Laura Carmichael- Downton Abbey's Lady Edith- on her humble beginnings, hanging out with her screen sisters, and how Julian Fellowes discovered a country pile hidden in her past
17:29 GMT, 4 November 2012
Who needs RADA to teach actors to transform themselves when the British class system is alive and well, and doing such a good job on its own
Downton Abbey star Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith, is explaining where she, a ‘boringly’ middle-class girl from Southampton, got the posh voice that trips so effortlessly off her tongue.
She says she nailed it long before she even went to drama school where such things are perfected. ‘The Sixth Form college I went to was down the road from the boys’ school, Winchester College.
Laura Carmichael claims to be a very boring and down to earth middle class girl
'They needed some girls for drama productions, so I got to go and do Shakespeare with the posh boys. It was a completely different world for me. It was like going back in time with the cobbled streets and a stone wall next to the Cathedral. It was like Hogwarts. I found it bizarre, but exciting. Like nothing I’d ever come across. It was fascinating.’
She laughs, agreeing she had the pick of the posh boys – ‘they were particularly nice to us because they didn’t have any girls’ – but reveals she came away from her rehearsals with more than a string of admirers.
‘I got the voice there. When Dad used to come and pick me up I’d still be talking posh, and he’d say, “Why on earth are you talking like that” But it came in handy later. When I got the audition for Downton, I assumed I’d be reading for the part of a maid – but I was told, “Don’t be afraid to posh up.” So I did. And I got the part!’
Actually, on paper Laura sounds much posher than she claims to be. Her father Andrew may be a software developer, and her mother Sarah a radiographer, but there is thespian blood in there too. She’s a distant relative of the late Ian Carmichael, the actor famed for playing toffs such as Bertie Wooster. There’s also the small matter of a bona fide castle in her family background, although she apologises for her vagueness on the subject.
‘I didn’t know anything about this castle until Julian Fellowes [the impeccably connected Downton creator] started talking about it. I had to ask Dad. I’m not sure of the details, but I think it was more of a country house.
Laura is a distant relative of the late Ian Carmichael, the actor famed for playing toffs such as Bertie Wooster
'Grandpa’s father bought it and I think he caused a scandal because it had all these period details and he wanted to knock through and paint it white.
‘I certainly never saw myself as posh. I always joke with Michelle and Jessica [who play her on-screen sisters Mary and the recently deceased Sybil] that I’m resolutely the one in the middle. They’re from Essex and the Home Counties – so either end of the spectrum. I’m from Southampton, the boring middle ground.’
You could hardly call her trajectory boring, though. As acting breaks go, they don’t get much bigger than the one that has taken Laura from a make-ends-meet job to the red carpet overnight. She’s only 26, but when she landed one of the major roles in Downton Abbey Laura was working as a receptionist in a doctor’s surgery.
‘Luckily one of the GPs was the uncle of a friend from drama school, so they were good about giving me time off for auditions.’
Was she a good receptionist ‘No, I was rubbish. I was OK at day-to-day stuff like answering phones, but my heart wasn’t in it. It was good experience, though. I did all sorts of jobs after drama school – working in a bar, as a teaching assistant. I probably learned as much from them as I did at drama school.’
Within weeks of landing the role of a lifetime, she was sharing dressing room banter with legends like Dame Maggie Smith and, she confesses, being ‘terrified’ about how to behave. ‘Obviously I’d watched her films and studied some at drama school.
'I remember her discussing one with Penelope Wilton and thinking “Ooh, I studied this, do I chip in” I plucked up the courage to and she couldn’t have been nicer. She became Granny to us younger actresses. Actually, she calls herself Nan to us.’
Her other on-screen Granny is, of course, Shirley MacLaine, who caused a stir on the Downton set when she pitched up to film her now infamous segments. ‘On the day we were shooting the scene with her arriving, we were lined up on the steps. But we were so star-struck the director had to come over and tell us to stop gawping. He said, “Can you stop your mouths gaping Act normally! She’s supposed to be your grandmother!”’
