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.

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.

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 Thu, 2011-12-22 17:21

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