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.
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.