Michelle Dockery in Good Behavior.

Actress Michelle Dockery relished the challenge of new series Good Behavior

In stark contrast to previous role as Lady Mary in the period drama Downton Abbey, she has reinvented herself as a former con artist and meth addict with a penchant for dressing up

Before the cameras even rolled on the dark TNT crime drama Good Behavior, everyone, from director to cast, to crew to producers, knew exactly what each scene would look like.

So a scene where lead actor Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary in Downton Abbey) is sitting framed perfectly in the mirror of a grimy room; or another of her in a diner, lit like an Edward Hopper painting full of symmetry and sadness – all were meticulously pre-planned and then communicated visually to the entire team.

“The way Alex [cinematographer of the pilot episode, Alejandro Martinez] works is that he photographs the rehearsals and then he’ll put all of the photographs on a board so it’s like a storyboard as we go along so everyone knows what the next shot is, how they’re going to shoot various moments during the scene,” says Dockery down the line from Wilmington, North Carolina, where they are filming the final fill-in scenes of the 10-part series.

“It’s a great way of working, particularly on a show that shoots as fast as this. I mean Downton Abbey was pretty fast – we’d do about 10 pages a day. OnGood Behavior we can do sometimes as many as 11 or 12. It’s amazing because you can see everything before it even starts, before the camera starts rolling. It is unusual: I’ve not seen it before.”

Maggie Smith (left) and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey.

Watching the series, it feels as if Breaking Bad had met Hustle on the way to the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo via anything by Raymond Chandler.

Dockery (who does a convincing US accent) plays Letty Raines, a former con artist and meth addict, just out of prison determined to be a better person. She knows that’s the only way she’ll be allowed to see her young son again, and he’s the great love of her life.

So she listens to self-help apps, tries to find work, tries to keep on the right side of the law and of her probation officer.

But old habits die hard and when Letty does what she does best – dresses up in amazing clothes and wigs, and steals from the wealthy and dissolute – she runs into all sorts of trouble, including meeting a handsome hitman (played by Juan Diego Botto) and accidentally getting caught up in his plans.

“It’s wonderful to play a character who, herself plays so many roles,” says Dockery. “It’s like playing lots of characters … and it’s interesting because the dressing up is how Letty escapes being who she is.

“Each look is almost Letty’s art work, her strategy in order to survive the next point in her journey.”

Michelle Dockery in Good Behavior.

From an artistic side, that look of the show was something that Charlotte Sieling, director of the pilot, came up with early on, Dockery says. “In the early stages of preproduction Charlotte said to Chad [Hodge, the executive producer] I want to create this show in poetic noir and Chad said ‘what’s that?’ and she said ‘I don’t know; we’ll find out’.”

What poetic noir turned out to be is visually breathtaking. You can find yourself appreciating a white door perfectly framing Letty holding a shotgun, or delighting at the high-density pink blue gleam of a rainstorm, or the way that three characters, dressed in different shades of red and black in a supermarket seem to look both naturalistic and hyper-realistic at the same time.

“That is our genre we created in the show and it’s the way that Letty sees the world; she sees everything in these bright colours,” says the British actress.

“One of the first things in the manifesto Charlotte wrote for the series is that everything is seen and felt through Letty’s eyes, which is quite unusual because usually in films we see scenes played out from lots of points of views whereas this is all through one character.”

Which means that Dockery is in almost every scene? “There’s like one half a page or a page in each episode that I’m not in,” she says with a laugh. “But during that time I’m doing costume fittings or wig tests and I never stop.”

Michelle Dockery and Juan Diego Botto in Good Behavior.

Although there was an overall story arc, for most of the first series the writers were not far ahead of the actors in knowing exactly what was going to happen.

“Myself and Juan and the others, we were just given the script a few weeks prior to each episode starting to film. It worked similarly on Downton Abbey,” she says.

“I think it’s a great way of working because you develop the character as you go along. You don’t anticipate what you already know in the character’s future, which I think is much like life, you don’t know what’s ahead of you.”

Good Behavior starts on November 16 on Warner TV (Now TV channel 510 and TVB Network Vision channel 36)

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Dockery good at being bad in gritty drama