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

More: Madonna, another American who moved to England, has an interesting movie out, W.E., which is quite sympathetic to the ultimate Buccaneer, Wallis Simpson. Have you seen it?

E.M. No, I haven’t seen it, but I feel a lot of sympathy toward Wallis Simpson. I even played her, in a radio production. To me she seems to be someone who is very much the victim of this man who was accustomed to getting everything his own way. King Edward just sort of stormed his way into her life and took her for his own and I think she paid a very heavy price. There are these new letters emerging, written by her former husband, and it seems they had a quite good marriage really and were really good friends. Then the whole force of the throne and the monarchy and everything that represented came crashing into their lives.

More: You’re such an American girl—raised in the Midwest and California. What was the hardest adjustment, moving to England?

E.M.: The sense I had initially that it would be impossible for me to rebuild my career. I went through a certain amount of pain having to adjust to that. But on the other hand, I was experiencing a freedom because I could shed this identity that weighed so heavily on my shoulders. It freed me to do things that I otherwise wouldn’t. For example, the CDs, recording, playing, gives me so much pleasure. In a million years, I don’t think I would have been able to cast aside the identity of myself as an actress in America. I could do that in England because I was starting from scratch. It also gave me a lot of peaceful time to create a family without the stress of trying to do 10,000 things at once and have a career. I appreciate that.

More: Did you always play guitar?

E.M.: I always played the way a lot of people do, very badly. But it wasn’t until I moved to England and had my first baby and had extra time on my hands that it became much more of an obsession.

More: Do either of your daughters plan to go into the family business?

E.M.: They’re both very show biz savvy but I’m starting to feel that neither of them thank God will go into it. My elder daughter [18] is a writer by nature, but she’s still in school, so the jury is out. The younger one is still so young, 13.

More: I was just talking to a fairy tale expert about all the new fairy tale movies and we both remembered Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, which featured so many wonderful actors in the ‘80s. You played Snow White to Vanessa Redgrave’s Evil Queen. Have you acted with her since?

E.M.: No. The family are good friends with my husband, but I haven’t acted with her again.

More: Now you could play the Evil Queen.

E.M.: (laughs) Yes, I’ve earned my stripes. I could play her.

More: Before you left the U.S., you worked with an amazing number of good actors—Robert DeNiro, Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn, to whom you were also engaged at one point. What do you remember about this period?

E.M.: It was a thrilling time professionally. Those people were at the top of their game and I think I learned from all of them. Both what I wanted to do and what I wanted not to do, what worked for me personally in terms of approach, behavior, mood. It’s all part of the palate of what I am now and I’m grateful for it

More: Hugh Bonneville, who plays Robert Crawley, has played your husband twice before.

E.M.: Yes, the first time in a miniseries for British TV, Thursday the 12th, and the second time in a sitcom, Freezing, in which he and I and Tom Hollander starred as fictional versions of ourselves. I was more or less myself, Hugh more or less my husband, Tom our real life agent. It was a send up of being in showbiz as a middle-aged person. It’s about being middle-aged in today’s world, which has no interest in middle-aged people at all, so everybody could relate to it. Tom and Hugh were brilliant.

First Published December 22, 2011

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