BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- To actors, playing the same role on a TV series is a job; for viewers who connect to a TV character, the relationship is more sacrosanct. An actor's desire to stretch and move on from a role often conflicts with audience desires for more of the same.
"Downton Abbey" (9 tonight, WQED-TV) offers a case study in that conflict. Fans of the PBS "Masterpiece Classic" series were appalled when, in the closing moments of last season's finale, just as Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) seems happy with a newborn son, her husband, Matthew (Dan Stevens), dies in a car accident.
For the cast, Mr. Stevens' decision to leave did not come as a big shock.
"All the actors in the show had a choice," said Ms. Dockery as she doodled a heart-shaped kite on a notepad during a day of interviews in August at The Beverly Hilton Hotel. "We all initially signed up for three [seasons]. So I always thought there would be some people that would go, and I did go through a point where I thought -- I initially thought we'd go three years and finish. And then I decided to stay on for another two because I wasn't quite ready to finish."
Mr. Stevens' Matthew wasn't the only departure. The opening moments of tonight's season premiere, set six months after the third-season finale, explains the dead-of-night disappearance of villainous lady's maid O'Brien. (Actress Siobhan Finneran also opted out.) But the Matthew departure remains the bigger shock.
"It was a surprise initially," Ms. Dockery said. "We were sad to see him go, but you have to make those choices for yourself. It's your career and we were supportive of Dan."
Later at a press conference in front of 200 TV critics, her response to the same question was a bit more dramatic.
"My first reaction was, 'Oh, crap!' " she said. "I thought, 'Where can the story go now?' We've spent all this time having this on/off, will they/won't they relationship, and then suddenly it was coming to an end. So initially I was concerned about what would happen. But I think that, as much as it was sad to see Dan go ... it opens up opportunity for Julian to write a new chapter and something quite different, not only for Mary, but ... the knock on effect it has for other characters."
With Ms. Dockery signed for two more seasons, through season five airing in 2015, Lady Mary will be around for a while, but she's noncommittal about continuing in the role beyond that.
"It really depends. I think so long as the core ensemble is there," she said, her voice trailing off. "I think as people start to drop off, there's no show, really, because I think it's about the ensemble."
As a member of the family at the show's center, does Ms. Dockery feel more pressure than some of the Downstairs staff to stick with the series?
"Yeah, there is that," she says. "There is a part of you that doesn't want it to end, but I think everything comes to an end. Because of the pace of the show, we can't really go into the 1930s and Second World War because Mary and Edith would be in their 40s. The 1930s also goes into 'Gosford Park' territory. So I think there will be an end in the next few years."
(Mr. Fellowes also wrote the film "Gosford Park" and would presumably not want to repeat that effort on "Downton.")
Where that end will find Mary, who knows. For now, she remains in deep mourning for Matthew.
"She doesn't want to go out, she still wears black, she refuses to come out of mourning, and everyone is trying to pull her out of this limbo she's found herself in," Ms. Dockery said. "She's reverted to having that cold, bitter exterior she had in the first series. For me it's been really nice to play that again. I kind of like that side of her character. She's kind of gone full circle really and I don't think she'll move on quickly. She can't. People have invested so much in that relationship between Matthew and Mary. It wouldn't be right for her to suddenly find another love."
But the suitors will certainly try to find her this season. (One "Downton" character dubs the group noun for the many men chasing Mary "a desire of suitors.") Just don't expect widower/former family chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) to be among them, despite signs of closeness between the two in early episodes.
"We are aware that there are suspicions about Tom and Mary's relationship, but they are very much friends, and he is her brother-in-law still," Ms. Dockery said. "I think they become close because of what they've both been through, having lost a partner. And, also, Mary becomes far more involved in the running of the estate with Tom. We do have a lot of scenes together. But, romantically, I don't think it's going anywhere. I hope not. It's very inappropriate."
Outside "Downton," Ms. Dockery would like to take on a comedic role. She appeared in the December 2012 Sundance Channel dramatic miniseries, "Restless," and she'll soon be seen in a big-screen action-adventure film, "Non-Stop," starring Liam Neeson, scheduled for theaters on Feb. 28. Mr. Neeson stars as an air marshal, and Ms. Dockery plays a flight attendant who assists him when it's believed there's a terrorist threat on board the New York-to-London flight.
"It's like an action role, very modern and very different from Mary," Ms. Dockery said. "It felt very active doing that film, being thrown around during turbulence. It's really fun and a far cry from 'Downton.' "
And it's given her a new view on trans-Atlantic travel, something she has had a lot of in recent years while promoting "Downton" in the United States.
"When a flight attendant comes over, the things they do and say sound familiar because I've done it, it's really weird now,." she said. "I thought, damn it, for once I've been serving the gin and tonics rather than the footmen on 'Downton.' "