LONDON: If you blushed at Lady Mary’s fatal tryst with Pamuk, then it’s best to gather all the pearls riddled throughout Downton Abbey and ready them for clutching. Michelle Dockery, the Emmy-nominated British actress who brought life to the steely widow, has now, so to speak, freed herself from the corset. In her first series role since the end of Downton Abbey, she stars as a con artist out of jail on parole who, in a lapse of judgment decidedly far more severe than Mary’s horny night with the Turk, becomes the unwilling crime partner to a sexy Latin hit man. But it’s not just Dockery’s new station in life as Letty Dobesh—not to mention convincing American southern accent—that leaves all traces of Downton‘s aristocratic feminist behind. On the cleverly named Good Behavior, it’s the so-called bad deeds that propel her out of the British mansion’s grand shadow: a steamy one night stand, thieving, wielding a gun, smoking pot, downing shots, taking obscene amounts of meth in a rock-bottom drug relapse, and uttering dialogue like, “My French lover had a huge cock.” And, yes, she even wears pants.
“There will be lots of people saying, ‘What would the Dowager Countess think?'” Dockery tells The Daily Beast, before erupting into a hearty laugh: “And my answer to that is that the Dowager probably wouldn’t watch it anyway.” “But I was never going to play Lady Mary for the rest of my life,” she continues. “I’m an actor and I love playing different roles. If people like it, then great. And if we bring on some Downton fans, then that’s brilliant, too.” On Good Behavior, which launches Tuesday on TNT, we meet Dockery in a sharp left-turn from where we last saw her after six seasons as Lady Mary on Downton. She is a former meth-addicted waitress at a greasy spoon, cleaning toilets, and in trouble with her parole officer when she skips town after losing her job for attacking a customer who tries to sexually assault her. But that left turn leads to a fast and fun ride, one far away from any memories of Lady Mary, thanks to Dockery’s alternately feral and calculated performance as, following the diner incident, Letty resumes life as a con artist, donning wigs, disguises, and a series of identities Sydney Bristow-style to pull off a series of heists. A chance encounter with a hitman named Javier, played by the devastatingly sexy Spanish actor Juan Diego Botto in full Antonio Banderas gentleman-meets-pasión glory, finds her in a compromising position. She attempts to save one of his targets, but is thwarted by Javier—a trying experience that leads her straight back to her vices. But right as she’s on the verge of overdosing, Javier, attempting to seek revenge, finds her and instead enlists her as a skilled accomplice on his schemes.
What follows in a love story of sorts, but not really. And it’s not exactly a Bonnie and Clyde partnership, either. In fact, it’s a relationship and narrative so difficult to explain that both stars kind of stammer when attempting to do it. “It’s a very twisted, unconventional love story,” Botto says, speaking with media at a bar in Beverly Hills dutifully ignoring the line of women who successively gawk and swoon while passing by him. “It’s these two outsiders trying to find their place in the world. They’re trying to be good, whatever that means.”Dockery uses the word “unconventional” as well, and both fervently put an end to any comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde. She credits Botto’s performance for infusing the dynamic with that unusualness. She giggles like a schoolgirl with a crush when talk turns to how dreamy he is, but stifles herself to explain why it’s so much more than his looks. “Javier’s not the stereotype of a hitman,” she says. “Even on the page, Juan wouldn’t have been the first actors to come to mind. But I think what he found, and what became one of the most endearing things about Javier, is that he’s such a gentleman. But then also…he’s a hitman. It’s very, very unusual.”
Like the unlikely meet cute between the characters they play, both actors came to the series unexpectedly. The idea of having to prove range, or that she was in some way setting out to find a project that was a pendulum swing away from the tea-and-biscuits drama of Downton, in some ways, frustrates Dockery. She says she wasn’t seeking anything particularly like Good Behavior after Downton ended, and if a script was good enough, would’ve gladly signed on for another period drama. And while Lady Mary perhaps never fashioned a improvised bong out of a lightbulb and a straw, she finds striking similarities between the characters, in that characters that aren’t immediately “likable”—the worst mandate we’ve ever had for female characters in pop culture—are often the best to play. “I don’t think they need to be likable to like them,” she says. “Some of the best characters don’t always behave well.” It’s easy to point to the extremes of their daily behavior as stark differences. But the ethos underlying their actions is rather the same for Lady Mary and for Letty: “Letty finds it as hard to exist as other people do.” A read of the script and an instant attraction to that kind of character was all that it took for Dockery to be convinced Good Behavior would be good for her. All this other talk about the shrewdness of the move and range, it’s all in hindsight. Not that she isn’t grateful for it.
“It has been a great, sort of unexpected change for me,” she says. “It’s something I wasn’t actively looking for, necessarily. But it’s very, very different and I think I probably would’ve missed Downton more without it. I’m very lucky to get this so quickly because otherwise I think I would’ve started getting separation anxiety from Downton and the cast and crew.” Botto, similarly, was taken by surprise that this came together. While Good Behavior marks his breakout in the United States, he’s been one of Spain’s most popular actors since he moved there and started acting at age five, after his family left Argentina in exile. Despite his Spanish language success, he wanted the challenge of American film or TV show: “It’s about wanting to get one of those fantastic roles that you watch on TV. And those are there.” And so he sent in an audition tape for Good Behavior. “Every once in a while I send tapes,” he says, before chuckling. “Those tapes seem to disappear on the other side of the ocean. But in this case, I got the call.” I ask what he thinks was different this time around. “I think it’s because I’m the only one who played the audition like someone who’s falling in love with Letty,” she says. “I didn’t play the hitman. I played that he cared about her.”
His chemistry with Dockery was instant, too. Though his sex appeal is being used (to great effect) to sell Good Behavior, fitting the bill for a role described as “enormously attractive,” as Botto says while winking, was flattering but unfamiliar to him. “Most of the characters I’ve done are very intense,” he says. “Which is true in this, too. But I’m more used to hearing, ‘Why are you so intense?’ than, ‘Why are you so hot?’ I don’t hear that often. In this case, being attractive is one quality of the character, not the main one.” We end by discussing what seemingly everyone wants to discuss with this project: Dockery leaving Downton behind. But Botto may be the only one who hasn’t talked with her about it. “I loved Downton Abbey, but we have not spoken about Downton Abbey,” he says. “Not once. We have spoken about everything else in the world but Downton Abbey. It never came up. It’s a given that I had seen it and it’s a given that she didn’t want to talk about it.” Spoken by someone who was on his best behavior.