Photographed By: Vincent Peters
It happens somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, when Michelle Dockery is flying home from the United States after finishing the production shoot for a season of Good Behavior. As the flight returns the English actress to London, she sheds the weight of playing Letty Raines, a character struggling not to be defined by her failings. A talented con artist, skilled thief, recidivist substance addict and intermittent mother, Letty is the kind of role an actor wants to portray to the world but not carry inside them.
“I always feel like I need to detox after playing Letty,” Dockery says. “It’s a pretty intense experience as you can imagine, given her behavior.”
Some actors never escape their breakthrough role: it defines or even comes to dominate their career, creating an image that shadows their every performance. In Dockery’s case, the 35-year-old has seemingly made a clean break. It’s less than two years since the 52nd and final episode of Downton Abbey, the quintessentially British period drama about an aristocratic family and their servants, went to air on Christmas Day 2015, and already people have stopped identifying her solely as Lady Mary Crawley, the beautiful if quick-to-judge eldest daughter.
Dockery is just back from seven months in Wilmington, North Carolina, where Good Behavior is set and shot, and she reports that people are as likely to recognize her for Letty Raines as Mary Crawley. It’s understandable when you look at the new show’s viewing figures in America, where it airs on cable channel TNT: they almost doubled from the initial episode of the first season to the finale. The series, which screens in Australia on Stan, is a hit.
Everything that’s wrong about Letty is what’s right about her – that’s what I love,” Dockery says. “She’s trying constantly to make herself a better person – like we all are, in a way. We all want to be a better version of ourselves, but it’s the flaws that make us unique.”
In the first episode, Letty tries to take solace in a motivational tape. “Today I feel good,” she’s urged to say aloud, but the only way that the character – a grifter, thief and sometimes addict out on parole and trying to make a turn for the legitimate – can feel good is to find satisfaction through her skills. But when Letty goes back to ripping off luxury hotel rooms, she chooses the wrong one, becoming ensnared by Javier (the Argentinian-born actor Juan Diego Botto), a hitman Letty becomes professionally and then personally involved with.
As criminals go, the pair are very good looking perpetrators, with the first season of Good Behaviour sometimes leaning on a steamy mutual attraction that was soon depicted with gusto in bedrooms, elevators and other assorted locales very good looking people find themselves. But as the narrative unfolded it revealed a woman living outside the traditional hierarchies – a former inmate without qualifications, estranged from her own family – who sets out to secure her own version of a good life.
“What I fell in love with when I read the script were her flaws and her complexities. We can talk about strong female characters all day long, but it’s more than that,” Dockery says. “She’s a real woman and what I love about the writing is that it’s an incredible collection of writers from all walks of life, so I get to play this vastly diverse character who doesn’t apologise for what she does and that makes her incredibly honest.”
The second season of the show, which was created by producer Chad Hodge and author Blake Crouch, who’d previously collaborated on the Matt Dillon series Wayward Pines, tests Letty and Javier with a dangerous adversary: domesticity. The two are trying to project a family life for the son, Jacob (Nyles Julian Steele), Letty has finally legally and morally reclaimed from her previously disapproving mother. Getting the boy into a good school is just another game Letty has to learn to short circuit.
“There’s such wit in that, such humor in seeing these two outcasts – a thief and a hitman – trying to live a normal life. They can try to take their child to school, but what they can’t do is escape their past,” Dockery says. “In the second season the characters are more deeply developed, not just individually but the relationships between them.”
Before the first season of Good Behavior aired, Dockery politely fielded slightly different versions of the same question in every interview: this Letty Raines character is completely different to Mary Crawley. She was polite enough to not point out that adopting different personas is par for the actor’s course, and now admits that she didn’t go looking for a part that would erase the memory of the aristocrat with the chequered lo love life.
“I never had the intention of doing something so vastly different. I never think that’s a good way to carve out a career, but Letty just came out of nowhere really when I was finishing off Downtown Abbey and the script appeared,” Dockery says. “It was more the opposite: I was cautious about doing something so different when people had obviously known me for Mary. I didn’t want it to appear that I was doing this just for the sake of it.”
For Dockery, the youngest of three daughters who grew up in the East London suburb of Romford and pursued acting from an early age, taking on the challenge of playing Letty also let her throw herself into work. A long location shoot in another country and mastering a foreign accent were ways to distract herself from the death in December 2015 of her fiance, Irish public relations executive John Dineen, due to a rare form of brain cancer.
The pair had been introduced by a mutual friend, Dockery’s Downtown Abbey cast-mate Allen Leech, and had been together for two years. “I was honored to know John,” Dockery reportedly told fellow mourners at his funeral in the Irish village of Waterfall in County Cork. “To love him and be loved by him.”
The actress had only spoken of him in brief, contented terms while they were together, and after his passing with Dockery bedside, she has rightfully kept her private life separate from her career. Dockery’s one oblique comment, to the London Telegraph last August, was that acting served as a “release”.
The dedication to her craft has certainly spurred her career, whether it was standing out on the red carpet at the Emmys in 2016 in a ruffled Oscar de la Renta gown or securing another key American part in the upcoming Netflix western series Godless, opposite Jeff Daniels and Jack O’Connell.
Later this year Dockery returns to the London stage at the National Theatre, where she made her professional debut in 2004, to star alongside Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) in a stage adaptation of Network, the blisteringly dark 1975 American satire about a television news anchor whose on-air rants become a ratings juggernaut. Dockery will play programming boss Diana Christensen, a role that earnt Faye Dunaway a best actress Academy Award.
“I’m incredibly fortunate. Godless was a wonderful production to be a part of and I’m really excited to get back on stage with Network. I’ve got to get my sea legs back onstage after doing television for so long. I’m really excited to work with Bryan Cranston on this brilliant adaptation,” Dockery says, before taking a momentary pause. “So it’s been a good year.”
The new season of Good Behavior starts on Monday, October 16, on Stan.