Downton Abbey, Series 3 - The cast
Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) ©2012 Carnival Films & Television Limited, for Masterpiece

The cultural phenomenon Downton Abbey Series 3, which depicts the lives of the noble Crawley family and the staff that serves them, doesn’t return to PBS’ Masterpiece Classic until January, 2013. But that didn’t stop the cast from getting together at the TV Critics tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to talk about the new season.

The Great War is over and the long-awaited engagement between Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) is on. Robert and Cora Crawley (Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern), the Earl and Countess of Grantham, are facing financial ruin. Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), arrives on the scene, and Lord Crawley’s valet, John Bates (Brendon Coyle) still sits in prison, convicted of murdering his wife. I know… it’s hard to wait until next year to see what happens!

Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern spoke of the upcoming season, and his Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a Drama.

How does it feel to be nominated for an Emmy?

Downton Abbey - TCA; Brendan Coyle, Joanne Froggatt, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Shirley MacLaine
The Downton Abbey panel at the TCA in Los Angeles Brendan Coyle, Joanne Froggatt, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Shirley MacLaine ©2012 Masterpiece

Hugh: We have a word in England which is gobsmacked. I don’t know if it translates. [To say] I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. To hear my name in the same breath as Jon Hamm and Damian Lewis, it’s a tremendous honor.

It really is. And to have had the show embraced so wholeheartedly by America is very special to us.

Elizabeth, can you talk about the progression of Lady Cora from the beginning to standing by Lord Crawley’s side through an economic downturn?

Downton Abbey - Downton Abbey, Series 3 - Shirley MacLaine
Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) arrives at Downton ©2012 Carnival

Elizabeth: I didn’t know who Cora was until I met Shirley! Suddenly it all came clear, and I realized that for two years I was in a bit of a fog.

I think that there is a light that mothers hand on to their daughters, which I think Shirley gave Cora in her aura simply by being on the set, which is one of great strength, humor, resilience and flexibility.

It became very clear to me the journey that Cora had undertaken to go, from Martha Levinson to the Countess of Downton Abbey.

She’s a more old-fashioned idea of women’s strength. She is somebody who is extremely flexible and resilient, and can roll with the punches. She is strong in a quieter, more self-effacing way.

It’s nice to resurrect that idea of female strength, because I think that has churned the wheels of history for many centuries, that quiet, strong woman that just connects all the dots in the family. And that to me is Cora.

What qualities do you share with her?

Downton Abbey - Elizabeth McGovern
Elizabeth McGovern mixes with LA journalists ©2012 Masterpiece

Elizabeth: None, it’s all an act. I’m a raving lunatic.

This show has become a pop cultural phenomenon. When you started working on it, did you have any idea it was going to become that?

Hugh: I think none of us had any expectation of that at all. The first time I realized that it was breaking boundaries of the expected audience was when a lad of about 10 or 11 in my son’s playground came up to me and said, ‘I don’t like that Thomas.’

One became gradually aware that young people had bought into this show. The emotional investment that a lot of people have made in these characters is extraordinary.

Hugh, what is your character’s inner strength? What makes him an ideal man?

Downton Abbey - Hugh Bonneville and Brendan Coyle
Hugh Bonneville and Brendan Coyle at the summer TCA’s 2012 ©2012 Judy Sloane

Hugh: I’m not sure he is an ideal man, but I think the fact is he was born into it. His destiny was predetermined. He was born to hand on this estate to the next generation. That’s been the sole driving force in his life.

Let’s not forget that Cora and Robert’s marriage was a business transaction. The estate needed the cash, and her family was quite keen on having a British title. It then so happened that they fell in love and have had 20-plus years together.

I think his overall – (he pauses) I’m sorry. I [have to] take this off. (he takes off his jacket and rips open his shirt to reveal underneath it is a t-shirt that says ‘FREE BATES.’

Elizabeth: Oh, God! (they both laugh)


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.