5:02am

Sat January 7, 2012
Arts & Life

Elizabeth McGovern, Acting At An Intersection

Originally published on Sat January 7, 2012 9:20 am

Elizabeth McGovern is back — though she was never really gone. She just moved across the pond.

She was 19 when a star — hers — was born, after she played the love interest in Robert Redford's film Ordinary People. She went on to co-star with some of Hollywood's leading men, including Robert De Niro, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and landed an Oscar nomination for Milos Forman's big-budget film Ragtime.

But in the early '90s, McGovern married a British guy and gave up Hollywood for London. She raised a family and developed a British acting career.

Now, after two decades, McGovern is back on American screens, playing Lady Cora in the wildly popular Emmy Award-winning TV series Downton Abbey. It's a period drama, often described as an Upstairs, Downstairs for our era — about a rich, titled family and the retainers who keep their gorgeous country home running smoothly. (Or sometimes not-so.) And like the actress, McGovern's character is an American who has married into a culture that can be forbidding to outsiders.

"I've spent 20 years rehearsing the part," she tells NPR's Scott Simon. "I do find myself bumping up against a culture that is in many subtle ways different to my own, and is a very interesting juxtaposition to me personally — and in this case, professionally."

It's differences of all kinds that make for lively storytelling, whether it's upstairs-downstairs friction, clashing sitcom neighbors, or the colliding acting cultures documented in the film My Week with Marilyn, which McGovern describes as "the best movie about show business I've ever seen."

She'd think that, she insists, even if director Simon Curtis weren't her husband.

My Week with Marilyn is about what happened on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl, a 1957 comedy starring the British titan Laurence Olivier and the American sensation Marilyn Monroe.

"There were two worlds that came in contact with one another, and clashed," McGovern says, "and it's resulted in a movie that's poignant and funny, and says so much about the Hollywood machine and about the English acting aristocracy. And the story touches people on a lot of different levels."

The English acting aristocracy is well-represented on the Downton Abbey set, of course — no less formidable a figure than Maggie Smith plays Lady Cora's mother-in-law, the irritable Dowager Countess of Grantham. And yes, McGovern says, she's just as intimidating in real life.

"Yes, she's scary — but she's a lot of fun," McGovern says. "She does make you laugh."

Acting with a master of Smith's caliber can be a challenge, McGovern says.

"She has a very facile, quick brain, and is always searching for the chink that has been overlooked — but I wouldn't have it any other way."

Filming on Downton Abbey's third season begins in February, and while McGovern can't talk specifics, she does promise there's more domestic drama in store.

"World War I puts a lot of pressure on the Grantham marriage," she says. "The world as they knew it, that consistent, solid place that for generations had existed, is threatened — deeply. And both of them have very different reactions to this. I think that it's hard for Lady Cora to adjust to this new reality, but it's easier for her than it is for her husband, Robert. And it sort of exposes fissures in their marriage that might otherwise have gone unnoticed."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Elizabeth McGovern is back. Well, she was never really gone. She just moved across the pond. She was 19 when a star was born - hers. She played the love interest in Robert Redford's film "Ordinary People," and went on to co-star with some of Hollywood's leading men, including Robert De Niro, Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. She starred in Milos Foreman's big-budget film "Ragtime." But in the early 1990s, Elizabeth McGovern married some British guy. She gave up Hollywood for London. She raised a family, and developed a British acting career. And now, after two decades, Elizabeth McGovern is back on American screens. She plays Lady Cora in the wildly popular, Emmy Award-winning British series "Downton Abbey."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: (as Cora) She's a wonderful nurse, and she's worked very hard.

HUGH BONNEVILLE: (as Robert) But in the process, she's forgotten who she is.

MCGOVERN: Has she, Robert, or have we overlooked who she really is?

SIMON: Elizabeth McGovern joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MCGOVERN: I'm very happy to be here, too.

SIMON: "Downton Abbey" is a period drama - although the whole point of it is, it has contemporary overtones. It follows - it's the Edwardian era - it follows the lives and loves of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants; often compared to that signature 1970s series "Upstairs, Downstairs." Do you think the fact that you're kind of coming to that from the outside gives you some added insight?

MCGOVERN: Are you asking - the fact that I live in England, does that give me added insight to the character - is that what your question is?

SIMON: The fact that you're an American living in England.

