A version of this story about Michelle Dockery in “Defending Jacob” first appeared in the “Limited Series & Movies” issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
When Michelle Dockery first read the script for “Defending Jacob,” she didn’t realize how integral the role of Laurie Barber would be to the plot of Apple TV+’s crime drama series, based on the novel by William Landay.
The limited series follows Laurie and her husband, Andy (Chris Evans), as they navigate the impending reality that their 14-year-old son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is being tried as an adult for the murder of his classmate Ben Rifkin.
It wasn’t until Dockery read the shocking final episode that she got the whole picture of Laurie’s character, but there was one scene earlier on that tipped her off that Laurie was a lot more than just your average suburban housewife.
“It’s the scene when she reflects on when (Jacob) was a little boy,” Dockery said. In the scene, which occurs in Episode 5, Laurie remembers watching a very young Jacob nearly drop a bowling ball on the head of another child at a birthday party. The memory plants a seed of doubt in Laurie’s mind that despite what he says, Jacob might not be innocent.
“That’s when I thought, ‘I really like where this is going,'” she said. “The seeds are planted quite early on. Otherwise, I would have questioned it. I would have wondered where this would possibly go.”
“Defending Jacob” was rife with emotionally challenging scenes, Dockery said, but one of the most difficult to film also occurred in the fifth episode, when Laurie runs into the only other woman in town who shops at the grocery store when it opens at the crack of dawn: Joan Rifkin, the mother of the murdered boy.
“I remember looking at the schedule that day going, ‘Oh, here it comes,'” she said. “There’s no dialogue in that scene. Sometimes they’re the hardest scenes to play because it’s all that you’re showing in your expression and in your movement. And of course, she hears a song and it’s ironic: ‘Every little thing’s gonna be all right.’ So she decides to fill her trolley with Fourth of July things, and she’s faced with Joan.”
In one of the show’s most visceral moments, Joan spits in Laurie’s face. Although Dockery didn’t actually get spat on — that part was just a bottle of water squirted at her off-camera — she said it was scenes like that that made her realize she had to conserve her emotions on set.
“I learned on this (show) that I had to reserve my energy if I had a big emotional scene coming up,” she said. “As intense and as sad as those scenes are, it’s important to have a sense of humor about those things that you have to do.”
Dockery herself, best known for her years of playing Lady Mary on “Downton Abbey,” is neither a mother nor an American. But the chance to play Laurie Barber was one she couldn’t pass up.
“The more complex the character, the better for me,” she said. “I love playing roles that have that complexity, and she certainly has that. It was important to map out the journey so she wasn’t a ball of tears the whole time. That’s what was so great about this story — it’s not always what you expect. I think it poses the question, ‘How well do you know your family, and how far would you go to protect them?'”