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7 September 2012

Downton Abbey: An interview with Shirley MacLaine (Martha Levinson)

Martha Levinson
(Shirley MacLaine)
© ITV
When Shirley MacLaine got the call asking if she would like to play Cora’s American mother in Downton Abbey, she did what any right-thinking woman would do. She went to the hairdressers.

“I happened to mention it to somebody - as you do in a hairdressing place - and suddenly all the women there had these theories about what Elizabeth McGovern’s mother would be like. I thought, ‘My god, the whole world’s obsessed with this show and this family.’ And that’s how it started.”

MacLaine gives some historical background to how she pictures Martha Levinson:

“In those days the American women who had money were looking for titles, and the titled men were looking for American money. So Martha fits the bill of the American matriarch who lands across the pond with money. And they expect her to finance whatever’s wrong with Downton Abbey.”

Naturally, it’s not quite as simple as that.

“She is extremely outspoken. Martha’s basic role in these episodes is to plead with the Dowager Countess to wrest herself, if possible, away from tradition. Because that’s what caused the war in the first place. And to become more flexible in relating to change.”

It raises the prospect of MacLaine and Maggie Smith, two of the modern film and stage greats, locking horns, yet MacLaine says their interaction is a little more subtle than just sneering and brickbats.

“The gunfight at the OK Corral does not happen between Maggie and me. We do a little sparring, we have our moments but it’s more sophisticated than that. Martha is not just a crass, cranky American coming in there to call a spade a spade. She’s very smart and to a large extent sensitive as to what’s going on with all her daughter’s children. And Maggie’s character is so well established but you have to look beyond what is her expected reaction to Martha. The Dowager Countess is a human being who has complications and a past of some pain that Martha understands - and to some extent addresses herself to.”

For MacLaine, her time spent filming in the UK earlier this year was a treat.

“Because they like me to be bawdy. And they know that I naturally am so it’s not a put on.”

She particularly enjoyed Highclere Castle.

“Now that’s a once in a lifetime experience, to shoot in such a hallowed place. I enjoyed very, very much that castle and the grounds and the past and the hauntings and the energy. I'm very much in to that stuff.”

But as a ‘jogging pants and tennis shoes’ type of girl, she says that the costumes she had to wear were less to her liking.

“I hated to put that stuff on. I'm not one for wardrobe. But Caroline (McCall, Costume Designer) was brilliant. I knew that it was half of my character so I had to do it – it’s like dialogue, you have to do it right.”

Much of Martha’s wardrobe was sourced from American originals kept in an antique costume house in the San Fernando Valley in California.

“We did most of the fittings there,” MacLaine explains, “So my clothes originated in America because I was American, and I was wearing wardrobe - dresses and tops and hats and shoes - from the 20s that had been stored in this place ever since. It could not have been more authentic. The wig maker came out from London and we did all the clothes there, so what you’re seeing is not the English version of the American clothes of the 20s - they were the American clothes of the 20s. And I have to say, you will not recognise me.”

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