MCGOVERN: Yes, of course it does. I've spent 20 years rehearsing the part. I mean, that might have something to do with why I got it. But I don't think that my experience inculcating myself into English life is that wildly different from Cora, the character I play in "Downton Abbey." But I do find myself bumping up against a culture that is, in many subtle ways, quite different to my own - and is a very interesting juxtaposition for me personally and, in this case, professionally.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

MCGOVERN: (as Cora) I'd like you to look after Sir Anthony Strallan tonight. He's a nice, decent man whose position may not be quite like papa's, but it would still make you a force for good in the county.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) Mama, not again. How many times am I to be ordered to marry the man sitting next to me at dinner?

MCGOVERN: (as Cora) As many times as it takes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) I turned down Matthew Crawley. Is it likely I'd marry Strallan when I wouldn't marry him?

MCGOVERN: (as Cora) I'm glad you've come to think more highly of cousin Matthew.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) That's not the point.

MCGOVERN: (as Cora) No.

SIMON: How do you analyze the fascination audiences have with dramas from this period - and particularly, the dramas that depict the aristocratic family and the folks providing for them in all ways, who live downstairs?

MCGOVERN: It's a perfect recipe for a television show because most of the time, what makes a television show are different versions of families trapped, more or less, in one space and then they knock against one another, and that creates stories. The fact that we have a complicated class system in which all these people are completely interdependent on one another and yet there are these very firm walls that separate them - it's an absolute spark plug for untold number of stories and fascinating historical situations as well.

SIMON: Let me ask about your cast of players 'cause it's terrific - I mean, Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham; Dame Maggie Smith, who you mentioned, as the Dowager Countess, your mother-in-law, if you please. Is she as intimidating in person as she seems on screen?

MCGOVERN: Yeah, she's scary, but she's a lot of fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

MAGGIE SMITH: (as Violet) You may not know it, but I believe the committee feel obliged to give you the cup for the best bloom as a kind of local tradition.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No, no, I do not know that. I thought I usually won the prize for best bloom in the village because my gardener had grown best bloom in the village.

SMITH: Yes. But you don't usually win, do you? You always win.

SIMON: What's it like to play a scene with her?

MCGOVERN: One is always kept on one's toes with Maggie.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

SMITH: (as Violet) I was right about my maid. She's leaving to get married. Now, how could she be so selfish?

MCGOVERN: (as Cora) I do sympathize. Robert's always wanting me to get rid of O'Brien but I can't face it. Anyway, she's so fond of me.

SMITH: (as Violet) Well, I thought Simmons was fond of me. What am I to do?

MCGOVERN: She has a very facile, quick brain and is always searching for the chink that has been overlooked. And you have to really keep your wits about you - but I wouldn't have it any other way.

SIMON: There's a quote - maybe you didn't expect it to get to this side of the pond from - the days of the Internet - where you say that you think that maybe the British make better films than Americans.

MCGOVERN: Well, just putting it in context, I was at the British Independent Film Awards, and a microphone was thrust into my face. And I felt I should say the politic thing. Of course, I don't feel that way completely, 100 percent; of course not.

SIMON: Your husband's career - the director - is flourishing. Your husband is Simon Curtis.

MCGOVERN: Simon Curtis is his name, yeah. I'm proud of him. He's directed a movie called "My Week with Marilyn," which is the best movie about show business that I've ever seen. And I'm actually not saying that because he's my husband - because I am often critical of his work.

SIMON: "Downton Abbey" is continuing in production, right?

MCGOVERN: Yeah, we're starting season three in February.

SIMON: And I know you can't talk about what happens but...

MCGOVERN: But?

SIMON: Well, without talking specifically about what happens, can you tell us how Lady Cora will react to the world changing around her?

MCGOVERN: World War I puts a lot of pressure on the Grantham marriage. The world as they knew it - that consistent, solid place that for generations had existed - is threatened deeply. And both of them have very different reactions to this. I think that it's hard for Lady Cora to adjust to this new reality, but it's easier for her than it is for her husband, Robert. And it's sort of - exposes fissures in their marriage that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. So it does have an effect on their marriage.

SIMON: The new season of "Downton Abbey" starts on PBS tomorrow. Elizabeth McGovern joins us from New York. Thanks so much.

MCGOVERN: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.