Downton Abbey - Elizabeth McGovern

American actress and singer-songwriter, Elizabeth McGovern, has just recorded her second album with the band she formed and fronts, Sadie and the Hotheads, and has already played a number of gigs around the more select festival circuit this summer, including the No Mud Americano Festival. “I have to admit that I’m a much better songwriter than I am musician but I find playing the guitar is the ultimate relaxation. I love it and it’s also such a great way of bonding with people and bringing people together. Michelle Dockery and I would hang out on set and practice and sing together. It was a lot of fun,” she recalls.

Downton Abbey is the second time the Academy nominated actress has played Hugh Bonneville’s wife though admittedly in very different shows. “My husband, Simon (Curtis) produced and directed Hugh, Tom Hollander and I in Freezing (on right), which was a clever little three-part comedy series on BBC Two written by James Wood. It was a lot of fun.”

In Downton Abbey she plays Lady Cora, mother of Mary, Edith and Sybil and wife to Lord Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville. “Cora is the mistress of Downton, having taken on the reins from her mother-in-law, the Dowager, when she married Robert Crawley. She’s partly distinguished by the fact that she’s American and has married into the aristocracy,” explains Elizabeth. “She’s an heiress who came to England looking for an aristocratic husband and has found a very happy marriage, raising three daughters in the process. She runs a massive household and copes remarkably well with everything, including the huge cultural shock of being thrown into a very singular world.”

(Elizabeth in House of Mirth)

Without Cora’s American fortune, Downton Abbey would undoubtedly have fallen apart, but with it comes all the problems to come at Downton. “She finds herself in a position where, because of English law, her fortune is completely out of her control and won’t be inherited by any of her children because they’re all girls. You can imagine how that must make her feel in a society where she has very little power. It’s amazing to think that not so long ago, a woman could have so little control over her own destiny.”

As Lord Grantham continues to dig his heels in over the issue of the future of Downton Abbey, Lady Cora finds an unlikely ally in Violet, Dowager Countess. “It’s been a lot of fun playing those confrontational scenes with Maggie – her character is quite bossy and domineering, but they have an uneasy alliance at the same time because of the fact that they are both very interested in looking after the inheritance for the children and neither of them like the idea of Downton going to such a distant relative. We are partners in our own little way.”

In a small way Elizabeth’s character Cora, echoes her own journey - albeit almost a century earlier. “It’s great to play a role that in some way mirrors my life, because I am an American who has spent nearly 2 decades raising English children and making the cultural adjustments, so in that way I can definitely relate to the part and have respect for what I know that entails, from the experience I have had myself.”

As with all the characters Julian has written, Lady Cora has a number of key storylines that pack an emotional punch as the story gathers pace. “Like all the actors, I jumped at that chance to be in a programme written by Julian Fellowes. He has such a fantastic eye for writing a good story and I really haven’t read anything like it before,’ she says. ‘He’s continued to maintain the quality in the scripts right through to the seventh one. Perhaps it’s the time he put in as an actor, but he’s written so many characters, so economically, so emotionally and with so many dimensions. If you’re an actor who wants to play characters it doesn’t take too much brain power at all because the writing is just gold dust.”

Pack produced by Una Maguire and Victoria Brooks, Milk Publicity!
Photo credits: Nick Briggs, Victoria Brooks

Watch video with Liz McGovern on set of Downton Abbey

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