Elizabeth McGovern, Acting At An Intersection The Illinois-born actress left Hollywood for London — and love — 20 years ago. Now she's a star again in her home country, playing an American who married into the English aristocracy in Downton Abbey.
NPR logo

Elizabeth McGovern, Acting At An Intersection

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/144796501/144829757" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Elizabeth McGovern, Acting At An Intersection

Elizabeth McGovern, Acting At An Intersection

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/144796501/144829757" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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."


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.


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.


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.


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...


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.


Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.