When Downton Abbey Met Drag Race: Laura Carmichael Reveals How Her Encounter With RuPaul Left Her Tongue-Tied

Speaking to HuffPost UK, Laura discusses how she doesn't play the fame game and why there's no more "poor Edith" in the Downton film.

To millions of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic, British actress Laura Carmichael is best known for her role as Lady Edith Crawley in Downton Abbey.

The middle child of the aristocratic family, it’s fair to say that Edith (who came to be known as “poor Edith” by the show’s fans) didn’t have the easiest time over the course of the show. This was largely down to her tempestuous rivalry with her sister Mary, a lack of support from her family in her endeavours and, of course, her disastrous romantic life.

Laura reprises her Downton Abbey role in the film adaptation, and the Edith we see on the big screen is markedly different to the character we were first introduced to back in 2010.

“The end of the series was obviously her wedding, and so she’s now married to Bertie, and she is now a marquess, so she’s posher than anyone in the gang now,” Laura tells HuffPost UK, ahead of the film’s release. “She’s super happy with Bertie, and they’re in a wonderful place, but there’s a new sort of life that she has to adjust to.

“She’s no longer the free, single gal living it up in London, which is interesting to explore.”

Lady Edith and the Crawley family are reunited in Downton Abbey
Lady Edith and the Crawley family are reunited in Downton Abbey
Associated Press

Edith being Edith, things are still never straightforward for her, as viewers see when the character learns her husband may be too busy to support her through her pregnancy.

Laura explains: “Edith knows she’s a lucky gal, but there’s a frustration that comes from this place of being not really in charge of her life. But that is sort of part of the gig. That responsibility comes from having this incredible estate. So she has to get round that.

“But what’s great and stops it being ‘poor Edith’ again, is that she has this great relationship with Bertie, and you can see that he wants her to be the same independent, headstrong woman that he fell in love with.”

While Edith’s struggles as a member of the elite aristocracy may not seem relatable to the majority of cinema-goers, Laura insists they’re actually pretty similar to what a lot of women experience.

“I think that feeling of wanting to still be working and still have your own identity is something we talk about a lot as women,” she says. “And not just being defined by your relationship, and your job.”

While costume dramas were nothing new when Downton first hit our screens in 2010, the show’s impact and success was something no one was expecting.

Laura says her character's struggles will be relatable to women who watch Downton Abbey
Laura says her character's struggles will be relatable to women who watch Downton Abbey
Stewart Cook/WWD/Shutterstock

During its time on the air, it broke the record for most Emmy nominations for an international show (27 in total, for its first two seasons), also winning TV Baftas, NTAs and Golden Globes.

Viewing figures soared, making it the most-watched drama on both ITV and US network PBS, while storylines revolving around sexual assault, racism and, of course, class sparked conversation among viewers on both sides of the Atlantic.

This success came as a surprise to pretty much everyone, not least its cast, with Laura noting: “We didn’t know that was going to happen. In series one, episode five, they all go off to a flower show! You didn’t know that was going to appeal to men in their thirties, but it did, somehow.

“It became this runaway hit that I don’t think anyone was expecting, but it felt really good making it.”

Interestingly, though, despite being watched by millions the world over, its stars have never really felt like public property in the way the stars of other successful series have, which Laura says is symptomatic of Downton as a show.

“It’s funny, I’ve never really felt it,” Laura reveals, when asked about international fame.

“Going to America and having that experience with the show was phenomenal, and people were so kind. And people are kind to Downton actors in a very unique way. There’s something very respectful in the way that people, fans [behave] that, I think, is kind of different in other shows that I’ve seen.”

She continues: “There’s a sort of ownership of people sometimes [with other shows], but people are so warm to us, and I think it is because Downton gives you such a warm, fuzzy feeling. I always find it funny, because I’ve seen people basically curtsy at Michelle [Dockery, who plays Lady Mary]. They think she’s like Kate Middleton, so there’s that sort of inference. But across the board, it’s this warmth to the characters which I think comes from the way that the show is.

“It’s not setting out to upset anyone or offend anyone, it works on the understanding that people at the heart of it are good, and trying to do good. And in a world where people really can be analysing things so much – which we do all the time with things politically at the moment – you’re able to go ‘these people are trying really hard, and it’s really nice, and everyone at their core is a good person trying to do their best’.”

