Michelle Dockery rises to the challenge of playing Lady Mary

Actress Michelle Dockery finds herself intimidated by every new role.

“I feel like I know I can do it, and I see myself doing it, but there is this fear of being bad or failing. I think all actors have it. It’s what makes us nervous and sometimes a bit neurotic,” she says.

“You just want to be truthful and real. And I never think I’m going to be brilliant in anything. It’s not self-doubt as such, it’s just a very natural thing in an actor – a natural feeling of not being believable.”

When she first read the role of the aloof Lady Mary in “Downton Abbey,” Dockery was scared. “I read that part and thought, ‘I want this part so much!’ It’s rare, actually, that a part comes along and you really believe that this is the part for you. I have that thing where I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m sure they’ll probably go with someone younger, or they’ll go for someone older. I like the part but. …”

Then every now and then, something comes up and you think, ‘This is MINE. I know this character. I want to play this character!’ That’s how I felt about Mary. But at the same time she’s a character – I’m from a com-PLETE-ly different background. The accent was something I had to really work on. It was a challenge and it still is.”

How she rose to the challenge has become part of television history as “Downton Abbey” became a popular drama. Dockery’s pale and contained Lady Mary crystallized an unparalleled cast performance and earned her three Emmy nominations. The show launches its fifth season Sunday on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”

When Dockery auditioned for the part, the producer of “Downton” had seen her play the guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion,” a character eons away from the upper-crusty Lady Mary Crawley.

“I thought of her as a young Kristen Scott Thomas, like the role she played in ‘Gosford Park,’ ” says Dockery, who’s dressed in a sleeveless white chiffon dress and black ballerina shoes.

“She’s the young, haughty aristocrat. So I got the character straightaway. I walked away (from the audition) thinking they’ll probably give it to a really well-known actress. At the time there were a lot of actresses who were doing loads of period drama in films. I just thought, ‘Oh, someone’s definitely going to want to do this role.’

She knew by the end of the day that she had been cast. “But I never knew it would change my life the way it did,” she says.

She was introduced to her sweetheart, John Dineen, who works in financial publicity, a year ago last May by actor Allen Leech, who plays Tom Branson on the show. And while she’s reluctant to discuss him, she says meeting Dineen changed her life.

Dockery, 33, toiled as a waitress in a fish-and-chip cafe, served as a bar maid, as a recruitment temp for the Times.

“My family are very hard workers. My dad, he was up and out of the house at 7 o’clock during the day. He did all sorts of jobs when I was growing up, a lot of driving jobs. He did a lot of delivery work. I remember when I was off sick from school, going off with my dad in his van. Then he got his degree in his 50s as an environmental chemist, so he’s a surveyor now, and he’s been doing that since I was 14 or 15. I actually find it very easy to get out of bed in the morning. I think that’s from my dad.”