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: Your actual husband directed Freezing. How did he react to Hugh playing your husband for that second time?

E.M.: They had some laughs about that. There was a suggestion that we actually shoot in our own house. My husband said, I cannot actually shoot with a film crew my wife getting into our bed with Hugh Bonneville.

More: Do you ever have any marital-style spats with Hugh?

E.M.: No, we don’t. We have a very easy relationship.

More: What’s it like working with Maggie Smith?

E.M.: She’s sharp as a tack and very funny and marvelous. [Onstage, McGovern recalled Smith’s annoyance with her Dowager Countess’s high lace collars. “This,” she proclaimed, “is why they invented the guillotine.”]

More: I have a couple Cora questions. First, why doesn’t she see through her maid, O’Brien? O’Brien is practically twirling a mustache, but Cora seems unaware of her scheming.

E.M.: I think she’s very dependent on O’Brien in a way that she would never admit or recognize. When things get tough, O’Brien is there for her in a way that others aren’t. You’ll see that in the second season.

More: Why do you think O’Brien is so mean?

E.M.: It always makes sense to me when I watch it. She’s a woman who has nothing of her own. Her entire life is at the service of others. She has this intimacy with Cora, but it’s clear that she has to do exactly what Cora wants. Cora calls the shots. That would be irking.

More: What about O’Brien’s relationship with Tom, the other major downstairs villain in the story? I actually thought Tom was her son.

E.M.: No, no, no, he’s not her son! But they spark off each other because they are both angry and frustrated. In Tom’s case, he’s also a repressed homosexual who would do quite well in another situation. He’s a real survivor—a schemer, but a clever boy.

More: As a mother, Cora sometimes seems oblivious. Two of her daughters are pitted against each other, yet she doesn’t seem to know or care.

E.M.: Cora sees everything that’s going on and she handles it in the way she deems best, which is to let it play itself out. I don’t find that odd. Sometimes I wish the Cora character was explored a bit more in the writing but that’s not up to me. Julian [Fellowes, the show’s creator] is juggling 25 characters, so he has to make decisions about where the camera focuses.

More: Like you, Gillian Anderson has had success in England, doing a range of great roles. I always thought if I were an actress, I’d want to be in England. They seem to have a much healthier attitude toward acting there.

E.M.: I did a movie with Gillian called House of Mirth. I do think it’s true—as dangerous as it is to generalize, for so many years there’s been a tradition of respect for the craft of acting in England. It’s not about perfect boobs and flawless skin; it’s about creating characters and telling stories. It’s in their DNA. It’s in their blood. It’s how they view it. Actresses there are not burdened by a lot of stuff actresses in Los Angeles have to contend with.

More: Are there also more roles for older women?

E.M.: There is the theater, so yes there are more roles.

More: What do you think your career would have been like had you stayed in the U.S.?

E.M.: That’s impossible to answer. Who knows? It’s tempting to ponder, but you just don’t know.

Want MORE? Check out our story on the woman who won a king, Wallis Simpson.

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First Published December 22, 2011

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