Michelle Dockery, the Emmy-nominated star of Godless and Downtown Abbey, returns to television in the Apple TV+ miniseries Defending Jacob. In a conversation with Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki, Dockery discussed her performance as Laurie Barber —a mother torn between her love for her son and lingering doubt about his innocence.
The Limited Series offerings at the Emmys have once again provided us with a wide breadth of incredible shows and performances. Predicting which combination of names will be announced on nomination morning [July 28th] has proven to be a perplexing challenge. But what I do know is that we simply cannot discuss the best performances of the year without placing Michelle Dockery’s work in Defending Jacob at the forefront of that conversation.
It would have been easy to turn Laurie Barber into a bombastic character, an archetype who succumbs to fits of rage and despair—that would have been justified; she is, after all, a mother whose only child [Jaeden Martell] has just been accused of murder. Michelle Dockery makes a different choice. A more difficult choice.
As the show progresses and the details of Jacob’s alleged crime come to light, seeds of doubt begin to take root. Laurie Barber remains patient and kind, but she is simultaneously questioning everything she thought she knew. As the case against Jacob becomes stronger, Laurie grows weaker—her anguish simmering just beneath the surface until the very end. Dockery’s performance is intricate and utterly transformative with every single note of Laurie’s deteriorating mental and physical condition playing across Dockery’s face and in her movements. She never quite tells you how Laurie feels. She shows you. She makes the more difficult choice. Every time.
This brings us right back to where we started: We cannot discuss the best performances of the year without Michelle Dockery.
Read our complete interview with Michelle Dockery below:
Awards Daily: Michelle, the first thing that I have to ask you about, and this is one of the many things that I loved about your performance in Defending Jacob, is that you never quite reacted the way that I thought you were going to react. The moments when I thought, “Oh, Laurie is going to explode” and she doesn’t. How did you decide where and how Laurie was going to express her emotions?
Michelle Dockery: Yeah, well, as you can see it’s quite a journey, emotionally, that Laurie goes on. I guess there were times when I was conscious of how much to portray restraint and how much to let go. I was aware that the character, I think initially, could have become too emotional. I think in certain scenes it would have been very easy to go down that route.
And you know, what I’m always really interested in is complexity within the characters. And she certainly had a lot of that.
I guess, whatever that was that you saw, I doubt I was conscious of it. You know, for me, I tend to go with my gut as much as I possibly can when I’m playing a character. I really dwell on the essence of that character. It’s all about contemplating the character’s pain through the words and their voice.
But I also have to credit Mark Bomback our brilliant writer because I think so much of that is in the subtlety of the writing. People are not always saying what they mean, there’s certainly a lot of that between Laurie and Andy [Chris Evans], they are not quite admitting to one another what they really feel.
There are moments when they do— when they let go, and they really tell the truth. [Those moments] are rewarding.
AD: A lot of times, in these shows, we see the parents eventually turn on each other. But Andy and Laurie never do that. It seems like their bond very much remains intact throughout the episodes.
MD: Yeah! I mean, that was really important to us, that you see what a unit this family is, and how close they are. I think what’s compelling about the show—of course, there’s the curiosity, a whodunit: Is Jacob innocent or is he guilty? But, it’s rooted in family. And even though these people are going through something so extraordinary, we can relate to it because we all understand family. It was important for that to be as tight as possible.
As the show goes on, they begin to become more isolated and pulled apart as a family, as they go through their own personal journey. They are all on a very different journey.
There are episodes where Andy and Laurie are in entirely different directions, he is seeking out the truth and she’s running from it as much as she can. And I think that’s what’s really interesting about this and very different from any other crime drama, it focuses so much on the family.
AD: One scene that I thought was particularly interesting, I believe it’s in the finale episode when Andy tells Laurie, “I really love you. I don’t know if that means very much, but I do.”
AD: And again, your performance in that scene surprises me so much because I don’t remember if she says anything, but she sort of just turns around and goes up the stairs.
AD: How much of that reaction, do you think, comes from the fact that she’s completely exhausted? And how much of it is that she just doesn’t know how she feels anymore?
MD: Yeah, I mean, sometimes these things come out in the moment. Those scenes, they were very delicate scenes—when Laurie is in her fog. I used to call it “the fog scenes” because she’s in the midst of her own exhaustion, of her own grief for the life that she once had with her son—for the life she had before he was accused.
For me, it was about maintaining that slightly distant approach to all of those scenes, like she’s not really hearing what he’s saying. She just needs to get through the day; I think by that point she’s so exhausted by the search for the truth and [the fact] that she will never really know.
And I think by the time Andy tells her the big reveal in Mexico, she’s had enough. She doesn’t know what to believe anymore. She keeps questioning—who did I marry? How can we carry on? If in fact, Jacob has murdered this boy, how can I live with that?
She’s in a fog. She doesn’t really know how to deal with it, which is very sad. You know, those scenes are very sad because, of course, Andy just wants her to come back.
But, I don’t know how I did it. Morten [Tyldum] is such a great director; he guides you so well. I’d push myself. I’d go as far as I could possibly go, and the best directors, they let you work—they give you that kind of space and free reign where you can go really far emotionally and then bring it back in. I loved that freedom with him—where you could be very bold and then tone it right down to something really subtle.
