Elizabeth McGovern is the Hollywood ingénue who threw away a glittering career and superstar fiancé in Tinseltown. But she got a second shot at fame in her 40s, after taking on the role of the American heiress Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, in the television phenomenon that was Downton Abbey.
Yet McGovern, who’s now 57, is a multi-talented performer who refuses to be defined by her most famous role. Later this year she appears in the long-awaited Downton movie (‘No one is going to be disappointed,’ she smiles), and she also stars in another period drama, The Chaperone, which she produced.
Next month she appears on the West End stage alongside Matthew Broderick in the play The Starry Messenger, and she is also releasing her third album with her folk band, Sadie And The Hotheads.
Elizabeth McGovern is a multi-talented performer who, just this year, is in the Downton movie, on stage in The Starry Messenger, and releasing her third album with Sadie And The Hotheads
In person McGovern – who was once engaged to Hollywood bad boy Sean Penn – is softly spoken and rather reserved. The daughter of Los Angeles-based academics is more the gentle, self-effacing Cora than the guitar-toting, spit-and-sawdust Sadie, who has to lug equipment for miles through festival fields with her bandmates.
She has steadfastly refused to even think of using Botox or any form of surgery to make herself look younger but is more in demand than actresses half her age. Downton creator Julian Fellowes calls her ‘a quiet storm and not a woman to be underestimated’, and McGovern agrees with this assessment. ‘I’ve been very lucky that all my life I’ve never really given a damn about what anyone else thinks.’
So what do we know about the new Downton movie? It revolves around a royal visit from King George V and Queen Mary, played by actors Simon Jones and Geraldine James. Imelda Staunton, who is in real life married to Downton butler Carson (Jim Carter), will also join the cast as the formidable Lady Bagshaw, but Lily James – who since the ITV show ended in 2015 has rocketed to super-stardom with leading roles in movies from Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to Cinderella – was not written into the film as Lady Rose because of her workload.
McGovern is aware of the massive impact of Fellowes’ story. ‘Downton changed all our lives. It’s not so much a television show as this juggernaut which took all of us by surprise. I didn’t expect to see my career take on this new direction at my age. When the series [first shown in 2010] ended in 2015, everyone was very emotional because it was the end of something so special, but everyone was also incredibly busy with other opportunities that came their way thanks to Downton. Coming back felt like a family reunion. Everyone was in a holiday mood because it seemed such an achievement to be turning this show into a movie. We were all walking round with big smiles on our faces.
She refuses to be defined by her role as Lady Grantham in Downton (above with on-screen husband Hugh Bonneville) and says returning to the set for the film felt like ‘coming home’
‘Downton has a reputation for being a good place to work. It’s probably the friendliest set I have ever worked on because we are all camped out there for the duration and we all have a huge amount of respect for each other.
‘Imelda has been on set with Jim so often she felt like a member of the cast already, and Simon and Geraldine are both excellent actors. Everyone finds it exciting, and obviously we have Dame Maggie [Smith], possibly the most intelligent, inspirational, hilarious woman you could meet, so it just felt very special. And then there are the usual concerns you have to remember, like choosing your forkfuls very carefully for the banqueting scenes – which take 12 hours to shoot and what looked appetising at 8am starts to make you feel ill by 9pm. I always go for a small piece of carrot or green bean.’
Did becoming ‘Downton movie stars’ mean that luxury Winnebagos and Michelin- starred chefs were cluttering the manicured lawns of Highclere Castle, Hampshire, where the series is set?
McGovern laughs. ‘Absolutely not. There was no change in the dressing rooms or the catering. That was all exactly the same. The food is all very standard TV fare. But it was lovely to be back with my screen daughters Michelle [Dockery, who plays Lady Mary] and Edith [Laura Carmichael] and of course my screen husband Hugh [Bonneville], who we all adore. We all slot into our old patterns. There’s a lot of music played because a few of us play guitar, but this year I played a lot less and Michael Fox [who plays footman Andrew Parker] did a lot of songs with Michelle.’
‘For me, true feminism is about exploring female characters who have their own inner strength’ something true of her part in The Starry Messanger (above with co-star Matthew Broderick)
Dockery is known for playing everything on the Downton set, from the theme to The Sound Of Music to jazz standards like Ella Fitzgerald’s Blue Skies and the odd Bob Dylan number.
