Michelle Dockery is proving to be quite the chameleon on television.
After earning cred on the British stage in plays like Pygmalion and Burnt by the Sun, Dockery became a breakout star of the ensemble upstairs-downstairs drama, Downton Abbey, for her portrayal of Lady Mary Crawley. She embodied the snobbish yet endearing persona of an aristocratic daughter who eventually learns that her privileged life must change with the evolving times. By the end of the show's six-season run, Mary had become one of the show’s most likeable characters, having navigated unexpected hardships along the way.
In the years since the beloved series ended, the actress has been shedding the pomp and circumstance and corsets of Mary’s world for that of Good Behavior. The TNT drama, which is in the middle of its second season, has seen Dockery explore a life of addiction, troubled motherhood and cons as Letty Raines. It’s an impressive turn that’s only matched by the actress’ new Netflix drama, Godless, from Scott Frank (Logan screenwriter) and Steven Soderbergh.
On the 1880s-set Western series, Dockery plays the steely Alice Fletcher, one of many widowed women in La Belle, New Mexico, whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of injured outlaw Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell), who is being pursued by the crazed Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels). “Alice is representative of a lot of women’s experiences at the time,” Dockery says of Alice, an outsider among the women, who believe she’s a curse on the town. She’s been widowed twice, all before the age of 21. Her life has gone in a very different direction that she’s expected, with her gun always at its ready. “She’s toughened by everything that’s happened.” And it’s a character unlike any we’ve seen from the actress.
While the show has all the makings of a classic Western -- particularly with its themes of revenge, redemption and survival -- its focus on the female perspective offers a fresh take on a tried and trued, male-dominated genre. “Scott really wanted to focus on characters that never get their stories told. In Godless, women are chief among them,” Dockery says of Frank, who also wrote and directed the series.
Her co-star, newcomer Audrey Moore, compares it to a mix of HBO’s Deadwood and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, the latter perhaps referring to the female characters being in a state of arrested development that’s unleashed by the arrival of outlaws. “It’s about people being stuck in lives they never planned on living,” Dockery adds, largely speaking of the women who have been left to survive among themselves.
“I just loved her spirit,” Dockery adds of Alice, whom she immediately fell in love with upon reading a script -- originally a feature film that was transformed into a limited series -- that is “one of the most incredible that I ever read.” And it’s those words that led to her to filming on location in New Mexico, where she also fell in love with her surroundings. “It was absolutely incredible to work somewhere like that.”
Filmed on location on a working ranch in Lamy, the series takes full advantage of its expansive landscape with cinematography by Steven Meizler (The Girlfriend Experience) and epic stunts. The biggest challenge filming Godless, she says, were those big shootouts -- as much for the actors as for the crew, who were on the ground with cameras beneath rearing horses. “It’s the most fearless crew I’ve worked with,” says Dockery, who had her own share of physical demands, like learning to ride a horse Western style (versus the traditional English style she was familiar with) and how to load and shoot a rifle. “They called it cowboy camp,” she says of the time spent training before filming, where she came to enjoy learning to shoot after some initial hestitation.
But for all its progressive elements it’s also an enthralling, epic Western -- and one that Dockery is sure audiences will want to binge on Netflix. “I think you’ll love it,” she says.
Godless is available to stream Nov. 22 on Netflix.