AD: I did get a chance to speak to Mark Bomback about the show. One thing that he mentioned that was really interesting is this idea that at the end of the series—all three of them; Andy, Laurie, and Jacob— they’re all trapped in this prison that they’ve created with their lies and with their actions.
AD: What do you think about that from Laurie’s perspective? Do you think that she goes back into that fog that you were mentioning? Or do you think that the accident provides her with a strange sense of clarity?
MD: There is, of course, a sort of ambiguity to that scene in the car, because there’s a feeling that it’s premeditated, that she just couldn’t take it anymore. But, it could be seen as she just loses control of the car and goes off the road.
I’d like to think that by the end, if the story was to continue, there would be some hope. I think that there’s a sort of hopeful tone at the end when she says, “I just want our family back.” Maybe, in the end, she’s reconciled that in order to keep going she has to accept what’s happened—whether it’s the truth or not, she would have to accept it.
And it’s interesting because it’s all about the truce that they come to, her and Andy, when he comes to her and he says, “no indictment.” Laurie says that she hopes Jacob thinks it was an accident when he wakes up—it’s an unsaid agreement between Andy and Laurie—the way I saw it, that’s when she finally gives in.
There were times when I was playing Laurie—and I’ve learned in this profession that you can’t judge your characters. You really tell yourself that you can’t begin to judge your characters. And with Laurie, I was always checking myself that I wasn’t judging her, and her reactions, and the journey she goes on.
I think that’s, what’s surprising about the story is that you see a mother and the ultimatum that she is presented with—it’s a life of lies that she doesn’t want her son or anyone in her family to live through. As opposed to Andy who would actually just close the door on it and move on. Laurie would find that much harder to live with. So it’s a cool thing. It’s a really interesting character study about how people deal with the situations they find themselves in.
AD: You’re playing a mother who is very maternal and loving throughout the series. But again, you play against expectations because usually, the mother is the one person who you would think would say, “My son is innocent.” But Laurie doesn’t do that. She really struggles with her doubt.
How did you balance that in your performance? Playing a mother who is loving and warm while simultaneously questioning her own child?
MD: Well, that was really important to me—that she was very maternal, very tactile with her son, very close to him. If I played her cold from the beginning then the trajectory would have been quite obvious. When I watch something, I like that element of surprise—that you didn’t see it coming, like you were saying earlier.
I think maybe that would have been a very easy assumption—to play her like that because she ends up more in the direction of “he did it.” It would have been really kind of an obvious choice to play her as being not close to her son. And, I didn’t want to do that. It also wasn’t written like that, but even so, I think it was something I was conscious of. I wanted her to be maternal so there was that kind of anthesis there. And it makes it all the more painful to watch. She will always love him no matter what he does, but it’s the truth that she can’t live with.
And I change my mind all the time, even now, as to whether I think, Laurie thinks that Jacob did it. There’s got to be something in that, and it’s in the story—she says, “A mother knows her child.” She saw his behavior when he was younger, and it feels like she does know on some level.
I don’t know. I’ve seen other mothers, characters, where they do know and they shield their sons until the very end. I think it was such an interesting way of developing a story and seeing how differently a character reacts in that situation. That’s what I loved about it when I read it. It’s very complex.
AD: Michelle, one thing I love about your work is the subtle and complete way you inhabit all of your characters. And I have to tell you, that scene, I think in the second to last episode of Downtown Abbey, when Mary goes to Matthew’s grave before she gets remarried is one of my all-time favorites— it’s some of the most beautiful acting I’ve ever seen on television.
MD: Thank you for saying that! That scene feels like so long ago now.
AD: Talk me through the process of letting yourself go, and letting yourself so fully inhabit these characters and these very painful moments.
MD: I mean, I do love playing characters that are very different from who I am—that’s why I love doing accents. I do really enjoy inhabiting different characters.
Initially, it comes from the writing, so I feel the essence of the character in the words. I do definitely have an instinct for characters. I knew that with Laurie it was a very different role for me. She was someone I had never played before, which was appealing to me. The same was true with The Gentlemen, with Downton. Mary was very different. But, some are harder than others—Mary, I sort of got very early on, even in my audition process, I just knew—I thought, “I know who this is.” I knew her voice and I just played it that way, and thankfully, I got the part.
But Laurie, it took me a little bit of time, for all the reasons we talked about; the maternal side of her, but then the doubt—who is this woman? Sometimes it’s a trickier process to find the voice and the essence of the person.
But you have a great team of people around you—obviously, Morten and Mark, who were very collaborative—so you have a great team around you to help you navigate, especially when you are doing a television show because it’s broken up and shot out of sequence—it’s great to have a gang to see you in a certain direction.
But, I do just really, really love embodying and finding the essence of different people. I mean that’s why I do it! [Laughs]
Defending Jacob is available to stream on Apple TV+.
ICYMI: Awards Daily has a number of interviews with the cast and crew of Defending Jacob including Jaeden Martell, composer Atli Örvarsson, and writer/creator Mark Bomback.