Laura in the original run of Downton Abbey
Laura in the original run of Downton Abbey

Laura admits she feels like she made a deliberate “choice” not to let being at the centre of a hugely popular show affect her life in any big ways, revealing: “I live such a normal life with the same mates and family as before.

“I don’t envy people who I see sometimes who are super famous but, like... David Bowie used to get the tube and stuff. I feel like it’s a mindset sometimes to just be like, ‘this is not going to affect me, this isn’t a problem, and I can just carry on doing the same things’.”

In fact, it might surprise fans of the show to learn just how far away from the glamour of Downton Abbey Laura’s real life actually is.

Interspersed with chat about the Downton film, Laura discusses dining at her fancy hotel with wet hair (“I thought, ‘am I allowed to come downstairs dressed like this?’ But I did.”), her reluctance to immerse herself in social media (“if I’m having a nice time, the last thing I think about is taking a picture and putting it on Instagram”) and the harsh realities about filming period dramas (“it’s very draughty, that’s what I would say about those big country houses”).

She also details getting tongue-tied during one particularly A-list encounter.

“I love RuPaul so much,” Laura enthuses. “I saw him at an awards ceremony, and I had met Michelle [Visage] before, so she was like ‘do you wanna meet Ru?’... And there is nothing you can say to RuPaul.

“I found myself going, ‘I just think you’re incredible’ and he’s like ‘thank you so much, thank you so much, thank you so much’, and I was just looking at his face thinking ‘you want to go home. It’s the end of the night and... I’m just this annoying person to you’.

“This was the night before the ceremony as well, so I did see him and Michelle again the next day. And I was so shy, I didn’t say anything, and he was like ‘...alright, well good to see you’. Like, oh my god, the worst.”

Laura and her on-screen family at the Downton world premiere
Laura and her on-screen family at the Downton world premiere
SOPA Images via Getty Images

Like most of her co-stars, Laura admits there was a bit of reluctance about signing up for the Downton Abbey film on her part, not helped by the mixed reception other TV shows have received when they’ve made the jump to the big screen.

“Oh, we were super nervous!” she says. “We would quite often discuss with each other the films that we thought had succeeded, or ones that we didn’t think had, and say ‘we’ve got to be like that, and not like that’.”

Eventually, though, she signed up based on Downton creator Julian Fellowes’ script and the “appetite from fans”.

“Every job we did, every interview we did, it would be ‘anyway, the Downton film, when’s it happening?’. So we were a bit nervous about it, but we really wanted to do it,” Laura says.

She’s very happy with the direction that Edith was taken on in the film, confessing she’s not been above begging Julian Fellowes to give her character a break in the past.

“You do get protective,” she says. “I begged Julian not to kill [Edith’s one-time love] Gregson. I begged and begged, ‘please, can you imagine how wonderful it’s going to be when he walks over the hill and he’s there’... and they were like ‘nope, nope, no Laura, no’. I was insistent.

“I remember showing Michelle an email that I was going to send to Julian, giving my reasons why and begging, and she was just like, ‘Laura, you can’t send that. You’re mad’. But I was heartbroken. I always felt very strongly when things happened to Edith.

“He had to plot out how long it was going to take before Edith got her happy ending, and had I known it would be the last breath of the show, I probably would have shut up.”

On set with Dame Maggie Smith
On set with Dame Maggie Smith
Associated Press

And despite the differences between herself and Edith, it’s clear Laura has a great deal of love for her character, and relished the opportunity to play her one last time.

She says: “I do really like her. I think she’s really brave. I think I always felt sorry for her in the beginning, and I could understand that her sort of meanness came from feeling so left out of things and so hurt by her sister. She behaved terribly, and Mary did likewise back to her, but I did always like her, and I think she dealt with things that were awful in a very brave way. And that’s kind of cool.”

And as for Laura’s favourite thing about playing her Downton character?

“There’s a really fun trait when you’re playing a Crawley that you get to have this confidence of walking into a room and not being intimidated by anyone,” she says. “And I feel like that’s so different from myself. I love stepping into those shoes for a minute and then… and then I start mumbling again, and go back to myself.”

Downton Abbey is in UK cinemas now.


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