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10 September 2012

Downton Abbey: An interview with Elizabeth McGovern (Countess of Grantham, Cora)

Countess of Grantham, Cora
(Elizabeth McGovern)
© ITV
Elizabeth McGovern says she is more comfortable than she’s ever been for this third series of Downton Abbey. Quite literally, in fact:

“I'm happy to say that as the times have marched on the outfits have become more liberated - so they're a lot, lot less uncomfortable this year. The corsets are a lot more flexible. Not nearly as bad!”

It’s not just the clothing that is becoming more liberated as we rejoin Cora at the beginning of the new series. It’s the attitudes as well.

“Basically, the forward thrust of the series as it begins is that the world is changing. You see all of the characters either adjusting to it or not adjusting to it in their different ways. It’s clear that Cora is having an easier time with the new ways of things. She’s flexible about adjusting to the new way in which life is going. When you meet her mother [Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine] you see why – Cora’s already made this enormous adjustment from the culture where she’s come from. So she can more easily adapt to ways of life that aren’t long established by tradition.”

What was it like having a screen legend like Shirley MacLaine on the Downton Abbey set?

“I think it gave everyone a boost of energy. She has an idiosyncratic way of going about everything, which was really refreshing. She’s a great storyteller, very funny, full of life and full of great observations.”

McGovern, of course, is American by birth, which means that she has a distinctive take on her countrymen’s reaction to Downton Abbey

“It’s always shocking to me - they're effusive in their love for it, at least the last couple of times I’ve been. They just can’t get enough of it.”

She says that only once in her career has she has seen a comparable reaction.

“Very early on I did a movie called Ordinary People that I felt had a very emotive impact in a similar way. That impact didn’t go on for so long - obviously because it wasn't a series. But it evoked a similar response.”

And it’s the kind of response an actor always hopes for.

“You want people to notice and respond to what you are conveying and I do have that feeling with Downton. People pick up on tiny little details and nuances in the story and talk to each other about them. That is incredibly gratifying.”

She says that fans like Cora for her steadfastness.

“I think a lot of people respond to an aspect of her which is an old-fashioned version of strong womanhood. It’s out of step with today’s notion of a strong woman, which is more like a Madonna-style – ‘I’m going to get what I want out of life and you can all go and get stuffed.’ Instead, Cora is a woman who’s more self-effacing but you feel is very strong and in the end will get it her way. At the same time she’s deferential to her husband and her husband’s family in accordance with the times, playing the role of a wife in that period. So I think it’s a throwback to an older idea of feminine strength.”

McGovern arrived to Highclere Castle in February to begin filming again, and she says that returning to the house that the nation knows as Downton Abbey brought with it a sense of calm.

“There’s nothing like that first journey up to those front doors. It’s just the most beautiful vista known to man. On the third time round I'm finding there’s a kind of peace and feeling of trust and mutual respect that only comes from working on something for a really long time. It’s a job that I really love. I love the cast and I like the ritual of it. It’s not an over the top intimacy, but just a feeling of trust and respect that you can only earn after an amount of time working on something.”

And she says that the pace of life in the early 20s is something she could get used to, too.

“It’s the quiet rituals and the attention to detail that I think we’ve lost in our life now. I do love it and I do find it relaxing to be in that world. I think that’s what audiences like about it to a certain extent as well. What was strange was at the beginning of filming when I was spending two weeks at Highclere Castle – and then driving home and picking up my kids from Westfield. That was a culture shock. It’s like going to another planet.”

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