McGovern says working with Fellowes back on Downton has been different from her time collaborating with him on 2018’s The Chaperone. In the film, set in the Twenties, McGovern plays a Kansas housewife who accompanies the future silent movie star Louise Brooks on her first dance job in New York. The film is directed by Michael Engler, who also took charge of the Downton TV series finale and the new movie.
‘I read the book and fell in love with it,’ says McGovern, ‘and Julian [Fellowes] wrote the screenplay. It was very different working with him on a different level, going into meetings, seeing a very different side of his vision.
‘In some ways it was strange to come back to Downton and be one of the “children” again. As an actor you don’t get the same say in meetings or know everything that is going on. But I’ve learnt so much from Julian on both sides of the camera.’
As a teenager, McGovern surprised her parents by announcing she wanted to be an actress and by 21 she was starring opposite Robert De Niro in Once Upon A Time In America (above)
As to whether there will be a Downton movie sequel, she will not speculate. But for McGovern, anything seems possible. As a teenager, the A-star student surprised her university lecturer parents by announcing she wanted to be an actress.
And she quickly found success. Her first role, in Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People, alongside Donald Sutherland, won four Oscars, and a year later she won her own Oscar nomination for Ragtime. By 21 she was starring opposite Robert De Niro in Once Upon A Time In America and engaged to Sean Penn, before appearing alongside Brad Pitt, Mickey Rourke and Michael Caine.
But McGovern turned her back on Hollywood – initially to go to New York to appear in plays and then in 1992 to England after she met the British film-maker Simon Curtis, now her husband and father of their two daughters, Matilda, 25, and Grace, 20.
She says meeting Curtis, the director of 2017’s Goodbye Christopher Robin, was the best thing that ever happened to her. She discovered the delights of England, which she now calls home (‘since proper coffee became a big thing about ten years ago – it was the only thing I really missed about America’).
Around the same time she was engaged to Hollywood bad boy Sean Penn (above in 1984); she has previously described their high-octane relationship as ‘dramatic’ and ‘exhausting’
She was able to juggle motherhood and a steady flow of TV and movie roles (from The Favor in 1994 to The House Of Mirth with Gillian Anderson in 2000) with a whole slew of theatre work. In 2008 she starred in the BBC comedy Freezing, playing one half of an out-of-work couple opposite none other than her Downton partner Hugh Bonneville. She smiles: ‘We are very good at playing husband and wife.’
McGovern’s relationship with Curtis is a far cry from the high drama of her early 20s with Penn. ‘I married a smart, funny man who is very talented,’ she says. Our family is our priority but I could not have made The Chaperone without his support and advice, and away from work we live a very regular life.’
She has previously described her high-octane relationship with Penn in the full glare of the Hollywood spotlight as ‘dramatic’ and ‘exhausting’ and it is clear – although she no longer feeds any gossip by talking about it – that McGovern’s values converge with those of Downton’s Lady Grantham who, like her, left a fast life in the US for the UK.
‘I didn’t think I was throwing a career away,’ she says. ‘First I went to New York and then I came to England. Back then it was almost unheard of for a Hollywood actress to want to do theatre because the aspiration was always to be a movie star, but none of that stuff ever bothered me – I just wanted to do interesting work. I never found anything about that Hollywood lifestyle in any way compelling so to leave it just seemed the right thing to do. I wanted to find out more about life. Los Angeles is a small place focused on one thing – movies – and I wanted to see something different.’
But she turned her back on Hollywood, moving to England in 1992 after she met the British film-maker Simon Curtis (above in 2011), who became her husband and father of her children
You wonder if this was partly to do with the fact she was a young, beautiful actress trapped within the infamously predatory culture of Hollywood, but she says: ‘Hollywood is all about allure and mystique and it was particularly difficult for actresses because there was always a blurred line, with the allure you were supposed to create as an actress and who you were as a woman. I was on my knees with gratitude when women started speaking out and the #MeToo movement knocked over these powerful men in the movie business. It was a culture I was not unaware of, even though nothing ever happened to me. It was happening and people didn’t speak out about it. I was lucky because as an actress I was never coming from a place of desperation so I wasn’t easy to exploit. Although I did put up with smaller stuff that my daughters would never tolerate – just the general way women were spoken to, people think about that now.’
McGovern strives to create female characters whose inner strength speaks of what she describes as ‘true feminism’. Lady Cora is the glue that keeps the family together. And in her new play, The Starry Messenger, McGovern plays a woman whose astronomy teacher husband is undergoing a crisis after his father dies, his job is under threat and he believes the answer to his problems is a young nurse he has become besotted with.
