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‘Downton Abbey’: Laura Carmichael on being the Crawley middle girl

The Crawley sisters, portrayed by Laura Carmichael, left, Michelle Dockery and Jessica Brown-Findlay in "Downton Abbey."
(PBS)

Laura Carmichael may be a lady on “Downton Abbey,” but she doesn’t have one of the more glamorous roles on the series: She plays Lady Edith Crawley, a mousy, sharp-tongued girl surrounded by two bewitching sisters.

Poor Edith falls somewhere between Jan Brady and Cinderella’s evil stepsister. She doesn’t know how to channel her intelligence, has no luck with men and is too bitter and manipulative to win much affection within her own family. The most pragmatic sister (and the one seemingly poised to succeed in a new era), Edith has nevertheless been locked in battle with her chic older sister, Mary — and rarely ends up the winner.

Carmichael, on the other hand, was cheerful and chatty when I met her back in July. While the show was shooting Season 3, I visited Highclere Castle, the mansion that serves as the Crawley home, for this Calendar feature. In real life, Carmichael is great friends with Michelle Dockery, the actress who plays Mary. They even wear matching white puffy coats over their gowns while walking around the estate.

Sitting in her trailer, Carmichael wore a modern striped shirt that contrasted with her period hair, which had just been shaped into a 1920s-style Marcel wave. She chatted about her life as a lady and hinted at some of the changes that Edith undergoes in Season 3.

Your new hairstyle is great.

We’ve got this amazing hairstylist called Julio who does this amazing Marcel wave. It takes about 45 minutes. But I have to be careful not to squish it. I can’t nap! ... You try to keep it in as long as you can. It’s a bit gross. You try not to wash out the wave as long as you can; saves you time the next day. But you look a bit crazy walking around the streets of London.

I noticed that the crew talk about the actors as the “upstairs” cast and “downstairs” cast. Is there ever any weirdness between the actors in the two camps?

No, it’s just that you see more of each other. At the castle is where we film the majority of our scenes. And the servants’ quarters are all filmed at Ealing [Studios in London], so that’s a funny thing. For the crew it must feel like two different jobs. But we love it when we are all together; it’s really fun. And it’s been such a long journey that we’re all close.

On the show, you can be a bit of a troublemaker. Were you starting to get nicer in Season 2?

I think the war made one realize what was important, and the rivalry [with the sisters] sort of fell away ... the things that had seemed important, like seeing who could get married first, stop mattering in the same way. And she had found a vocation. She found a way to be useful on the farm, and getting to know the soliders in the hospital gave her a new feeling of self-worth.

Your character was eager to get her hands dirty working during the war and seemed to become the most modern.

Because there weren’t the romances, it wasn’t about who’s the prettiest or who’s the sweetest. She could suddenly have a purpose and be intelligent. That’s someone Julian [Fellowes] always has, someone who is in the background and who watches and reads, these things Edith does.... I think she still is a know-it-all and has some great put-downs, and in some ways has the morals of her grandmother [Lady Violet, played by Maggie Smith]. And she continues to have what at times seems like snobbishness, but it’s from absolutely thinking there’s a right and wrong, and those morals come from Granny.... This is a character who sort of always wanted to sit at the grown-ups’ table because she didn’t have many friends, always wanting to tell the others off for being naughty, aspiring to that place of power that Violet has.

Do you spend a lot of time with Maggie Smith?

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She’s so generous and shares amazing stories and is so funny. I think she enjoys making us laugh, which we do — a lot. [giggles]

Are you from London?

I’m from Southampton.

What reaction do you get back home? Edith can be a bit of a villain

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For me that’s what’s so fun — she’s a villain, but only sometimes. As we are in life. Sometimes we do things that are really awful.

Do people yell at you on the street?

More after the first season. After the second, I think people felt a bit sorry for her. It’s either, “You cow!” or “poor Edith.” Julian, with all his characters, is really good at showing the audience the motives. You can see how and why they get to those places. Her parents talk about her like she’s not there, and Mary rubbed her face in it.... Also, Mary and Edith are closer in age than Mary and Sybil, and they’re very similar in a way. When you’re just a few months younger, you feel you’re deserving as well — Mary was the heiress and the first engaged.

And there’s such pressure to be beautiful and married.

The alternative would be to stay and live with your parents in a big empty house, so you can sympathize with her.... It’s fun to play someone who is so naive but has confidence. She has this in-built confidence that comes with her class, I guess, and thinks she knows the right answer when quite often she doesn’t.

Last season there were some wild plot twists, like the appearance of a badly burned soldier who claimed he was Patrick [heir to the family fortune, Mary’s fiance and Edith’s great love].

I was so excited to revisit the Patrick thing because it was such a big part of the Mary-Edith row.... For me, the prospect of that being true, as far-fetched as it was, in the context of the house of being turned upside down and getting used to mutilation ... you almost just want more time with that story. I was so moved when I saw it, and Trevor White, who played the character, was so brilliant, the whole thing for me was quite emotional, that you could revisit the love that formed who she became.

The whole war storyline changed what “Downton” was so much. It’s so interesting to be back this season, the first few weeks we were like, gosh, it feels like the first season. We’re back in the house, and it’s a brave new world, but it’s more reminiscent of the first. The world has changed so much after the war. As the young, we’re kind of embracing the change. Lord Grantham wants everything to go back to how it was before. And you know it won’t.

Did you grow up aware of class divisions?

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In the U.K., there is a sort of obsession with class. In interviews in the U.K. they always ask, “Are you actually posh?” And it’s like, “No! Of course not!” As actors, you play people who are not yourselves!

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