“I think the divide between private life and working life is a very tricky thing to come to terms with when it comes to acting,” she says. “In some professions, you are clearly yourself in public, so if you’re a sportsman, a musician, even a politician, the press and paparazzi can judge your persona and know where the boundaries are.
With acting it’s all a bit different – the people you are playing aren’t you. You can be the most outgoing, the most extroverted, the most gregarious on camera, but as soon as filming stops you may just want to hide away from the world.”
It’s a perspective not completely alien to Dockery. She is a private person who rarely discusses life away from the lens. That makes the death of her fiancé, John Dineen, in 2015 all the more upsetting. The couple had been together for two years and were seemingly set for a wonderful life with each other, but the Irishman lost a long-term battle with cancer, leaving Dockery broken. She has never discussed the trauma of losing a loved one, save to note that her work commitments often dragged her through the tough times.
“I think work is such a distraction, and sometimes being out of work is as much about filling time than it is putting food on the table,” she says. “It’s such a human purpose – to feel useful and active – and even going for auditions can elevate you to such a level where it feels I have purpose again.”
Dockery’s example does offer some insight into where she is as an actress right now. You might imagine the Golden Globe- nominated actress may be at the level where the script arrives with a simple ‘yes/no’, but Dockery insists she would always prefer a formal audition, not least so she can conduct her own interview research! “Yes of course I have to still audition, but it varies depending on what roles you’re reading for,” she says. “It’s a process that makes me feel at home, and I think for any project you should have to work at it from the off – there’s no free lunch!”
Of course, Dockery also has the companionship of a new partner to warm her. Towards the end of last year, it was revealed she had started dating Jasper Waller, the brother of actress, playwright and producer Phoebe Waller- Bridge.
As for the temptation to return to those comforts of Downton… well, Dockery isn’t one to ever rule out such an idea. “I think going back is fine and I’ve never had a problem with that. The issue comes at the point where you lose your audience. In many instances in life, less is more, and I’d hate to blot the copybook on what has been a perfect period in our lives by taking one last gig too many.
“I feel there’s also got to be a legitimate storyline or the credibility of the whole thing just drifts away, and before you know it, you’re doing it just for the money.
“The clever thing about Downton was the fact every series was different and had its own personality. There were dark and light periods, and even personally, there were times where I felt Mary was centre-stage, then moved to one side. That was perfect as it refreshed her own position as well as that of those around her; but ultimately, you can only do so much with a set of characters.
“The other thing I know a lot of people took from the series was the elevation of the feminine role model. While a lot of that was to do with the war, and of course was reflective of the strength of women permeating through society for real, it was still a really important biproduct, so I am proud of that.”
At least when she’s not considering another Downton incarnation, Dockery knows how best to spend her spare-time-boxset binge-watching. “I am sometimes impartial to a bit of that,” she smiles, almost apologetically. “I would say it depends on the subject matter and the programme – I think that there are some series that can be binge- watched and others which need to be savoured over a longer period of time.
“Graphic stuff I’ll probably shy away from anyway – I don’t really want to binge-watch seven or eight hours of people getting blown up.
“Something like The Crown on the other hand – well, I’ve certainly got the popcorn and box of chocolates out for that one in the past!
“I think that’s what crystallises great drama, isn’t it? It’s that feeling when you’ve come to the end of an episode that you’ll just have a quick peak at the start of the next one, and that then turns into another hour or so.
“Ultimately, if subject matter is right and you feel like you are enjoying something enough – and you’re not just pulling a sickie from work – then, why not?!”