Elizabeth McGovern as Cora and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith © 2022 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

They’re baaaack! It’s been an interminable wait through the pandemic but hip-hip-hurrah, the Crawleys and their servants are finally back on the screen where they belong. I, for one, was thrilled to see Julian Fellowes’ beloved characters roar back to life — the fabulous Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern as Robert and Cora Crowley, the Earl and Countess of Grantham, Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael as the Crawleys’ tempestuous daughters, Mary and Edith, top-of-the-line actors such as Penelope Wilton, Imelda Staunton, Allen Leech, Hugh Dancy, and Nathalie Baye, and the beloved servants downstairs, played by a stalwart group including Jim Carter, Raquel Cassidy, Joanne Froggatt, Phyllis Logan, Robert James-Collier, Brendan Coyle, among many others. One favorite actor who was missing from the 2019 film that I was chuffed to see return is Samantha Bond as Lady Rosamund Painswick, the Dowager Countess’s daughter who looks so much like Dame Maggie Smith that for the first few seasons of the series I assumed they were real-life mother and daughter. 

It’s 1928 now and I don’t want to give too much of the plot away other than to say the Crawleys get an offer from a film studio to make a film at Downton. Normally, they wouldn’t consider such a thing (“Actors at Downton?!”), but the studio is offering a small fortune to use the sprawling estate as a location for the film and the Crawleys desperately need an expensive new roof that they can ill afford. The film begins shooting with all sorts of mishaps including the sudden announcement that the studio is shutting down the film unless they can turn it into a talkie, the new craze sweeping the film industry. But what to do since the beautiful but crazy temperamental star of the film, Myrna Daiglesh (wonderfully played by Laura Haddock) has a voice that could shatter glass? That’s all you need to know for now, but let’s just say that my fellow classic movie lovers who count Singin’ in the Rain as one of their favorite films will enjoy this plot immensely. Meanwhile, a bunch of the crew takes a trip to the south of France to uncover the mystery of the Dowager Countess’s newly inherited villa.

I had the great pleasure of chatting this week with Laura Carmichael, the former Lady Edith, now the high-fallutin’ Marchioness of Hexham about her experiences returning to Downton.

Danny Miller: Laura, it’s wonderful to talk with you. I was lucky enough to be in London in 2012 and saw your amazing performance in Uncle Vanya in the West End. You were wonderful in that!

Laura Carmichael

Laura Carmichael: Oh, thank you very much, that’s so kind!

I have to say that after these past few challenging years, just being in a darkened theater and hearing the opening strains of the Downton Abbey theme, I felt like my brain waves were changing right there in my seat. Such a feeling of comfort and relief! Was there also a comfort level and a kind of exhaling for you to revisit this character that you know so well?

There absolutely was. There’s something about that journey you take when you drive towards Highclere Castle up the driveway and over that hill and suddenly there’s that beautiful house. I feel like I have that reaction you describe every time I make that trip! It’s always such a wonderful feeling seeing that house, it always moves me. And I loved how Simon (Curtis, the director of this film who happens to be married to star Elizabeth McGovern) gave us that dramatic reveal once again in this film. We love it just as much as the fans!

I’ve been doing a very unscientific study with family and friends and the result is that Edith is the favorite Crawley. That’s certainly true for me as well! My guess is that it’s because so many of us can relate to Edith’s flaws and vulnerabilities in a way that perhaps we can’t relate to what it must be like to be a Crawley. Did you strongly empathize with Edith from the very beginning?

Yes, I did, really. Even in the beginning of the series where she was rather mean and the cause of so much drama, I always felt like I understood where she was coming from, that she was feeling very much overlooked by her family. It’s clear she didn’t always handle that very well but I thought Julian always made her actions understandable and gave us lots of insight into the character. And then, throughout the years with all the hardships and heartaches she experienced, I think she grew so much. I think that is why people love her as a character because they can see how she learned from those difficult experiences and became stronger as a result. It got to her at times, but she ultimately did something for herself, and found her place as a writer, which was so much fun to play.

