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The Sunday Conversation: Elizabeth McGovern

The actress lives in England and is married to a Brit but gets back to her American roots in 'Downton Abbey.'

February 12, 2012|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora Crawley in "Downton Abbey."
Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora Crawley in "Downton Abbey." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Elizabeth McGovern, 50, and her English director-producer husband, Simon Curtis, 51, recently hit the awards nominee circuit in tandem, he as the director of the film "My Week With Marilyn" and McGovern as Cora Crawley, the American-born Countess of Grantham, in "Downton Abbey." McGovern's recent noms cap a career largely spent out of the limelight after her high-profile start 30 years ago in "Ordinary People" and "Ragtime." Season 2 of the PBS "Masterpiece Classic" hit concludes Feb. 19.

You've been living in London for about 20 years, raising your family and mainly working in British entertainment. "Downton's" high profile here has turned into a comeback for you with American audiences. What has that been like for you?

It's a gratifying way to see old friends I used to work with. It's an excuse to catch up on old times. Obviously, I've visited my parents over the years, but I've had a couple of the most amazing trips having to do with the recent awards, where I've seen people from my professional past and it felt so good, I could hold my head up high. It was the kind of thing I had never dreamt for myself, ever. I had long ago decided that my life had taken this irrevocable path away from that world. And I don't really miss it, but I miss a lot of the people in it. And it's nice to see them again.

So you don't miss Hollywood?

I still feel I'm doing the same work I've always done. It's just a different country. I'm still playing parts and going to rehearsals and drinking coffee and discussing scripts with actors, so in that sense, the basic core of it hasn't changed. It's just that the sea of faces is different, and the weather's not quite as good.

You and Hugh Bonneville played husband and wife in the BBC comedy series "Freezing" a few years ago. Is it a total coincidence that you're married again?

The thing that tends to happen in England more than it does in America, probably because everyone lives in the same city, is that you tend to work with people again if you've had a good experience working with them. But the truth is we've played husband and wife not once, not twice, but three times. We've always had an easy time working together. And I do think that the people who were casting "Downton Abbey" had seen that sitcom, but whether that has to do with being cast in "Downton Abbey" as husband and wife, I don't know.

Julian Fellowes describes your character, whose inheritance rescues a great English estate, as experiencing "slight alienation" as an American in England. I thought your character seemed reserved in a way that's English, but I suppose she would have been there for more than 20 years.

I kind of made the decision that she knows how to work the system. She's not a bull in a china shop anymore. She's figured out her audience and knows how to play them to a certain extent.

You've said that you are "psychologically more English." What did you mean by that?

I think it has to do with a sort of — and I don't mean this in a negative way — I have a sort of inner cynicism that I think is more English than American. I don't mean negativity, because I really love life. I think I recognize and feel very comfortable with this English attitude of evening out in their brains the highs and lows an American will go to about their expectations from life or their dreams of what they want from it. An Englishman won't buy into that as much as an American will, and I feel lined up with that in my own brain, for whatever reasons, which I don't understand because I am American.

So the English approach to show business and their work is more — and this is a big generalization, I hasten to say — but it's more, they work on it as a craft job. There's not the expectation that any minute they're going to take over the world, the way show business is set up in L.A., for instance. I feel comfortable with that. England as a culture has endured so much more than America has as a culture, so it's given them a different perspective.

Shirley MacLaine plays your mother in Season 3. Have you met?

I have met Shirley years ago in England. I haven't worked with her, but I'm over the moon completely.

The matriarchs of Downton Abbey are a real power pair, between Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith.

Yeah, that's the idea. Poor Cora.

What has it been like working with Maggie Smith, who plays Cora's mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess of Grantham?

It's hilarious. She is a taskmaster. Everybody has to be on their toes. She's sharp as a whip and wonderful to work with.

As recently as 2008, you started fronting a band called Sadie and the Hotheads. That's usually something people do in their 20s. Was that always something you wanted to do?

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