‘But my character doesn’t fall apart because she has a rival. We are so used to the narrative of the insecure woman falling apart but that isn’t such a helpful message to send. For me, true feminism is about exploring female characters who have their own inner strength, women who can grow and develop at any age, women who are secure in who they are and what they do.’
McGovern is not an insecure woman, something she acknowledges is unusual for an actress. Ageing has never bothered her. ‘I would never have Botox or anything done. I have no issue with the things people do to their faces to look younger but I find it weird – young faces, old hands… or faces that don’t look like theirs any more.’
The choices McGovern has made – which stupefied her Hollywood co-stars and agent at the time – have worked out well for her personally. She has a rounded, philosophical approach to her life, which she finds better suited to living in England than the razzmatazz of Los Angeles. ‘People talk about wanting to be happy but you can’t be jumping up and down happy all the time. Contentment to me is a much more important thing, contentment with yourself, with your life, with the things you do.’
She has a successful marriage, a thriving career and in her 50s challenged herself to do more – to become a musician, fronting the band Sadie And The Hotheads. McGovern, who writes the lyrics to the songs, says it’s being on stage with her band that makes her feel most free of all.
As a musician, her life is a far cry from the demure dainty tea parties of Downton. She has often done ‘very badly’ paid stints at festivals, playing to an audience that may or may not even have heard of the band. She smiles: ‘We did a gig in Bishop’s Stortford where it was so cold my hand was frozen to the guitar. We’d travelled miles to get there and I looked out into the audience and there was no one. But then, when it goes well and people are watching you and singing, well…’ She pauses. ‘You don’t want to stop.’
She has played in an empty field, in pubs, at the Isle of Wight Festival and – most recently – as the warm-up act for Sting at the Montreux Jazz Festival. She says her appearance in Montreux had nothing to do with the fame she’s found through Downton. ‘Sting told me he has never seen Downton. He’d never watched it at all. He just doesn’t really watch TV. But we did talk about acting and performing. He’s done both. He said he prefers music because he is more in control.’
She shrugs her shoulders and laughs at her music persona. ‘I know it doesn’t seem like something I would do. I’m not the person who rushes into a room seeking out attention, I’m absolutely the opposite. But there is something within me that just wants to perform.
‘Going out on stage terrified me,’ she says. ‘Especially at first when we would be playing in front of one man and his dog, but I wanted to do it, and once I was out there, I just loved the performance.
‘Making The Chaperone was perhaps more of a naive step because I had no idea how difficult it would be or how long it would take [in the end, from story to screen took almost eight years]. But I’m so proud of myself for doing it.
‘When women get older we are just supposed to disappear but you can’t let it happen. You don’t need to buy into that myth. I’ve never been busier, never felt more excited.’
Does she ever think what would have happened if she’d married Sean Penn?
She laughs: ‘Never. Another life. Another story. I’m very happy with the choices I made.’
Elizabeth McGovern stars in ‘The Starry Messenger’ at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, from May 16, starrymessengerplay.com
FIVE MORE HOLLYWOOD STARS YOU CAN SEE ON THE STAGE
Elizabeth McGovern’s Downton husband Hugh Bonneville stars as The Chronicles Of Narnia author CS Lewis in William Nicholson’s award-winning play. Until May 25, Chichester Festival Theatre
Hugh Bonneville (above as CS Lewis in Shadowlands at Chichester Festival Theatre) is just one of the many Hollywood names coming soon to a stage near you
2. All My Sons
A few tickets still remain to see Sally Field and Bill Pullman as Kate and Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s family tragedy. Until June 8, The Old Vic, London
Ibsen’s lesser-known work is presented afresh by Duncan Macmillan with Hayley Atwell and Tom Burke leading the cast. Until July 20, Duke of York’s Theatre, London
4. The Night Of The Iguana
Clive Owen returns to the London stage after 18 years to play the defrocked, alcoholic Reverend Shannon in Tennessee Williams’ classic tale of lust and ruin. From July 6, Noël Coward Theatre, London
5. Bitter Wheat
Loosely based on Harvey Weinstein, David Mamet’s new play, receiving its world premiere, stars John Malkovich (in his first West End role in more than 30 years) as depraved Hollywood mogul Barney Fein. From June 7, Garrick Theatre, London