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"I hold on to that," Carmichael said. "I think Edith would have been the most conventional of the three of them; I think she wanted the life of her grandmother — to marry well and be a lady of the house and throw very formal dinner parties. I think that's all she fought for in those initial series, and I think that changed through the war."

A metamorphosis Fellowes said is buoyed by Carmichael's own reticent ambition. "Rather than becoming a hermit and living in that humiliation, she — encouraged by Matthew and Granny — finds a different path. She's hungry for more. In that way, she's very much like Laura. They have an appetite to grow, to learn. You can see it in her eyes when she's on set, the look of someone taking it all in. I bet if she could take notes, she would."

Carmichael, also like her fictional persona, is the middle of three sisters. But it'd be hard to call her the dowdy one — on this day her cheeks and lips have color, she's wearing skinny jeans and there's no pout in sight.

"I don't get recognized a lot, as you can imagine," she said, before doing her best American accent to note the sort of feedback she does get: "Oh my God, you are rather pretty" or "You look so fat on TV!"

And while the actress stresses that she doesn't consider herself to be as unlucky as Edith, she does concede that she shares some of her feistiness. "I might be a bit more bossy with my sisters," she said bashfully. "My sisters and I do nothing but hug and cry in a very different way than the Crawley sisters. But I have to say, I do love the scene where Edith calls Mary a slut. I just love it, because I would never have the will to say something like that out loud. She means it with everything inside her."

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The animosity stops on the sets at Highclere Castle in rural England where the series is filmed. In the real, modern world, Carmichael and Dockery have a sisterly bond, notably in terms of their admiration of female pop stars.

"Beyoncé is a big part of our lives," Dockery said. "And we've seen Rihanna in concert twice together. We like some of the filthy songs, what can I say. I think we prepped for my birthday night out in New York earlier this year by playing 'Found Love in a Hopeless Place.' It's just how we get on."

A fact Carmichael was all too pleased to confirm.

"Lady Edith might benefit from a little dancing to a Beyoncé song in those moments where she's too uptight. Everyone wants to see her happy, maybe that's what will get her there. Or Ryan Gosling for a mate."

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

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'Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey'

Where: KOCE

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)