Elizabeth McGovern made her screen debut in Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning drama Ordinary People, going on to appear in Once Upon a Time in America, Johnny Handsome, The Handmaid’s Tale and Ragtime, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
She married British director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) in 1992, and relocated to London where she continues to work in film, stage and television.
Last year she starred in the ITV/PBS series Downton Abbey as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. The series launched with the news of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and ended with the beginning of the Great War, spotlighting the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants.
I spoke with Elizabeth at the TV Critics Association about Downton Abbey Season 2 which premieres on PBS next month.
This series takes place a couple of years after Season One ends. What has Cora been up to?
Cora has been derailed by the advent of the war. It’s not herwar, not yet anyway, the Americans haven’t come in. She doesn’t have a lot invested in it personally.
It’s more a giant inconvenience for her, because she’s losing servants and the house is invaded by convalescing soldiers, because she feels that she has to give the house to the hospital.
But more than that she hasn’t found what her role is. There’s no immediate sign for her of what she should do, and it takes her a long time to roll up her sleeves and find a way to be useful. That doesn’t happen until the third of fourth episode. She’s a bit lost for the first two.
And she has to look at her children who are changing and making great adjustments in response to the war and I think it’s a painful adjustment for her, because it’s not how she envisioned life going for them.
With the two years between the first series and the second, did you make up an in-between story for her or do they tell you what’s been going on?
No, we all sort of make it up for ourselves. Obviously, we look we look to the script for clues.
Does Season Two end with a cliffhanger like Season One?
The end of this season brings the story more to an close than it did the first season, but there is room for Chapter Three. But a lot of the stories do resolve themselves by the Christmas special [which is being aired in the UK on Christmas day].
Cleverly there’s the end of the series in England and then there’s a break and then you’ll see a lot of the story settle down and find resolution in the Christmas special. But the story isn’t over.
Presuming your character survives, are you game for round three?
Yes I am because I love it. [Editor: Interesting answer!!!]
Were you surprised at all that Americans embraced it the way they did?
No, I wasn’t surprised. It’s historically accurate, emotionally true, and it’s a lot of fun. That’s my answer, it’s fun to watch.
Do you have any time to explore Highclere Castle which the series is shot?
No, the family is very clear about what’s out-of-bounds, which I can understand. So it is my [TV] home, but I don’t go into every room, because there is a family that lives there that has owned the castle for generations. That’s a fabulous story in-and-of itself, it’s truly fascinating.
A lot the Downton stories Julian (Fellows, the series’ writer) gleaned from talking to the real family who have lived there for such a long time.
Do you spend any time with them?
They are around, but it’s actually such hard work doing the show that there’s not a lot of leisure time to kick back with the Lords and Ladies too often. [The shooting] is annoying to them, but they’re grateful for what it’s done for the castle. It is an invasion into their lives, so it’s a mixed blessing for them.
I think ultimately it’s worth it, but they’ve got a crew stomping through their ancient and priceless castle, so it’s nerve-wracking for them to a certain extent.
I grew up in England and I think actors there are more respected. Do you find that?
I think they’re more respected and less idolized, yes. I like that.
Did you go to England to live and work, or were you there and met your husband and stayed?
I just happened to meet my husband and then under great duress came back, but I’m so happy that I did because it’s a life that I love for that very reason. It suits me to think of my job as a craft that I take great pride in, but there’s not quite the same cult of celebrity that there is here.
There’s a different attitude toward it which I really respond to.
Do you find yourself picking up an English accent living there?
I was accused of that just a moment ago. It’s easy to do. Actually, for the first six months I was there, I didn’t understand a word anybody said. They’d go into cascades of laughter at a dinner party and I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.
There’s a certain rhythm and inflection you have to pick up in order to be understood. But I try not to because I hate that. I hate Americans when they start [going] around with a fake English accent. I’m determined not to be one. But it’s hard to resist.
Downton Abbey Season 2, Episode 1 airs January 8, 2012 at 9pm ET on PBS. The first 8 episodes have already aired in the UK with the ninth episode to be shown on Christmas Day.