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Tribeca: 'Cheerful Weather' Star Elizabeth McGovern Talks 'Downton Abbey' and Why She Left America

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire April 25, 2012 at 12:57PM

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.
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"Cheerful Weather for the Wedding"
Tribeca Film Festival "Cheerful Weather for the Wedding"
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.

"Downton Abbey"
PBS "Downton Abbey"
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 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."

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.

This article is related to: Interviews, Elizabeth McGovern, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, Downton Abbey, Television, Tribeca Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival 2012







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