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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)

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