Period drama’s Countess of Grantham is no stranger to fame
Elizabeth McGovern — or the Countess of Grantham, as viewers might prefer to think of her — is suffering, ever so slightly, from the rigours of relentless questioning on the worldwide phenomenon that is Downton Abbey.
As fans gear up for a new season, “and everyone keeps asking me questions like, ‘Oh, which celebrities are Downton fans?’” she mock enthuses, making jazz hands. (For the record, these include Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Maggie Gyllenhaal, J. J. Abrams and George Clooney.)
“It’s hard for me because I don’t want to let anybody down, and I don’t want to be a dark cloud,” she says. “Plus, I do appreciate that this is a really good job and it’s a privilege to have regular work in a show that I’m proud of.
“But, at the same time, I can’t really ape that degree of giddiness about it and I’m just not feelin’ it that way,” she adds, suddenly more Sadie and the Hotheads, the rock band that she fronts in her spare time. “I’m too old and I’ve been around a bit too much.”
In fairness, McGovern has known fame — and plenty of it — before. In her twenties, she was a beautiful Hollywood ingenue, starring in films such as Ordinary People and Ragtime, for which she received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. At 23, she was engaged to Sean Penn, her co-star in Racing with the Moon.
“I’ve been through the fame thing so many times before that I’ve built up my system to contend with it. So now, in terms of Downton, I can’t honestly say that it has changed my life much at all,” she says. “I live very much as before, without any kind of fanfare — I barely even have a cleaner! Perhaps if I’d gone into the show at 20, it would be different.”
McGovern is polite, porcelainskinned and as poised as a Henry James heroine. Now 53, she is dressed in a little black skirt and sleeveless brocade top, with a pleasing pout of blood-red lipstick.
Experience has cautioned her against easy explanations for Downton’s success. In her home country, for instance, it is watched by 17 million viewers, many of whom gather for dinner parties organized around the Sunday-night TV schedule.
“You’d imagine that, being American, I’d have some clue why it’s so big in the States, but I haven’t. Maybe they like it for the same reasons we do — because modern life is so frenetic, we all crave a world that’s slow and solid.”
Cleverly, too, she says, Julian Fellowes writes period drama for the contemporary brain. “So the scenes are short and move quickly from one story to the other. The drama rocks along, which modern audiences like. But, in the end, if we could analyze what makes the show so successful, everyone would put the formula into a capsule and sell it. And after 30 years in the business, I realize that anybody who claims to know the answer to these things is, basically, full of crap.”
More Sadie again, now, than the corseted Cora.
The latter’s thread in the rich tapestry of the new season includes a flirtation with a new character, Simon Bricker, an art historian played by Richard E. Grant. A friend of the Crawley family, he starts sniffing around the ancestral pile admiring more than the priceless oil paintings.
“Oh, it was so much fun to work with Richard again,” McGovern says. “But then, he’s been a friend since we worked together on The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1999.”
The onscreen flirtation, she says, will tax Cora’s marriage to Robert (played by Hugh Bonneville). “But the real conflict comes from their very different attitudes to change. Robert’s entire world is based on tradition, so he feels incredibly threatened by the arrival of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government. But Cora, of course, is an American whose money only arrived in her father’s lifetime. So change doesn’t frighten her at all. But it’s the differences between them that bind them and that’s the case in a lot of marriages, isn’t it?”
Her own marriage, to the film director Simon Curtis, is also an Anglo-American union. McGovern, who is originally from Illinois, where her parents were academics, met Curtis when she came to England to appear in one of his plays. They fell in love and soon after their first daughter Matilda, now 21, was conceived.
“Simon had a day job and I didn’t, so from every practical point of view it made sense for us to base ourselves in England rather than America. We didn’t make a long-term plan, but it turned into one. Both Matilda and my second daughter, Grace (now 16), were born here, and even though they’re half-American, in every practical way they are very English indeed.”
At times McGovern has declared herself more English than American, too, but now she spins it the other way. “At heart, I’m still totally American. Yes, I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else, yet where you were raised is always the defining thing. So I still find myself reacting in ways that are just, deep down, different from my family.
“For example, I’m always likely to say what I’m thinking, lay it out on the table and proceed from there, whereas the English way is, ‘ Whatever you’re thinking, don’t say it!’ I’m sure my daughters, at times, regard me as stark, raving mad.”
Still, both Curtis and her daughters are supportive of her late — and some might think eccentric — flowering as a rocker. For years, she wrote songs and strummed her guitar alone in her room. “I didn’t have the confidence to go public. But then, a few years ago, I holed up with some great musicians in London — two amazing brothers who are the backbone of our band and a couple of others — and we started writing and performing together.”
Since then, the band has released several albums and performed at festivals. They went on tour supporting Mike and the Mechanics and opened for Sting at the 2013 Montreux Jazz Festival.
“Ten years ago, I couldn’t have envisaged my life right now. I couldn’t have predicted that I’d be shooting a TV show by day that people were watching all over the world, then at night getting into my car and racing to open with Mike and the Mechanics. ... It feels incredibly blessed to be having these experiences now. And I guess I’m here to say to other women in their fifties, ‘Never say never. It isn’t over yet.’”