Christmas is starting early at Downton Abbey. On Nov. 17, the double-album Christmas at Downton Abbey will hit stores. It’s comprised of 45 holiday tunes, including seven by members of the cast. Two of the most tender numbers, “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” and “The First Noel,” are sung by none other than Cora, Countess of Grantham (now Lady Grantham)—played by the Oscar-nominated actress Elizabeth McGovern.
The American ex-pat has been a screen staple since 1980, when she was hired while still enrolled at Juilliard for a role in Ordinary People, which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar. In 2008, she formed the folk group Sadie and the Hotheads, and because of her history with music, was approached by the album’s producer Nick Patrick, to appear on the LP.
“I’ve always got my guitar on the set of Downton Abbey and am rushing away to perform,” says McGovern. “Music and acting are totally on the other side of the world from one another, and I do find that they’re nice antidotes for each other. The nice thing about music is I can be in control of it. I don’t need someone to give me permission.”
On “The First Noel,” she’s joined by fellow Downton cast member Julian Ovenden, a.k.a. Charles Blake—an actor with a musical theater background who appears on several of the album’s tracks. McGovern’s also collaborated with Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley), who’s performed live with Sadie and the Hotheads and appeared on their second album before taking a leave of absence to “save her music for when the show finishes,” says McGovern.
When asked whether or not the album’s producers approached Maggie Smith, the icy Dowager Countess, to sing, McGovern laughs.
“They might have gone to [Maggie], but I’m sure she said no!”
Since McGovern’s songs were recorded after Downton Abbey’s highly anticipated Christmas special was shot, you won’t see Lady Grantham cranking out tunes during the episode. What you will see, though, is Lady Grantham planting a big ol’ kiss on the lips of George Clooney, who will be making a cameo during the Downton Christmas special as a wedding attendee.
“It was special for me because there was a scripted kiss, so I was a bit shocked to see his wedding go forward after our professional day together!” jokes McGovern, adding, “I have not been quite the same ever since. He’s truly as charming as you’d hope him to be, and smart, and has his heart in the right place.”
When I tell her that Clooney is rumored to also kiss the Dowager Countess during the episode, she chuckles. “He was kissing everybody that day!” she says. “But he wasn’t trying it on, it was all scripted.”
While the fifth season of Julian Fellowes’s Downton Abbey doesn’t premiere stateside until Jan. 4, 2015 on MASTERPIECE on PBS, it’s already wrapped airing on the other side of the Atlantic. And in Season 5, Lady Grantham will have a fascinating arc with a new character, art historian Simon Bricker, played by Richard E. Grant. The two characters engage in an affair, and McGovern felt very comfortable having Grant on the show since they’re old friends—he was one of the first people she befriended after moving from the U.S. to the U.K. The storyline also gave Lady Grantham more agency, which appealed to McGovern.
“What I really love about the way Julian wrote this arc is it’s not like two animals circling each other in a jungle filled with lust, it’s more that these two characters have a genuine spark,” says McGovern. “And that happens in any long-term marriage—you’re not just never going to have a spark with anyone else. It was my opportunity to grant Cora an independent moment away from being a mother, and being a wife. You get to know who she is outside of all that. It’s not scandalous, it’s human.”
She adds, “I’ve been married for a really long time and have kids, and when someone sees you in a role that’s not a wife or mother, you’re grateful because you feel recognized.”
As far as rumors that the show inserted a cancer storyline concerning its beloved dog, Isis (named after the Egyptian goddess), because of the dog’s name’s similarity to the terrorist organization ISIS, McGovern isn’t so sure.
“I wasn’t privy to any conversations involving the dog, so I didn’t know what the wisdom on that was,” she says. “I can’t say it had anything to do with the name. I think the dog deserved to have a little bit of a storyline, so that had as much to do with it as anything. And we had a great dog actor this year—one of our best—so we had to make the most of it.”
McGovern’s new album with Sadie and the Hotheads, Still Waiting, hasn’t been released in America yet, but is available to stream on YouTube. And the band will be performing a few east coast dates stateside in mid-December. When it comes to her future on Downton, she pauses.
“I agreed to commit myself to Season 6, and beyond that, I don’t know,” says McGovern. “I can’t see the show going on forever because nothing does, but it’s been really great so far.”