Lady Mary is no longer so proper. In TNT’s new drama “Good Behavior,” “Downton Abbey” star Michelle Dockery transforms into the role of Letty, an addict and con artist roaming the American South. Out on parole for good behavior (hence the title), Letty’s efforts to turn her life around fall apart after an encounter with Javier (Juan Diego Botto).
According to Dockery, the decision to take on a role so dramatically different from the genteel daughter of Lord Grantham (for which she was Emmy-nominated three times) wasn’t a deliberate one. Instead, it spoke to both the way she settles on parts, as well as the current state of the industry, where moving between TV, theater and film has become commonplace.
After all, the divisions between these things have become less formal, such as another project Dockery’s filming, the Steven Soderbergh-produced Netflix miniseries “Godless.” “It’s very much like a film, but it’s broken up into six episodes,” she said to IndieWire at the Television Critics Association press tour. “It’s an interesting time we’re in.”
As for “Good Behavior,” Dockery promised that the show is more enjoyable than you might expect, given the premise. “For all its dark turns and twists, it’s a lot of fun,” she said. “You’ll see, there are some very, very funny moments as it goes.”
But Dockery also opened up about what any new role means for an actor, and what it meant to her to play someone so raw.
In making this your next big role, it feels like you’re really making a statement. Is that something you’re at all conscious of?
I guess not, actually. It certainly wasn’t when I got the part. It was just a very happy accident, because I wasn’t searching for something so different. For me, it’s always about the writing, the quality of the writing, and the people.
But having such a challenge, as well… I feel very fortunate that it’s happened this way. I can see how it is such a big statement, because it’s so different from “Downton.”
What initially really excited you about it?
The script. I mean, the script reads like the part, as you watch it in the pilot. Just from the get-go — it hooks you. I wanted to play this woman, such an interesting character, like no other that I’d seen before or read before. I think that the pilot really does what I initially felt. That’s how it comes across, which is what we wanted.
Was it hard to kind of dig into that level of vulnerability?
I mean, I love the rawness of her. Emotionally she is very, very honest. She is unapologetic about her behavior. I love that about her, that she doesn’t have any kind of filter. It’s just a joy to play.
As a British actor at some stage, you have to nail the American accent as best as you can, of course, because there are opportunities here. I had some coaching. And there was some research that I had to do about being on parole — I mean, she’s just been released from a correctional institute on good behavior. There was a certain amount that I looked into on that. But like with all the roles I play, most of it is there in the writing. There’s something about the dialogue, the way that Chad [Hodge] and Blake [Crouch] and the writers write, that is so very real. For me, it’s the way people speak. It’s not sentimental either. It’s just very, very honest. I could talk for hours about it.
Is your theater background a factor in why the writing matters so much to you?
I think so, yeah. I went to an acting school, and that’s where you start, is the writing. I’m not a writer myself, but I’m always blown away by how these writers do it. Essentially we’re all storytellers. That’s my job is to just tell it the best way I can, and to be as truthful as possible, and serve the character.
When you say “be truthful,” when you’re playing a character, it almost seems like a contradiction in some sense.
I know exactly what you mean. I think, for me, there has to be a very clear separation between who I’m playing and myself. I can easily switch off at the end of the day. I do my work and then I go home and I want to just do normal things and not think about the character.
What’s interesting is what I’ve found, on this show, is that when you’re acting, the body knows no different. There are certain scenes in the show where she really breaks down. She really lets loose. However much you’re acting that, and you’re not going to a depth where you end up having to take three days off because you’re so upset… There’s what’s real and what’s not. There’s a fine line. You do have to go there occasionally. As I say, the body knows no difference. Some days I would find myself really, really tired for like the next two days, because you emote so much and have to go to those depths. That’s what we do. And there’s an enjoyment to that as well. I won’t lie.
So you just step out of yourself?
On the pilot for the first week, I kept up the accent, just because I wanted to sort of be in it. Then after awhile, it got exhausting. I just wanted to be me and talk to people in my own accent. Then I realized I could jump from one to the next. With “Downton Abbey,” Mary’s accent and that character was far removed from who I am. Once you start playing them and they become part of you — because all of your characters, I think, become part of you — you take them with you for the rest of your life.
“Good Behavior” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on TNT.