Laura Carmichael arrived 20 minutes late, apologetic but otherwise unruffled by the flood of black SUVs transporting talent for the Toronto Film Festival and clogging the streets, the sticky heat, or the noisy clatter of lunch patrons in the downtown eatery where we meet.
The actress was in full glamour mode, dolled up for a photo shoot taking place after our interview. “Glamourous” is not a word generally associated with Carmichael's roles: her Lady Edith in Downton Abbey was the almost-spinster sister of the Crawley family, the mousey-brown frock among the confident reds of Lady Mary or the party-girl pinks of cousin Rose.
It’s thick-lensed glasses and sensible shoes again for her latest film, Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom.
“Yes, ever the glamourous parts,” Carmichael laughed at her own dowdy type-casting. “But I found Muriel quite adorable, with her coke-bottle glasses.”
Muriel is the catalyst that sparks the real-life romance between white Englishwoman Ruth (Rosamund Pike) and Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana (David Oyelowo), a union which caused both private scandal and public political turmoil for U.K.-South African relations after the Second World War.
A dutiful volunteer with the London Missionary Society, Muriel drags sister Ruth along with her one evening to one of the society-sponsored dances for African university students studying at Oxford. Ruth makes an unexpected connection with Seretse, a man who later confesses that he’s actually heir to the king, and will one day be called back to govern his homeland.
“Muriel absolutely adores Seretse but can see how difficult this is going to be for her sister. She became one of their biggest supporters throughout her life… She came to it from this churchy point of view but then found friendship and had this long-lasting impact on combating the racism in England at the time.”
Carmichael wasn’t familiar with the story prior to receiving the script. “I was amazed by it,” she said. “It’s a very classic love story in amongst this whole history that I certainly didn’t know.” She jumped at the chance to work with Amma Asante, the director behind another real-life drama, 2013’s Belle. “Amma is a brilliant director, she’s magnificent, certainly someone I think is going to keep delighting us all with her stories. It was a no-brainer in that way.”
Did the actress have any qualms about starring in yet another period piece?
“I’m slowly clawing my way up to modern day, 20 years at a time,” she joked. You can’t turn down a film based on its time period, Carmichael says, insisting that if you like the story and the script and you can see how wonderful it can be, “that’s enough.”
“When it feels like a film is really focusing on things that are important — love being the most powerful force that we have — that’s something that I want to get behind. Suddenly any fear of repeating myself seems unimportant.”
When we met, Donald Trump had not yet been elected president of the U.S., and Brexiteer Nigel Farage was stumping for him. We chatted about how it seemed as though a film that celebrates shared similarities was more vital than ever. “It’s absolutely a frightening time, and yeah, I think a film that celebrates people who fought for their love — against prejudice, against what seemed like stronger forces — is absolutely what we need.”
The film’s release coincides with the 50th anniversary of Botswana, but Carmichael won’t be going, nor did she get to shoot any of her scenes there. “I was in rainy London for the grey scenes,” she moped.
Carmichael trained at Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol and found her first home starring in stage productions. She recently returned to the stage for The Maids, a process that was “kind of terrifying, but similarly very rewarding.”
She enjoys juggling stage work and film roles. “I think it’s really nice to keep in the mix. It’s like a healthy exercise regime — you don’t want to be doing all weights, you’ve got to do some other stuff as well. I love it all. Theatre is by far the most exhaustive medium, but it is so satisfying.”
Carmichael starred alongside Gary Oldham in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy before playing Lady Edith Crawley on the award-winning Downton Abbey.
So there is life after Lady Edith?
“Oh, bless her! I will always feel very fond of Edith… it will always be a part of where things started for me, and I’m really grateful for it,” said Carmichael, taking a long pause. “Who knows what will happen in the future.”
A United Kingdom is at Fifth Avenue.