being quite cold again. It’s not Mary deciding to be that way. It’s just the grief, really. She can’t really function properly for having lost Matthew and her sister. So Edith and Mary have been through a lot together, really. Edith has lot a friend. Matthew was a friend of hers. So it affects everyone in the house. But I’ve enjoyed playing that different kind of take on my character again, I certainly wasn’t expecting it this time last year.

It seems that these loses have opened a door for your character, in a sense. 

It did. Julian certainly wasn’t expecting that, and we were all sad to see them go, but it changes the story and it’s a new chapter, really. Dan was a huge part of the show and now all that’s changed, so it gave Julian an opportunity to write something completely different.

Now that Matthew’s gone, are we going to face the same “we need a male heir” issues that plagued the Crawleys in season one? 

We will see some of the issues. With the death duties after Matthew dying, It does cause a lot of complications, because of course George is too young to inherit, it does cause a lot of complications.