While most viewers today recognize Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, the Countess of Grantham on PBS’ recent English drama hit, Downton Abbey, the American actress has long been a fixture in the acting community. Graced with a seemingly ageless beauty, McGovern admits to experiencing many “dream factory moments” in her 30 plus year career.
There was the phone call from Robert Redford when she was 18 to tell her she was cast as the sweet high school girl in his Oscar winning movie, Ordinary People. A year later, she was walking the red carpet as an Academy Award nominee for her role as Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime. Then there was the time Robert De Niro wined and dined her as a live orchestra played “Amapola,” and Italian director Sergio Leone trained his camera on her youthful, open face and bright blue eyes in Once Upon a Time in America.
“That was a pretty big ‘Am I dreaming?’ feel,” the 51-year-old actress/singer told The Daily Beast this autumn.
But for a while, roles dried up. And then came Downton and McGovern’s acting career experienced a new resurgence. This month, she stars in a new movie, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, also set in England at the turn of the 20th century and based on Julia Stratchey’s 1932 Bloomsbury novel. It is a very British take on the mishaps, family drama, and last minute jitters of a bride on the day of her wedding. McGovern plays the mother of the bride (Like Crazy’s Felicity Jones), pressing her daughter to marry the expectant groom instead of the suitor she might truly love.
McGovern plays her character gently, but Mrs. Thatcham is determined. Despite realizing her daughter’s misgivings, Mrs. Thatcham is a pusher who will get her way—in a manner suitable to a lady, naturally. While Jones’s Dolly is upstairs getting tipsy and her boyfriend and fiancé nervously tiptoe around each other downstairs, Mrs. Thatcham never loses sight of the occasion.
“I approached her as a mother who desperately wants to do the right thing for her daughter,” said McGovern. “She is the one trying to manipulate her daughter into a path that her daughter might not know will be best for her. I approached her view with sympathy. Even though I think that in terms of story she is supposed to be the bad guy, I never saw her that way. She had a very empathetic modus operandi throughout the story.”
Through it all is the knowledge that comes with experience. What is marriage but a giant leap of faith? asked McGovern, who has been married for years to My Week with Marilyn director Simon Curtis. The film is the freshman feature of Donald Rice (the son of lyricist Tim Rice), with characters acting out their angst with understated urges.
“It is not a romantic comedy in that two lovers go off hand and hand and walk into the sunset,” she said. “For me the thing that sparked my imagination was Donald’s take on it. It was an unsentimental look at what accompanies anyone on their wedding day and the frenzy of this idea that two people can be together for the rest of their lives in the face of all evidence to the contrary. It is not about walking into the sunset with violins playing in the background. It is taking a leap into the unknown and with families with their pasts causing all sorts of complications and yet they are going to do it.”
Rice said at first he thought McGovern was too beautiful for the part. But then he could not believe McGovern said yes to the role.
“Elizabeth was determined that Mrs. Thatcham should not be the mother-from-hell, and her portrayal makes her human in her own right,” he said. “It would have been very easy to make this character a monster, but Elizabeth insisted on finding the vulnerable side to her character… Oh, and she felt right at home on the set—a large, freezing, damp-ridden country house—thanks to Downton!”
Although she sees herself more as a “60s kid” who grew up in Los Angeles, McGovern plays early 20th century women well. She says these roles have not been planned, but rather are a “happy accident.”
“I respond to character and story,” she said. “There is nothing in my life where I view myself as a 1920s person. I just sort of take the opportunities as they come along. If I feel I can play a part I do everything in my power to try to play it.”
A big part of her life currently is performing with her band, Sadie and the Hotheads, an acoustic folk rock band. The success of Downton has also fueled Sadie’s popularity—so much so that McGovern found herself performing in the same venue as Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon (and sitting in a dressing room next to Alison Krauss) at the Isle of Wight Festival last summer.
“That was like an ‘Oh my God! This can’t be real’ moment where I thought I was dreaming,” McGovern said. The band is now touring Britain, after playing at the Troubadour in London and releasing their second CD.
“It is a bit of a miracle really,” she said. “We have gotten together and enjoyed it but we never thought we could go anywhere with it commercially. It is one of the unexpected side benefits of doing Downton Abbey that I never would have dreamed.”
As for Downton, fans will be eager to know McGovern thinks this is the best season yet.
“What happens to the characters is deeper and has more resonance,” she said. “For me it is the most satisfying series yet.”
And Shirley MacLaine joining the cast made it all the more enjoyable.
“She was a gas,” McGovern said. “She was so great, so full of stories and a real breath of fresh air.