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

The surprising new addition to the phenomenally successful British series Downton Abbey is Academy Award winning actress Shirley MacLaine who portrays Martha Levinson, the mother of Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern).

MacLaine spoke with TV Critics about joining the cast and why she believes the show has accumulated such worldwide popularity.

Were you a fan of Downton Abbey?

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

Actually, no. I walked into my hairdresser’s in Malibu and they were talking about it. [I thought], ‘What do they mean? I better go look.’ And soon after that, I got the call.

Then I saw it. Oh man, I ran three months of it and I was just as addicted as everybody else. It creeps into your pores, there is no doubt about it.

When it was announced I was going to do Martha Levinson, I didn’t know anything about her. But my hairdresser did.

All the ladies in my hairdressing place said, ‘Oh, she’s Jewish, she’s from Long Island and she has a lot of money and she’s looking for a tight, old man.’

I thought, ‘That might be worthwhile investigating. Along with the great acting and it being a fantastic show, that’s basically why I did it, to see if my hairdresser was right. I had a fabulous time. I will never forget it.

What was your experience like shooting it?

Downton Abbey, 3.01 - Hugh Bonneville, Shirley MacLaine and Elizabeth McGovern
Earl of Grantham, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), and Countess of Grantham, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) ©2012 Carnival

It was an extraordinary experience for me also in stamina and in work ethic. Because we were shooting outside in the rain and in the wind with our formal gear on and nobody seemed to notice.

So I quickly stepped right in there and acted like I didn’t notice either.

What was wearing the costumes like?

The first day on the set when they were putting my costume on, the buttons were so small and located somewhere that I couldn’t even reach. The corsets were so demanding. The zippers would have necessitated an attendant.

I realized, ‘Of course there’s a class system. You can’t get dressed without them.’ And I wondered, did they make a class system of the necessities of the wardrobe, or was it the other way around?

I think one of the things the viewers are most excited about is seeing you go toe-to-toe with Maggie Smith. Had you met before?

Downton Abbey, 3.01 - Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith
Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) and Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet (Maggie Smith) ©2012 Carnival

Well, we were lovers in another life! (she laughs)

She told me that we had met 40 years ago backstage at the Oscars, next to the catering table. I was up for something, and there was this big chocolate cake on the catering table. And whatever I was up for, I lost.

Maggie said, ‘You know what you did, dear? You tucked right into that chocolate cake, and said, ‘F-ck, it. I don’t care if I’m thin ever again.’ She remembered more than me, but then she’s one year younger than me.

Why do you feel the series is such a worldwide success?

Downton Abbey, 3.01 - Dan Stevens, Shirley MacLaine, Lucille Sharp, Jim Carter and Phylis Logan
Matthew (Dan Stevens), Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), Reed (Lucille Sharp), Mr Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs Hughes (Phylis Logan) ©2012 Carnival

I travel all over the world, and all these people are on the Internet and they’re used to an overabundance of information.

I think what Julian (Fellows, the creator of the series) has done so brilliantly is make, what, 15 characters or combinations with just the right amount of time on screen, which fits with the Internet tolerance for emotional knowledge.

It makes me wonder about my attention deficit syndrome!


Judy Sloane

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