Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern: “I’m a raving lunatic”
Asked what qualities she shares with her Downton Abbey character Cora, Elizabeth McGovern laughs, ‘None. I’m a raving lunatic.’
It has been said that love conquers all, and Elizabeth McGovern certainly believes that. McGovern is the radiant actress who plays Cora, countess of Grantham, in the tremendously popular PBS Masterpiece Classic Downton Abbey series.
“Love” is a theme that weaves through the British show, and also in McGovern’s life. McGovern, 51, who first shot to fame in Ragtime 30 years ago, is an American actress who had a thriving acting career in the U.S. when she met a man “with whom I fell in love, and married him.” He was British director and producer Simon Curtis, and they married in 1992, “and I moved to England with him, where I’ve raised our children.”
The move removed her from the Hollywood consciousness but her career has proceeded apace in the UK. “I still love to work in theatre and television,” she says.
McGovern has worked on several fine BBC productions. And her Masterpiece Theatre work includes roles in Broken Glass, A Room With A View and Poirot. For her role in Downton Abbey she has garnered Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and is a past Academy Award nominee for the 1981’s Ragtime, playing the notorious chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit.
Now that she’s been living in England for 20 years, has she turned into a proper English lady?
“I think I’ll always be an American, in my heart,” she replied. “Of course it’s a bit of a change from living in New York City, but I love living in London. I love the people. I love the life. I think London is one of the best cities in the world. It’s close to Europe, the continent. Everything is available.
“When I go back to America, I find that I’m back with my people, and yet when I return to London, it’s home. I love New York for its business air, its theatre. I love Los Angeles for Hollywood and its television, movies and the entertainment.”
In England, she pointed out, “Life is very livable. The little tiny villages. You can walk down the mews and find history everywhere. You can feel it, and nurture it. There’s a relaxation that I feel.
“Of course, changing countries was frightening. I was thinking I was giving up my career. But I’ve gotten so much more.”
In addition to occasional movie roles, she was happy to discover Downton Abbey, and said, “It was the perfect job for me. I fell in love with it. The mother (Shirley MacLaine) is American, and the daughter has gradually become English.”
Having Shirley MacLaine step into the role of Martha Levinson, Cora’s mother, in the upcoming season of Downton Abbey was a revelation for McGovern. “I felt that I really didn’t know who Cora was until I met Shirley. Suddenly it all came clear. I realized that for two years I was in a bit of a fog. But I think that there is a light that mothers hand on to their daughters, which I think Shirley [as Martha Levinson] gave Cora in her aura. Which is one of great strength and humour and resilience and flexibility.”
That quiet strength is the core of Cora, according to McGovern. “It’s the kind that has gone out of fashion in recent decades, because we started to fall in love with women who were towers of strength in a very muscular sort of way. And she (Cora) is a more old-fashioned idea of women’s strength, which is somebody who is extremely flexible and resilient, and can roll with the punches. She is strong in a quieter, more self-effacing way.”
McGovern admires those types of women like Cora. “I think it’s nice to resurrect that idea of female strength, because I think that has turned the wheels of history for many centuries – the quiet, strong woman that just connects all the dots in the family.”
So what qualities does she share with Cora. “None,” revealed McGovern laughing. “I’m a raving lunatic.”
That statement makes seeing her performance as Cora all the more remarkable. What makes her acting seem effortless? She said, “You have to convince the audience. No matter the dialogue.” She praised the writing on Downton Abbey. “It’s so well written that when we discuss it, we realize we don’t have to change a line – be it for an American or English audience.”
Born in Evanston, Illinois, McGovern’s mother was a high school teacher and her father was a university professor. The family moved to Los Angeles when her father went to teach law at UCLA.
In her teens she discovered acting, and went on to study at Juilliard in New York City. That led her to a role opposite Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People directed by Robert Redford, followed by Ragtime. Later came roles in Once Upon a Time in America with Robert DeNiro, then with Mickey Rourke in Johnny Handsome. Indeed, her career was zooming with many film projects. Then, along came love, and the move to England and raising a family.
Her most recent productions were Clash of the Titans, Angel’s Crest and Cheerful Weather for The Wedding.
McGovern also finds time for music, another love of hers. She is a singer-songwriter, has recorded two albums and formed a band called Sadie and the Hotheads.
Now at age 51, McGovern loves everything going on in her life, and said, “The most important thing is I’m happy. I don’t think any of this is worth it if you don’t have a happy life. And I am happy.”
• Age 51; born in Evanston, Illinois, studied at Juilliard in New York City
• Early film roles included Ordinary People, Ragtime (earned an Oscar nomination) and Once Upon a Time in America
• Moved to Britain and married in 1992, continued acting in films and on British television
• Now in season 3 of Downton Abbey on PBS, has earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations