Hollywood glamour descends on Downton Abbey in Julian Fellowes’s hugely anticipated second spin-off film from his hit TV series – and who better to sprinkle her stardust on it than Elizabeth McGovern?
Oscar-nominated in 1981 at the age of just 20 for her role in Ragtime and once engaged to Brat Pack actor Sean Penn, she was the toast of Tinseltown until she married British film director Simon Curtis and moved to England in the 1990s.
The film, A New Era, comes two years after the first Downton film in which the Crawleys received a visit from King George V and Queen Mary and follows the family as they cope with an invasion of film stars taking over their grand house to make a movie. ‘You see this clash of cultures when Hollywood meets Downton,’ says Elizabeth, who’s played the Countess of Grantham since the TV series first aired in 2010.
‘It’s just delightful and the guest actors are fantastic. It’s such an escape. ‘Because the family have to make some money, they allow the house to be used as a film set, but they’re quite shocked when they’re invaded by the movie business.
Elizabeth McGovern (pictured) who has played Countess of Grantham since the TV series of Downton first aired in 2010, is returning to screens in the second film
‘The film is set in 1928, nine months after the first one, when ‘talkies’, as opposed to silent films, were just starting to be made and they’ve got all these Hollywood movie stars and the director of a talking movie staying at the Abbey.
‘I’ll never forget when I showed up on set for the first time and there was Dominic West as this Hollywood actor with Laura Haddock as a silent screen star and Hugh Dancy as the director. They’re having a blast in this movie, it’s their personas and the humour that they bring to it.’
At the end of the first film, the formidable Dowager Countess, played by Dame Maggie Smith, revealed that her doctor had told her she may not have long to live, suggesting she may not appear in any sequel. Yet she’s back and causing more mischief in A New Era as she reveals that her ‘mysterious past’ has left her with the ownership of a villa in the south of France.
‘The villa she inherits brings us all to the south of France,’ says Elizabeth.
‘Julian had this fantastic idea which really took off as it materialised and I think the film is very funny. Downton has always had a sort of murmuring tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, but this film brings that out a bit more. There are also some very sad things that happen, but I think anything great has to be both tragic and funny because life is like that.
‘Maggie just has something you can’t describe and you can’t fake. It’s something very deep in her psyche that’s so compelling. She can take what might be a very ordinary piece of writing and give it such gravit as and humour that it makes everyone’s job around her so easy because of what she brings.
‘I don’t think she’s even conscious of it on any level really, and that’s partly because she carries with her all those years of experience, like working with Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson. It feels like they’re in the room with you.’
As for Elizabeth’s on-screen daughters, Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary and Laura Carmichael’s Lady Edith, she has enjoyed watching them grow up over the seasons.
Elizabeth said there’s a joyous environment on set because the core cast has worked together for so long. Pictured: Lord and Lady Grantham travel to the south of France in the new film
‘I remember the innocence of when we started filming. I remember Laura being really blown away by this restaurant near where we used to shoot because, to her, it was a really fancy restaurant. And then to go from there to two years later when she was at the Met Ball in New York with Michelle chatting up Mick Jagger, Laura’s grown up so beautifully and has so much confidence.’
She says the fact that the core cast has worked together for so long now makes for a joyous environment on set.
‘There are always jokes and you start to have sort of your own language which is often hard to translate. Penelope Wilton’s character Isobel Crawley for example used to say all the time, ‘Much cattle, much care’, which means the more things you have, the more you have to worry about, and that was something we all started saying as a joke.’
Lady Cora is a genteel character, and nothing like the more fiery Elizabeth. ‘Cora is consistent and very gracious about watching her daughters take off and grow and develop. But she’s one of those characters we can depend on to have an outsider’s view of the whole set-up because, as an American, she looks at it with different eyes.
I wouldn’t have been as forgiving as Cora
‘So I didn’t have to work very hard as an American in the UK to understand that. I find the aristocracy very mysterious, why anybody cares about a title and all of that,’ she says.
She even admits to wanting to wring Lord Grantham’s neck for being such a pompous snob. ‘I don’t think I would have been nearly as forgiving as Cora and there have definitely been times over the years when I’ve wanted to do that,’ she laughs.
‘I’m always completely amazed by what Hugh Bonneville brings to that part compared to what’s on paper when he sometimes seems like such an idiot.
‘Then you see how Hugh brings all his heart and warmth and humour and personality and gives his character so much more depth than he might have. Hugh and I are really different people but I’ve always felt with him that, despite that, I’m completely respected – and I hope he feels the same about me.’
Elizabeth is on stage in London as Hollywood star Ava Gardener, in a play she wrote based on the book The Secret Conversations by the late Peter Evans
Before A New Era is released, Elizabeth can be seen on the London stage in Ava: The Secret Conversations, a sizzling play she has written about the legendary 40s and 50s Hollywood star Ava Gardner. Part fact, part fiction, it’s based on the book The Secret Conversations by the late Peter Evans, who Ava hired to write her biography when, as a fading star of Hollywood’s golden age living a quiet life in 1980s London, she needed to bring in some much needed income.
From poor Southern farm girl to powerful Hollywood star, her story is utterly compelling. A knock-out beauty whose heavy drinking and racy love life kept the gossip columns hooked, Ava spilled the beans on her three husbands in the book, often to hilarious effect. Mickey Rooney was a serial cheater so notorious that even his mother warned Ava about him.
Bandleader Artie Shaw was ‘a dominating son of a bitch – always putting me down’, and of Frank Sinatra she said, ‘We were fighting all the time. Fighting and boozing. It was madness. But he was good in the feathers.’
WHAT A WAY TO START THE DAY
The pandemic has meant there’s been a longer wait than expected for A New Era, which had originally been scheduled to premiere at Christmas. ‘Filming the sequel was a complete joy as most of us had been in lockdown for a year,’ says Elizabeth.
‘When we came back it seemed like the whole world had turned on its head between the first movie and the second, from the pandemic to Trump to Black Lives Matter, but Downton was exactly the same. There’s something wonderfully reassuring about having the sofas, the chairs and the books all in the same place.
‘And the best part is, right after breakfast every morning, there’s that walk up to the grand house which you see in the opening credits. It’s a really amazing way to start your day.’
‘I didn’t get catapulted to the heights that Ava did in her life, but I was there in Hollywood enough to see first-hand the impact it has on people,’ says Elizabeth.
‘And because I’ve had such a long career, I’ve seen it over and over again, the fact that nobody escapes unscathed from that experience.
‘Psychologically it really impacts people. There’s an acknowledgement on Ava’s part that her private life created the privileged life she led, but it’s a very complicated thing for anybody to sell their private life for public consumption.
‘Her personal life was very much the fodder for lots of male fantasy. Inevitably that’s painful, embarrassing and hurtful. What I hope is that people who come and see the play will have some empathy with how painful and embarrassing that was for her.’
It’s hard to overstate Elizabeth’s own celebrity. She found overnight success in Robert Redford’s directorial debut Ordinary People, which won four Oscars, and then a year later earned her own nomination for her role in Ragtime.
Within the next four years, she was starring opposite Robert De Niro in Once Upon A Time In America and engaged to Sean Penn.
Surely the excitement of it all must have been overwhelming? ‘Yes, there’s no other word for it. But it was just the job I was doing, and it’s the only job I’ve ever really had. I’ve just thought of it as work and I do love it, but if it all went away tomorrow I’d be OK because I’d throw myself into something else.’
Had she married Sean Penn, who then went onto marry Madonna, she might have had a very different Hollywood experience.
‘There’s a road I could have taken, but I decided to call it off. It just felt like we were on different tracks. We were only in our early 20s. It would have been nothing short of a miracle had that become a lifelong partnership because we were both really young and figuring out who we were.’
Elizabeth left Hollywood to go to New York to appear in plays, and then in 1992 she came to England after meeting British film-maker Simon Curtis, who directed films My Week With Marilyn and Goodbye Christopher Robin. The pair married and have two daughters – Matilda, 28, and Grace, 23 – and Simon recently stepped into the Downton director’s shoes for A New Era.
Elizabeth’s Downton co-stars Dame Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael
‘This is the first time he’s worked on Downton so they were hard shoes to step into,’ she says.
‘But it was fantastic for me to feel so proud of him. When you’re living with somebody you forget what they’re like when they’re at their best, so frankly I didn’t know what it would be like. I’ve been doing this show for so long now and there are just so many complicated relationships and personalities.
‘But he made everybody so happy. All these actors that have been doing it for so long loved what he had to say and he made the film his own. The hardest thing for a director to do, especially in a situation like this, is put their own stamp on it.
Nobody escapes Hollywood unscathed
‘I really feel that if you want to know what Simon’s like, you should see this movie because you see his sense of humour, his warmth, his love for family and his love for all the characters that he’s actually lived with for so many years via me. I was really blown away by him.’
As the elegant Lady Grantham, Elizabeth is more accustomed to swanning around in silk gowns and adorned with jewels. But offscreen she has an alter ego as a rock chick, fronting a band called Sadie And The Hotheads who have supported Sting at the Montreux Jazz Festival and toured with Mike And The Mechanics.
She writes the lyrics to the songs and says that being on stage with her band is where she feels most free.
‘I mean, it’s absolutely crazy really. Writing the songs was something I did just for fun with no expectations, but it was the first time I’d ever felt like I could actually write because I didn’t go to drama school or university.
‘But it was writing the songs that gave me the confidence to try to adapt the book about Ava for the theatre. The play also touches on lots of things I felt I could bring my life experience to.’ Just like the new Downton Abbey film then, really.
Ava: The Secret Conversations is at Riverside Studios, London, from Tuesday until 16 April, avagardnerplay.com. A New Era will be in cinemas on Friday 18 March.