So what’s it like to be in the presence of La MacLaine Surreal, says Laura. ‘She’s very normal, doesn’t take herself too seriously. But her stories are amazing – there was one about being in a limo with Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Carrie Fisher, which sounds made up but was completely true.’
Despite her glamorous on-screen role, she maintains that she still lives in a shabby flat
Laura’s own story has a rather surreal feel too. She may be one of the main characters in a prime-time Sunday night drama, but she says life hasn’t changed much. ‘I still live in the same rented flat I did when I was working in the doctor’s surgery.
'It’s the shabbiest flat in the street too.’ Interestingly, she isn’t recognised in Sainsbury’s as much as she might be. ‘I’m not recognised much at all. Neither is Jess. We joke about the fact that we can all be together and only Michelle is recognised. Jess tells this story about the only time someone shouted “Sybil!” at her in the street. She turned round – and it was Michelle!’
She doesn’t seem to mind the fact that she – or at least her character – is the plain Jane. ‘I don’t think about it in that way. I think if you did you’d go mad. When it comes to roles, I think more about the story. In a way, it’s good not to be recognised as much off screen.’
She chats about how close the three actresses are. ‘Michelle has moved round the corner from me, so we’re getting even closer. It’s lovely.’ Which makes it all the more distressing that the trio is no more.
Laura has got big theatre plans in the pipeline
The big shock of this series was Sybil’s death in childbirth. Laura says filming the farewell scene was near impossible. They had to stop because the tears were genuine. ‘We rehearsed it before we shot it and we were a mess. We just couldn’t get through it. I was blubbing. Jess was crying. Our producer said, “We’re done for the day… and I think we should go to the pub now.”’
That posed its own problems. The cast had signed secrecy agreements – but heading to the pub for what were effectively Jessica’s leaving drinks was dangerous, in the age of Twitter.
‘Of course, it was immediately on Twitter that the cast of Downton were in a pub in Ealing, and people were tweeting pictures,’ she remembers. ‘We had to pretend it was Jess’s birthday. We even sang Happy Birthday when she walked in!’
That was five months ago. Now, as this series of Downton comes to a close tomorrow night, there’s still a question mark over the next one. Laura will be involved, if it gets the go-ahead, she says, but things will not be so straightforward. She’s starring in her biggest theatre role to date, as Sonya in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya until next February, opposite Anna Friel.
Once again, she agrees, she is cast as the ‘plain Jane’. ‘Anna is very beautiful. She certainly gets to wear all the beautiful clothes. But Sonya is a wonderful character to play because it’s all about her perception of herself.’
Embarrassingly, she says, the object of her on-stage affections is Sam West, an actor she once talked of having a crush on. ‘I got myself into trouble when I said I’d been in love with him since seeing him in the BBC’s Chronicles Of Narnia. But I would have been about two years old then. Poor Sam. He felt old hearing that.’
Quite where she goes from here will be interesting to watch. She says she’d love to take on an ‘edgier’ role, but on the other hand she can’t see herself bailing out of Downton through choice. ‘Michelle and I joke about still being there when they have to wheel us in.’
She says she'd love to take on an edgier role, but on the other hand she can't see herself bailing out of Downton through choice
She says she loves the plot twists for her character. While some actresses might baulk at Lady Edith being jilted at the altar, Laura, who’s single herself, applauded it. ‘It’s great, because you never know what’s coming. And I love the way Edith’s becoming more of a feminist, writing to the newspapers about women not being allowed the vote. She’s becoming much more interesting.’
Nevertheless, Laura says she’d jump at the chance of a twist that allowed her to experience the Downton life below stairs – although she concedes it’s unlikely. ‘I’ve never had a scene in the kitchen, because Lady Edith would just never have had a reason to be there.’
Actually, it sounds as if she’d have been just as happy playing one of the Downton maids. She giggles. ‘I do think they sometimes seem to have more fun. While we’re always filming in someone’s home, albeit a very grand home, they do their scenes in the studio at Ealing. It sounds like they have a whale of a time there.’
Downton Abbey, tomorrow, 9pm, ITV1. Uncle Vanya is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 16 February, www.unclevanyatheplay.com