Ragtime. She plays Lady Cora Grantham in Downton Abbey.
Elizabeth McGovern was nominated for an Oscar as turn-of-the-century Broadway sensation Evelyn Nesbit in the film of E.L. Doctorow's
Elizabeth McGovern was nominated for an Oscar as turn-of-the-century Broadway sensation Evelyn Nesbit in the film of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. She plays Lady Cora Grantham in Downton Abbey. Nick Brigg/ITV/Masterpiece
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.
McGovern (center) is part of a redoubtable ensemble cast that includes Maggie Smith as her mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, and Hugh Bonneville as her husband the Earl.
McGovern (center) is part of a redoubtable ensemble cast that includes Maggie Smith as her mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, and Hugh Bonneville as her husband the Earl. Nick Briggs/ITV/Masterpiece
"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."