“Julian always says try not to reinvent the wheel too quickly, which I think is good advice if you are well known and in something.”
Actress Laura Carmichael is recalling the sage words of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes to her. For those who have spent the last five years in a space and time warp, Carmichael played Lady Edith in Fellowes’ Downton Abbey, the multi-award winning series thatculminated in December last year with Edith – finally! – overcoming her marital misfortune to marry estate-wielding mega catch Bertie Pelhamin a Christmas episode watched by more than seven million viewers.
Our love affair with the quieter, mousy middle sister, and by default Carmichael, ballooned over six series to proportions few could have imagined, not least Carmichael. Fellowes’ suggestion was, presumably, conveyed with the sensibilities of die-hard Downton fans in mind.
But if the last few months are anything to go by, the 29-year-old actress has kicked this advice, along with Lady Edith’s wig, firmly to the curb. Since February she has been treading the boards in Jamie Lloyd’s much anticipated adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Maids, a perverse and erotic psychological thriller about two maids fantasising about murdering their employer.
And, from tomorrow, she appears on screen in Marcella, ITV’s latest gritty detective drama about a serial killer on the loose, which features scenes of such graphic violence and gore you may have trouble sleeping. It is a clean break if ever there was one – and a savvy move away from the dusty carpets and elaborate undergarments of Downton’s corridors.
Carmichael, speaking from the 14th floor of ITV studios in London, denies hers was a deliberate leap away from the recent past but admits “there might have been a few options [after Downton] that seemed too close to Edith”.
“It really wasn’t a conscious move to go, ‘I must play a…. whatever,’” she says, her voice lacking any of Lady Edith’s airs and graces. “But I’m delighted that they are different. The thing for me is that they are just really cool projects. If I wasn’t involved with them I would want to see them. I am really excited because I don’t think of myself as Edith.”
In Marcella, Carmichael plays Maddy Stevenson, a single-minded and ambitious student who strikes up a relationship with one of the investigation’s main suspects. She thinks she can solve the murders herself; one feels she will be sorely mistaken. The script is the work of Sweden’s Hans Rosenfeldt, the man behind The Bridge, and this is his first designed exclusively for a UK audience.
With a strong but crucially flawed female lead character (Anna Friel takes the role of Marcella), dingy skyline, macabre crime scenes and a sprinkling of cable knit, the series has all the hallmarks of supremely bankable Scandi noir – except that it’s set in London. Carmichael is more than au fait with the genre.
“I love it. There is something very exciting with the way we watch television now, on box sets and things, and have these shows that are so complex and absorbing to binge watch.”
One scene involving a dog and, let’s just say decomposing fluids dripping from a ceiling, is particularly eye-popping. “God, it is so gruesome,” yelps Carmichael. “I know people are going to be squealing behind a cushion and talking about it at work the next day.”
It is not her first time acting alongside Friel. The pair were in a West End production of Uncle Vanya together four years ago.
“We have run into each other a few times in between and we’ve been texting,” she says. “She is so brilliant and quick and keen to try new things. I live for that.”
Alongside Marcella, Carmichael has been balancing rehearsals for, and performances of, The Maids, at Trafalgar Studios until May. In a three-woman cast alongside Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black) and Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat), Carmichael plays their vile, torturous mistress.
While “every night is nerve wracking, you are pumped with adrenaline,” she praises Lloyd’s bold production, which is littered with expletives and includes a scene where Carmichael stands on a maid’s back in stilettos as she bends over. Lady Crawley would weep.
Reviews have been mixed – understandably, perhaps, given the divisive content – but Carmichael never reads them. “I think it is just the best thing to do because it is just one person’s opinion,” she says.
Her moment in the limelight very nearly didn’t happen. Growing up in Shirley, a suburb of Southampton, Carmichael (like Edith) was the middle of three daughters born to her mother, Sarah, a radiographer, and father Andrew, a software consultant.
She had her heart set on ballet initially, but kept her family entertained with impressions of TV personalities such as Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. Performing was always her thing, and after-school dance and drama clubs sufficed until she was sent from her sixth form college to nearby Winchester College on loan for a Shakespeare production. The result was a mind set on acting.
It didn’t come easy though: after leaving Bristol Old Vic Theatre School she spent two years in acting’s Outer Siberia, working as a nanny and receptionist at a doctor’s surgery while struggling to win parts. It was while working at the surgery that the Downton call came.
Jill Trevellick, the show’s casting director, had remembered her from drama school and had tracked her down. Carmichael has said of this moment it “really did that changing-my-life thing”.
So does she feel it was right that Downton ended after six series, before the bubble burst? “I do think it was the right time,” she says. “I think it was always going to be down to Julian. He felt that we had got there.”
She remains on great terms with Michelle Dockery, who played her elder sister Lady Mary. The two look inseparable on social media, pictured sipping champagne, on the red carpet or lounging around at airports together.
“She is a wonderful person,” enthuses Carmichael. “We went to similar drama schools so from the first day we worked in a similar way. We both have two sisters and I think we always bonded.”
She’s rumoured to be dating Downton co-star Michael Fox, who plays Crawley family servant Andy Parker, but does not relish discussing her private life. Having accrued more than 100,000 followers online, instead of posting endless bedroom selfies she prefers to use her platform to champion causes such as women’s right to education and the plight of refugees.
Living in Camden with a flat bought from the fruits of Downton, she has a schedule that would trouble an army logistics specialist. In addition to her other projects, this year you’ll also see her in two films: A United Kingdom, opposite Rosamund Pike, a film based on the book Colour Bar by Susan Williams, and Burn Burn Burn, a bittersweet film about a road trip to scatter the ashes of a friend.
“As much as it feels like I should rest, I like to know what is next,” she says. “There have been some hilarious moments where I was working 10 days straight and was confused about what day of the week it was.”
With not a Labrador or Lord in sight – sorry Julian – the wheel has not just been reinvented but rolled off in a completely new direction.
Marcella starts tomorrow on ITV at 9pm.
The Maids is at Trafalgar Studios, London, until May 21.