In the Tribeca Film Festival Spotlight entry “Cheerful Weather for the Wedding,” Academy Award-nominee Elizabeth McGovern plays the matriarch of a upper crust British family in the 20th century who’s intent on marrying off her daughter (“Like Crazy” star Felicity Jones) to a man of good ilk. If you think that sounds awfully familiar, you’d be right. As fans of PBS’s phenomenon “Downton Abbey” (and they are legion) are well aware, McGovern plays a similar role in the hit show as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, head to the titular Yorkshire country house. The difference this time around? She plays a Brit.
McGovern, like her character in “Downton Abbey,” is an American who moved abroad, had children and made a life for herself overseas. Prior to immigrating to the UK, McGovern was best known for her work in “Ragtime,” “Ordinary People” and “Once Upon a Time,” in which she starred as Robert de Niro’s object of affection (she was also briefly engaged to her “Racing the Moon” co-star Sean Penn).
For the past two decades, the actress has been living with her husband, director Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”), in the UK and making a name for herself on British television, with appearances in a string of series, none of which took off quite like “Downton Abbey.”
Indiewire sat down with McGovern during her brief visit to New York for the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss her move, the similarities between “Cheerful Wedding” and “Downton Abbey,” and what fans can expect from the third season of the hit show.
It’s funny seeing you in modern day attire.
Do you get that a lot?
I suppose recently. They don’t seem to recognize me that much because the “Downton Abbey” thing is most recent. I don’t think they can quite reconcile with me if I’m in the grocery store with a shopping cart — it doesn’t correlate. It’s nice. I can escape.
In way it’s the perfect role.
Yeah, it is. You can shed it.
Given that you live in the UK, when did you come around to realizing that the show had crossed over to American audiences?
It was interesting because a group of us from the show came out at the end of first season, around the time of the Emmy’s. There were a few people who had seen it that were crazy about it. It was like something that they had discovered for themselves.
The next time, it was a completely different story. It really seeped into the consciousness of people in the business in a much bigger way, so that was a big leap between the first and the second season. That’s when I started thinking, oh my god, this is not what I was expecting at all from a British TV show. That was weird.
And the show’s so severely British.
I expected two people to like it: my mom and my dad.
Were you wary of taking on “Cheerful” given the similarities between it and “Downton”?
It’s funny, people have asked me that, and they seem so dissimilar to me in every other way, it never even occurred to me. I suppose that the feeling of the show is similar, because they’re period pieces and they’re about a group of people in a house, and the dynamics that result. But no, it didn’t occur to me when I was reading it. Now it does. If you like “Downton Abbey,” you’ll really like “Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.” That does correlate. The audience is the same.
The director, Donald Rice, is a first-timer. What gave you the confidence that he had the chops to pull something like this off?
I’d seen two short films of his, and I knew from watching them that he had it. I think I’ve been proven right, because it was a leap of faith. It was so low budget. In many ways he seems very naive as a person, but he has an instinct for film and film language. It’s something you have, or you don’t. I don’t think it’s something he’s aware of on a conscious level, he just had it innately. He understands film language.
You’ve navigated this fascinating career of making a name for yourself in America, then venturing off to England and succeeding in their market. Did you move solely because of your marriage to Simon Curtis, or was it partly a career move on your part?
For me it was just personal. It was about getting married and having kids. It wasn’t at all “I have to escape America.” That’s the last thing I was thinking about. I suppose the thing that’s unusual is I did more or less start from scratch again — or at least I felt like I was doing that in England. I was auditioning for the most horrible roles. It did feel like, ‘I can’t believe this.’ For many years, I thought that part of my life was just over. The fact that I’m feeling this energy again is completely unexpected. It’s kind of a little miracle; I’m loving it.
Actresses over the age of 40 seem to fare better in the UK and Europe. There’s more being written for women in that age bracket.
It occurs to me now, god yes. Just looking at “Downton Abbey”; I’ll be standing in a room with Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith, and I’m just thinking, ‘how did I get so lucky?’ That wouldn’t happen in America. But it was never anything that I manipulated, just total dumb luck.Tell me about that transitional period you no doubt experienced moving abroad.
At first it was just a real shock. I was making an adjustment on so many different levels. I was married, which was an adjustment for me (I wasn’t used to that). I was also pregnant, in a new country, and feeling as though I was giving up this career I had built. I wasn’t pulling a Johnny Depp, where I was such a big star and glamorously living somewhere else. I was doing well, but there was no illusion that I was doing that well.
There were a couple years there where I really felt lost. But there were so many compensations. When I think about it now, those early years I had with my kids, where I didn’t actually have the choice to be working all the time — I wouldn’t change that for the world. I was there for them during those early years. And I made so many discoveries that I would have never ever made, one of which was that I started getting back to guitar, which I had played when I was young, when everybody was. I had a lot of time on my hand when my kids were young to play it for myself. One thing led to another, and I started writing songs with somebody, and we started playing shows in London. Now we have a band called Sadie and the Hotheads and we’re releasing our second CD. It’s really starting to gain momentum.
We’ve been at it for 10 years, so it’s taken a while. But there’s no way in hell if I had just kept to the path I was taking, that I would ever have seen myself as a person who could do that. It’s only because I swiped the slate clean. I was thinking, “ok, who am I now?” That gives me so much pleasure, I can’t tell you, even for the simplest little triumph when I do it. It doesn’t come easily. It’s not something I’ve done since I was little. It was completely unexpected joy that I discovered. It felt very traumatic and very difficult, but now, 20 years later, I just realize it led to so many things I wouldn’t have discovered. So I’m very pleased about it.
How often do you come back to the States? Just for press tours?
Yeah, in the last year I’ve had a lot of these sort of trips. My husband directed “My Week Marilyn,” so we were down a lot for that. And then I’ve been down with the cast of “Downton Abbey.” I’ve been on the roll where I’m constantly being interviewed. It’s nice!
The journey Cora Crawley goes on in “Downton” is remarkably close to your own, negating the period difference. How desperate were you for the role when you first caught wind of it?
It seemed like an obvious fit. Plus, I live 20 minutes from the fucking studio! [laughs] But I was just not a desirable person for them to cast at that point. They would much rather have had someone more glamorous come in from LA. So I had to fight for it. They finally conceded. I think for them it was just a lot more convenient. [laughs] But it’s worked out fine. Everybody’s happy… I hope.
How’s the show evolved for you since day one?
I feel in our third year, we’ve finally settled into a nice, easy rhythm and way of working that has less of a strain than the first two seasons had. It felt like a working process. The cast has really gelled more as the years have gone by, rather than the other direction. There’s a lot of feeling of ease and trust within the cast.
It’s a difficult show in a lot of ways because it’s such an ensemble. I’ve done other shows where you’re focused on a few characters here, a few characters there. This show requires everyone be around, even if it’s not their story, not their scene. It takes a certain kind of actor to be able to be a star when it’s their turn and be an extra when it’s not. That the “Downton Abbey” actor.
I think we’re quite bonded now, but not in a lovey-dovey way. It’s very English in that sense. It’s very professional. There’s a real solid respect and trust there.
You share the screen with a fellow Yank, Shirely MacClaine, who plays your mother in the upcoming season of “Downton.” What was it like having another American on set?
I was ecstatic. First of all, she’s just such an engaging character, I was completely mesmerized by her the entire time. And it was just nice having someone from my home country. When she steps out of that limousine and she first enters the house, all I’ll say is that you understand a lot more about Cora, in terms of her background.