Lady Edith: the courtly rebel

  • By Luaine Lee Tribune News Service
  • Thursday, December 31, 2015 5:02pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It hardly ever happens. But the daughter of a software engineer and a diagnostic radiographer became a wealthy aristocrat overnight — at least on paper.

Actress Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith Crawley on PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” was working as a receptionist in a doctor’s office when she heard about the audition for the costume drama.

She had no clue what the character was like. “We didn’t see a breakdown about Edith because it was all so confidential,” said Carmichael. “At that point they weren’t sending out scripts or character descriptions. I really read everything when I was in the room (auditioning).”

She remembers the script said something about her being “the middle child, the awkward child,” but little else.

Carmichael wasn’t eager for the role since she’d already earned the part of Viola in a touring company of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” The troupe was to trek to Dubai, Syria and other exotic climes, and she was excited about the prospect.

“A few days later my agent said, ‘You have an audition for a period drama.’ I thought it was going to be a ‘Yes, milord,’ a half-day’s filming, one line maybe. But it would be good to have on your CV that you’d done telly. And I thought, ‘I’m going to have to turn down this dream Shakespeare for this TV job. What a disaster!’ And it was ‘Downton.’ So I went and read and realized it was for a lead part. And I don’t know how it happened.

“I had a tiny agent and no theater — the casting director had seen me at drama school. I re-auditioned on a Thursday, and on Friday I found out they were going to take the tapes and think about it. And ‘Twelfth Night’ said, ‘We can’t wait. We have to put an offer out to another actress if you’re not going to do it. We need to let her know now.’

“So I went, ‘OK, I have to stay in the race for this job.’ I didn’t tell my mum until the following week when she saw my name had been removed from the play’s list. But I was really confident. I thought, ‘I can do this’ and ‘This part is mine.’”

It was hers, all right. As the mostly overlooked middle daughter of the courtly Crawleys, Carmichael added just the right amount of timidity and bravado to serve as a foil for her older sister, Mary, and as a sympathetic rebel in the series, which returns Jan. 3 for its last season.

Carmichael was only 10 when she first thought of acting. Her younger sister and best friend were cast in a pantomime in her native England. But she was rejected. “I said, ‘Mum, it’s my fault! I didn’t smile. I didn’t skip high enough.’ I became obsessed at that time and said, ‘I think I need to get better at it. I think I need more training.’ It was completely random, but it made me determined,” she said.

Though she’d started in dance, from that point on, acting became her ambition. At 18 she headed for drama school. And Carmichael says she did all her growing up in the three years she was there.

“Everything happened there. I had my heart broken there for the first time. It’s a weird experience, drama school. It was a very small school, 12 people in the year. We were in Bristol, kind of tucked away with one another. They invite you to experience and try things, and you become a bit hypersensitive to things in that way. Also I was 18, and I fell for a guy who was 10 years older than me and had a terrible heartbreak.”

After school and heartbreak she worked as a nanny, toiled in a bar and served in the doctor’s office. She was not very good at it, she admits. “I remember once I shredded stuff that shouldn’t have been shredded, accounting-like things. I shredded them.” She wasn’t fired. “They were really understanding.”

She roomed with two guys from drama school and dined almost exclusively on Ramen noodles. “It was hilarious, really. I became their mother leaving notes, ‘Please, will you wash up?’ They both had jobs — which was a nightmare — because I was at home, very sad and depressed. In hindsight, which is the best thing, to be able to look back and say I’m so grateful for that time because I didn’t know anything about anything. And moving to London and having to make rent, and the student loan’s gone, and now I have to find the money to live in London and support myself.”

Carmichael, 29, won’t say whether she has a sweetheart or not, but does confess that she’s always been a tad shy. “When I tell friends that, they don’t believe it. I don’t think I’m a natural entertainer. There are actors I know who everyone should meet just because they’re hilarious. I don’t think that’s me. I think I’m sort of interested in the process behind it and the trickery of getting yourself to believe you’re someone else.”

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