Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery is no polished British aristocrat in her first small-screen role after six seasons of propriety and drop-wait silhouettes. On TNT’s Good Behavior, a new drama based on co-creator Blake Crouch’s novellas, Dockery plays Letty Raines, a hard-drinking con artist with a penchant for colorful disguises whose actions would make Lady Mary blush. Letty, fresh out of a North Carolina prison, is drawn back into a life of crime when she meets charming hitman Javier (Juan Diego Botto). Here, the actress, 34, and co-creator Chad Hodge (Wayward Pines), 39, slip EW some intel on the seductive series.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Michelle, what was it about Letty that drew you to the role? Were you looking for something dramatically different after Downton Abbey?
MICHELLE DOCKERY: I wasn’t looking for something so different. I’m always hoping for the best material, and it doesn’t really matter to me what genre or period it is. This just happened to be quite a leap. [Laughs] The script came to me midway through the last season of Downton Abbey, and I was instantly intrigued by Letty. I couldn’t put the script down when I first read it. She’s such a multifaceted character and for any actor, those kind of roles don’t come along very often, so I’m very lucky. In spite of her actions and the fact that she’s a thief and a recovering drug addict, she’s just incredibly human. We talk a lot about strong women, but Letty’s more than that. She’s complicated, vulnerable, funny, and smart.
CHAD HODGE: When Michelle’s name was pitched to me, I was like, “Yes, that is exactly who needs to play this part.” I’m such a Downton fan, I saw all of it, so it was like, because of what Michelle did with Lady Mary, I knew that she could do anything. The talent is so obvious.
Javier isn’t a character in the original novellas. What can we expect from this love-hate relationship at the center of the show?
CHAD HODGE: That’s really the story of the series. It’s not about Letty trying to stop him from killing a person every week. It’s like, these two people live in a very lonely existence; can they find some sort of redemption for each other?
DOCKERY: The relationship is something that I’d never seen on screen before between a man and a woman. They live on the outskirts of society, they understand each other, and they kind of smash into one another. It’s imperfect. And I remember [during the audition] Juan blew everyone away. I got to read with Juan, and one of our producers was in the room and he said that’s the best audition he’s ever seen in his career, wasn’t it, Chad?
DOCKERY: I was terrified, actually, because we were doing [an intense scene from the pilot] and he just lived the character.
To carry out her cons, Letty has to disguise herself, which means she dons wigs and comes up with wild backstories to fool her targets. On top of that, Michelle, you had to use an American accent. What was the biggest challenge to keeping it all straight?
DOCKERY: I was always doing an American accent as a kid with my sisters, just annoying the hell out of my parents, so I feel like I’m being a kid again…. It’s kind of weird. Sometimes I can’t quite believe I’m playing a character who’s playing a character. It’s like, double enjoyment! And Chad actually recommended a documentary about a thief called The Life & Crimes of Doris Payne. She’s 86 now. I watched that quite early on when we were filming the series, and that was useful research into the mind of a thief.
HODGE: Michelle just takes on these characters and makes them extensions of Letty. It’s not like she’s using [these disguises] to try to be undercover or something. It’s basically to be able to escape into being someone else, or a different version of Letty for a moment. The Southern accent thing with the long blonde wig was just Michelle. The minute she put on the wig,she just started talking in a Southern accent for some reason. [Laughs] So it was like, “Let’s just go with that.”
DOCKERY: [Laughs] That’s the thing, Letty should be an actress, really. It’s like the enjoyment I get out of acting is [having] an extension of yourself. You’re putting on a mark and you’re being somebody else for a day. I’m doing that but as a character.
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Juan doesn’t get to juggle characters like you do for Letty. Is he ever jealous?
DOCKERY: He’s so jealous. He’s jealous of all my wigs. [Laughs]
You’ve locked down the disguises, but have you mastered any of Letty’s pickpocketing skills?
HODGE: Oh, Michelle’s naturally good at that.
DOCKERY: [Laughs] No, we had an amazing props department, so everything was set up for those moments. They’re very choreographed. I do enjoy that technical side of it, but I’m doing it a lot slower than how it looks on screen. I don’t think I could be quite as talented as Letty. And also, your mate is your cameraman. [Laughs] They really create the tension, that speed with which she reacts.
Letty’s also trying to be a better person so she can be allowed to see her son again, but she’s still addicted to her old life of crime. With all that in mind, Chad, how do you approach the tone of the show?
HODGE: Our [pilot] director Charlotte [Sieling] labeled it “poetic noir.” She called me when we were in prep for the pilot and said, “I know what we’re going to do… poetic noir!” I said, “What’s that?” and she said, “I don’t know. We’ll figure it out.” [Laughs] So we established this thing called “the manifesto” when we were making the pilot. It has everything we talked about with “poetic noir,” a list of rules that ended up being put on the walls of all our production offices —
DOCKERY: And in my trailer! [Laughs]
What’s the most important rule?
HODGE: The first rule is we always follow Letty. You see the show through Letty’s eyes. While I was writing the pilot with Blake, I never thought, “Oh, this is going to be a very cool female-led show.” I was writing about a person who has good qualities and bad qualities. Really, it’s just about writing from a completely honest place…. We’re very conscious in the way we shoot and the way we tell our story, that usually a hitman or a thief in a movie or a TV show is so amazing at [doing what they do]. It’s, like, sexy and perfect, right? The way we wanted to do this is we called it “lo-fi,” just really slow, really detail-oriented, really small [look at their work]. It’s not so much about the what, it’s about the how. It’s not, “Is she going to save this woman [from Javier]?” It’s, “How the hell can she do it?”
DOCKERY: And also, “How the hell is she going to do it with a raging hangover?” Those moments really were what gripped me when I first read the script. It’s like, she’s hungover, she’s barely slept, she’s had this crazy entanglement with this hitman, and she’s trying to save this woman’s life [in the pilot], but you’re rooting for her. There’s humor in that, because it’s just not what we would normally see on [something like] Mr. and Mrs. Smith, you know?
Has working on the series made either of you want to actually behave badly?
HODGE: Writing the show is almost like going to therapy. [Laughs] You get to get it all out just doing the show itself.
DOCKERY: I mean, for me it’s just a joy to play somebody like her and to explore those parts of human behavior. So no, I’m not planning to go out and, you know, steal people’s belongings. [Laughs]
Good Behavior premieres at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.