Downton Abbey‘s leading lady was just as taken aback by the death of her on-screen hubby as viewers at home.
Although Michelle Dockery knew ahead of time that her co-star Dan Stevens was leaving the hit drama — and that his exit would be “finite” — watching the “brutal” goodbye was still a big shock, the actress tells TVLine.
But Dockery — and her character Mary — are both trying to move on as potential new suitors swarm around the widowed mother in Season 4, premiering Jan. 5 on PBS.
TVLINE | Let’s get the burning question out of the way: What was your reaction to Dan Stevens’ leaving?
We had all signed for three years on the show. So when it came to the point of them deciding to take the show further, we all had a choice. Yeah, initially, I was sad to hear that he was leaving. But looking back, in hindsight, what it’s done is opened up an opportunity for the writing to really shift and for [creator] Julian [Fellowes] to write such a great storyline for [Season] 4 – and not just for Mary. Matthew’s death affects so many other characters. We miss him. I spent three years with Dan, carrying that Matthew-and-Mary storyline. I really loved working with him. So he is missed.
TVLINE | How far in advance did you know his exit was coming?
We knew before we started the third [season]. We knew very far in advance. We also knew that it would be very finite because, of course, Matthew being the heir to Downton Abbey, there was no other storyline really to write other than that he had to die some way. Even if he left or disappeared or decided that it wasn’t working with him and Mary [laughs], it wouldn’t have really worked because, of course, he would still have that tie with Downton. So it had to be that brutal.
TVLINE | What did you think of his final scene? Reading it on paper is one thing…
I was watching it with my family. I knew it was coming, and I hadn’t told them. They knew that Dan was leaving. It had got out that he was going. But they were really shocked. And so was I. The way it was filmed, it all happened so quickly. It really shocked people and wasn’t what they were expecting on Christmas Day. [Laughs]
TVLINE | At the time of his exit, especially, it was hard to imagine the show without that central relationship of Mary and Matthew. Did you go through that struggle, too?
Definitely. I went through a phase where I worried about where it was going. But now I see, since we filmed [Season] 4, for Mary, there is a life without Matthew. The fourth [season] is about recovery. She’s starting a new life. In some ways, there are similarities to [Season] 1 before Mary got together with Matthew. There’s various suitors that are being thrown in her direction. But she’s very reluctant to go through with any of it because, of course, she can’t stop thinking about Matthew. He’s still very much a part of her thoughts. She’ll never get over it. You don’t ever get over losing someone. It’s learning to deal with it and move on. He’s a hard one to replace.
TVLINE | Dan was your scene partner for so much of the show. Was it difficult to go back to work without him?
It was strange going back, similar to when Jessica Brown Findlay [who plays Sybil] left. You get so used to working all day long together and waking up at those early hours together and sharing cars home together. It was just strange not having him around. We spent three years together. And I loved playing that story and that arc with the characters, with Dan.
TVLINE | There’s a new romantic interest in Mary’s life, played by Tom Cullen. How does he compare to Matthew?
[His character] Gillingham is an old family friend. The sisters knew him when we were growing up, and we haven’t seen him since then. A party is organized at the house, and he is invited to it. He’s just a different character. And there’s other potential suitors, as well. It’s not just him. There’s a character called Blake, played by Julian Ovenden. And Evelyn Napier (played by Brendan Patricks) comes back, as well. He was the one who brought the Turkish diplomat along. That was lovely to play scenes with Brendan again because we haven’t seen him since Season 1. They’re very different.
TVLine | Is it exciting for you to be back in the chase, so to speak?
It is. And this year, we have a few new characters coming in. [Mary’s] beginning to come back to real life again because it takes her a long, long time to even interact with anyone. There’s a real energy about [Season] 4. It’s very much the ’20s. It’s very much the bright, young things. Rose, the cousin, and Edith very much represent this new wave of fashion, of dining in restaurants with a man, without being accompanied. There’s a real shift in the periods, more so than [Season] 3. I thought [Season] 3 was very much the ’20s, but it’s moved even further on. It feels closer to where we are today. It’s a bit more modern. That’s what will be appealing about [Season] 4. There’s a sense of change, again.