Elizabeth McGovern, American Abroad

Like Lady Cora, the elegant mistress of Downton Abbey, the American star forged a new life in England.

by Susan Toepfer • More Features Editor/Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern image
Escape from Edwardia: Elizabeth McGovern as she actually looks

Looking every bit the 21st Century beauty, and a good 20 years younger than the Countess she currently portrays, Elizabeth McGovern recently stepped onto a New York stage (in five-inch red heels, no less!) to join some of her Downton Abbey costars in promoting the costume drama’s second season (starting January 8 on PBS). Among other topics, Hugh Bonneville (the Earl of Grantham), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Joanne Froggatt (Anna) and Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) talked about how much more comfortable they feel in the servants’ quarters, which were constructed for the show. When filming the more glamorous “upstairs” scenes in Highclere Castle, they are forbidden to eat, can only drink water (in case it spills) and must worry about any damage done.

            For McGovern, acclaimed from her first appearance on screen, in the Oscar-winning 1980 film Ordinary People, the Downton triumph is especially rewarding. In 1992, at the height of a Hollywood career that included an Oscar-nominated role in Ragtime, the actress married British director Simon Curtis and moved with him to London. To Americans, she had more or less disappeared. But slowly and steadily McGovern established herself in Britain, as an actress and, surprisingly, a singer-songwriter who performs and records with the band Sadie and the Hotheads.

            With mischievous humor, McGovern notes the parallels of her own path to that of the displaced American she portrays in the series. “Not much has changed,” she says of life in England since Edwardian times. “It’s odd to be raising two teenage girls who speak with British accents. They hear an American accent and think I’m stupid.”

            After the Downton panel, McGovern spoke to More about the show and her new life.

MORE: It is a big year for both you and your husband! You’re nominated for Golden Globe and SAG awards, and he’s getting all kinds of awards buzz for his movie, My Week With Marilyn.

Elizabeth McGovern: Yes, it is a big year. We’ve got a glow. It’s serendipity. My husband and I have been hanging in for years feeling like the show business out to pastures and now the sun has come out.

More: Like all the other Downton fans, I love the costumes, but every time I watch you, I think how glad I am I don’t live in a time when you had to wear them.

E.M.: It’s a bit of a big deal. There are a lot of people involved. It’s not something one does on one’s own.

More: That’s why they had servants.

E.M.: But they didn’t have full makeup and hairdressers. It’s like a big machine that works to get us ready.

More: Do you start feeling the character when you get into costume?

E.M.: The costumes do so much of the work for you— the painstaking process of getting in them and out of them and the way they restrict your every move and the way you sit and breathe. It’s sort of enforced passivity for women because the corset blocks your brain. It’s so time-consuming, getting dressed; there’s not much more in the day you can accomplish. So the clothes do take me right into the Cora character.

More: At the panel the other night, Downton executive producer Gareth Neame said the idea for the series started with Lady Cora, with the idea of a rich American woman marrying an impoverished English nobleman. It was inspired by Edith Wharton’s last novel, The Buccaneers, which was in turn inspired by an actual trend of the period, the wave of wealthy American girls marrying titled Englishmen for social prestige. So the American abroad is at the heart of the story.

E.M.: It’s a subject that always fascinated me because I myself moved to England. I’m a big reader of Henry James and Edith Wharton, and both were obsessed by the idea of Americans coming to Europe.

First Published December 22, 2011

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