Seeing Edith’s growth over the years is so satisfying, and your performance through all those trials and tribulations so wonderful. Even though I have to say that in the first season when you wrote that letter to the Turkish ambassador exposing your sister Mary, that one really made me gasp — I’m not sure I could ever forgive a sibling who betrayed me to that extent! 

That was a tough one, although we certainly saw Mary give as good as she got where Edith was concerned!

True. And I must say it’s very fun to see, despite such a long and painful road, that Edith has arguably the best marriage of anyone in that family and such a wonderfully fulfilled life! Do you ever miss playing the more vulnerable parts of the character who could be so manipulative when she felt cornered?

Oh, I don’t know, I feel that you want her to keep going forward. And I think that there are still opportunities in both movies for Michelle and I to play off of that energy with each other. But remember those two have come through some huge stuff together. I don’t think they want to spend all their time together, but they are finally at a place where they exist happily together but can still sort of tease each other a bit, which Michelle and I really enjoy.

I love that. It’s great that they get along so much better now but it’s still fun to see them going at it from time to time. 

It’s great fun, and we always try to ad-lib little moments, like when Edith returns from France and sees that Mary has suddenly become an actress. Let’s just say that she wasn’t very impressed! (Laughs.) Sometimes it’s just the way we read our lines to each other. 

And Edith’s ultimate dig — her very happy marriage to Bertie, the hunky and fabulously wealthy Marquess of Hexham (Harry Haddon-Paton) while Mary’s second husband, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) is nowhere to be found in either film! I know that’s because of Goode’s other commitments and the fact that he was shooting the series The Offer when you were making this film, but it’s still a nice jab at Mary for those of us who are #TeamEdith! 

(Laughs). Yes, that Henry Talbot is a tricky one! Where is he?

Sophie McShera as Daisy and Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore © 2022 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

I remember talking years ago to one of the actors from the original series, Upstairs, Downstairs, which I loved when I was a kid and which I know is often compared to Downton Abbey. This person played a servant on the show and they talked about this weird thing that happened on set when the actors playing the upper-class Bellamys were treated very differently from the actors who played the servants. It’s so bizarre how that works, almost a subconscious thing even though everyone knows they’re all actors. I remember Jean Marsh, who played Rose, the house parlourmaid, once saying “But I created this damn series!” Does that kind of thing ever happen on the Downton Abbey set? 

A hundred percent! Everyone fights against it but it’s definitely there. I remember doing a scene with Michael Fox who plays Andy. We were in between shots and he was holding this very heavy tray full of champagne flutes. He noticed that his shoelaces were undone and he said, “Oh, sorry, would you mind holding this for me for a second?” I think I held it for like 10 seconds before three different crew members came running over, going, “Oh my gosh, Laura, you can’t hold that!” as if it was a crime for Edith to be holding a servant’s tray! (Laughs.) So yeah, we always get given chairs quicker than any of the actors playing the servants!

I sincerely hope we haven’t seen the last of the Crawleys. Do you have any thoughts on how you would like to see Edith navigate the 1930s?  

A lot of us feel like the next place that they need to go to is the States. I have no idea if Julian is considering this but I’d love to see more of Cora’s American family and what would happen to them after the crash of 1929 and all that. 

And in the early 30s it would be interesting to see how the Crawleys might intersect with the changing tides in Europe and the rise of Hitler in Germany. I can almost see Lady Sybil, if she were alive, becoming interested in National Socialism as a concept. Not that I’m calling Sybil a would-be Nazi, God knows, I loved her character and thought she was pure goodness, but it was such a crazy time full of changing ideas, I can imagine her following that closely.

Oh, that would be very interesting. As for Edith, I hope that she can carry on writing and working as a journalist because I just love that stuff!

Definitely. Let’s push for a new Edith-centric series all about her life as a writer during the tumultuous 1930s!

Downton Abbey: A New Era opens everywhere on Friday, May 20, 2022.