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Elizabeth McGovern Interview: Downton Abbey

downton abbey elizabeth mcgovern

Downton Abbey, a continuation of the beloved ITV series which ended in 2015, already topped the weekend box office upon its release on September 20th. A return to the charms of the Crawley household and the bustle of their staff seemed to be just what the moviegoing audience ordered, allowing fans to check in on their favorite characters once more. One favorite who's doing remarkably well for herself after having passed on the running of the Abbey to her daughter is Cora Crawley, played by Elizabeth McGovern. The award-winning actress sat down with Screen Rant to delve further into the ways Cora has grown since fans last saw Downton, as well as to preview her upcoming miniseries War of the Worlds.

The film was such a wonderful return to Downton Abbey and to all the characters. How was it for you coming back after three years?

Elizabeth McGovern: It was very easy; it was as though we’d never stopped shooting. The house had remained unchanged, and all the dynamics slipped fairly easily back into place. That was my overwhelming impression.

A new viewer can easily step right in, as well, to a story about an aristocratic family meeting the king and queen. Was that something Julian and the cast were conscious of while preparing the film?

Elizabeth McGovern: Well, thank God that is more Julian's responsibility and source of anxiety than mine, as the script writer. I really, honestly don't know how he did it. He just has a gift for conveying so much information so economically.

And I suppose there’s a certain amount of challenge as an actor too, because oftentimes it'll be your job to give a line in order to convey information to somebody that might not be up to speed on this series. It's not necessarily a line that you need to say for any other reason, if that makes sense. You've got to find a way of saying that line so that it doesn't sound like you're simply conveying information. And Julian has to find a way of writing it so that it doesn't sound like, “I'm just putting this in because if you  haven't watched the series, you really need to know that Tom Branson used to be married to Sybil and they had a terrible scene where they cried and Sybil died.”

You have to kind of find a way of saying it. So, I guess in that respect, Julian Fellowes and the actors shouldered the responsibility. I had to find a way to say the line so that it doesn't clunk to the ground like a piece of exposition, and he had to find a way of writing it.

Well, you both did that well. Now, Cora gets to relax in this movie a little bit and to finally feel peaceful. What has her journey been like for you, as an actress, to get her to this place?

Elizabeth McGovern: At the beginning of the series, of course, she had young daughters that were still not grown up. She had a lot more anxiety about settling them, having them to find a happy path before they screwed things up irreparably. Now she's done that; she's achieved that goal.

I think it's to her great credit that, rather than hovering and staying the controlling mom, she is happy to renege her position. And when you think about it, in terms of modern sensibilities, it's quite a big ask to let your daughter take over the running of your own house. But, of course, this was a very common thing in those days. In fact, the Dowager Countess would have done the very same thing when Cora came – and that must have rankled to a certain extent.

But, to her credit, Cora is able to relinquish her power and let Mary essentially take over her job. She probably quite enjoys the fact that it isn't her responsibility. All she has to worry about is what she's going to wear, really.

There were also the very nice moments between Edith and Cora, though they were more understated. Can you talk a little bit about the dynamic with your younger daughter over the years?

Elizabeth McGovern: Well, I think she was a little bit scared of Mary and perhaps underestimated Edith. I think we don't always get it right with our children. And I think the course of events proved to everyone that Edith had a lot more than possibly met the eye in the first series. And, in fact, she does end up very much on her feet and doing very well.

But I think it's very indicative of the way Cora operates that in the movie, underneath the surface without making a big to do with it, she's very instrumental in finding a way to make things right for Edith – in terms of her having a baby and having her husband with her. And that is very Cora. She doesn't make a big song and dance about it; she just quietly finds a way of maneuvering things so that they line up in the right way. She works under the radar; she’s the sewer of the petticoat rather than the dress.

Cora and Robert’s relationships has been tested in many ways over the course of the series, but she always remained steadfast. What do you think makes their marriage so strong?

Elizabeth McGovern: Well, one of the things is luck. I think that, like most marriages, you're taking a leap of faith without any guarantee. And in this case, probably more so, because it was a marriage of, to a certain extent, convenience. They were both making a kind of a deal with one another.

But I do think that Cora has a lot to offer Robert. Partly, it's her American background that helps him ease himself into a changing world all the time. Because she has this fresh take on all the things that weigh very heavily on his shoulders; the responsibility and the tradition, as he’s very attached to those old ways of life. They mean absolutely nothing to Cora, and I think her input often helps him move with the times.

I think women do tend to be in many ways more emotionally intelligent, and I think that's very helpful to Robert. And that's gratifying to Cora, because she understands that’s her role, and that does give her a sense of achievement and wellbeing. It's a sort of portrait of a marriage that works. In that respect, it’s probably no different than most marriages that work.

You've spoken before about how Downton Abbey showcases the importance of proper behavior, even when there's a difference of beliefs, and I think Tom Branson embodies that theme the most in the film. Are there other moments that stood out to you as encapsulating that theme?

Elizabeth McGovern: That's an interesting question. For instance, if you look at any of the disagreements that Maggie Smith's character often has, she will counter with a barb – but a witty one. Rather than just a crude annihilation of character. I suppose that’s the difference.

Is that something you think can be emulated by audiences today?

Elizabeth McGovern: I think it's a way of behaving that might help us move forward, given some of the ways that we’ve become entrenched in such disparate camps.

I don’t know that it would help us out of the quagmire that we sometimes find ourselves in right now, but it might.

Downton Abbey is as much about the downstairs as the upstairs. Why do you think the lives of Anna and Bates, for example, call to us as much as the Crawleys themselves do?

Elizabeth McGovern: Everybody instinctively knows that, in order to create something that is very beautiful and serene on the surface, there are a lot of blood, sweat and tears going on. And I think that what's remarkable about Downton Abbey is that you see both sides of the creation of what appears to be very magical and effortless.

That's just like life. I think pieces of entertainment that work somehow resonate with a sense that they are like real life.

Looking to the future, you're starring in an adaptation of War of the Worlds. What can you tell us about your role in that?

Elizabeth McGovern: I was excited to do it because I get to wear a pair of tight jeans and pack a pistol, quite frankly.

I also thought the way that we are attacking the story of War of the Worlds is an intriguing one. It's set absolutely today, and the intention of the writer is to create a way of looking at our world, as we find ourselves in such a divided world, with an outside enemy somehow being a unifying factor that pulls us together. It equalizes everybody; it throws the Ugandan refugee in with the upper middle-class British family, and they are completely in the same boat. And it postulates that maybe that's what it's going to take to see that that we really need each other. Maybe it's some kind of outside force. I think it's a very powerful thing to contemplate.

I'm looking forward to that. And potentially more Downton Abbey, if Julian finds it in his heart?

Elizabeth McGovern: Oh, I know. Who knows? As he says, “Never say never.”

More: The Worst Thing Each Downton Abbey Character Has Done

Key Release Dates
  • Downton Abbey (2019) release date: Sep 20, 2019
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