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An Appropriate Time For All This to Erupt: Elizabeth McGovern on Downton Abbey: A New Era

After 52 episodes over six years, two feature films, a touring exhibit of costumes, and enough merch to fill the title residence, “Downton Abbey” is almost in the “Up” series category for our connection to the characters. We have been through so many births, romances, and heartbreaks, upstairs and downstairs, that they feel like family. An extremely well-dressed family, at least on the upstairs side, but family. And it is natural for American audiences to feel particularly connected to the character of Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern, representing the American heiresses who married nobility needing infusions of cash from the kind of backgrounds “in trade” they would otherwise have thought beneath them. 

In an interview with, McGovern talked about working with her husband Simon Curtis (who directed the latest film in the series, "Downton Abbey: A New Era"), how the new setting of a villa in the south of France changed the characters’ perspective, and what she learned from six years in the series.

The location of this series is very important; it’s not called “The Granthams,” it’s called “Downton Abbey.” And so it really is a change to have half of the cast go off to a very different location in another country.

For various reasons, it emerges that Violet has come into an inheritance and it's a villa in the south of France. And so, we travel as a family to dig deeper into this occurrence. But mostly it's an opportunity for the characters to be plunked down in a different location. And it has an effect on all the characters. It affects them in different ways. And in the case of Carson, he becomes more resolutely English than ever before. And I think in the case of Robert and Cora, it opens up things that have been buried beneath the surface of their marriage. So, it's an opportunity for the audience to see other sides of them.

We will not spoil anything, but it is in that location that Cora reveals to her husband a secret she has been keeping from him.

It was something that we really tried to orchestrate carefully. And I felt so grateful on this film to be working with a director who was as interested as I was in telling this story in the right way, because it's very easy with so many storylines to have to keep afloat to get bogged down and not figure out a way to give each story a clear arc. And because Simon was so interested in every character's story, I think he really managed to do that. But for me, I was really appreciative about how carefully he helped me clearly have a progression leading to that moment, and then a point at which it's getting harder for Cora to sublimate it. And then of course, when it all bursts out. It was backed up by Simon’s choices as a director by where he placed it, how he shot it, all these things that helped me with that story.

Your characters had touched on one issue before, but this was the most impactful time. Cora fell in love first, before her husband was in love with her. How did you and Simon approach that conversation?

In that case, Simon really didn't say much, which actually is the best thing sometimes a director can possibly do. I feel like a lot of the times the directors that aren't quite as good are the directors that feel like they need to talk all the time or tell you what to do all the time. And in this case, because Hugh and I had been working together for so long on this relationship, it just played itself, to be perfectly honest. And Simon is such a good director, he knew that it was just a situation to step back and let it play.

From an American point of view, of course, part of the charm of the series is that the Brits are not as histrionic in the way they express themselves as we are and therefore, when Lord Grantham really lets his emotions out in that scene it's very powerful.

It totally is. I couldn't agree more. And then something that I hadn't predicted as well is that somehow the fact that he's been taken out of the structure of his normal life and put into a situation so far from home in France, things are a lot more relaxed, it feels like it's an appropriate time for all this to erupt. The fact that his whole sense of his identity is being threatened is one of these things that you first read the script, and you don't quite see but they all conspire to make the moment even more organic feeling because they're all at play. And I don't know whether it's something that Julian Fellowes thought about or whether it's in his unconscious.  

The gorgeous costumes worn by the Crawleys always get a lot of attention. How is Cora’s personality expressed through her wardrobe?

I'm so glad you did ask that question because I think the thing that's really distinctive about Anna Robbins, the costume designer that we had to work with on this film, and she did the last couple of series, is that she doesn't just think about making everything beautiful, although it is beautiful and the detail is rich, and the fabrics are so beautifully chosen. But she thinks about every character and the way the clothes express character. And if you look at the movie with that in mind you'll see that Mary is always on a front foot in her costumes. They're vivid and sharp and clear. And Cora ... wafts. There's always a flowy softness. And once again, I think Anna does it to a large degree just instinctively. It's not overly analyzed but it's definitely something. She's so smart and she's aware of all the elements, not just the way something is looking.

What was it like working with your husband as director?

I absolutely loved it, mostly because I just honestly felt so proud of him. I hadn't worked with him or even seen him work like this before. As far as I knew he didn't really do anything except watch TV at home because that's how I know him. So just to see him get off the couch is amazing. [laughs] But to see that, it was just masterful, the way he managed to get all those stories told so economically, and give the whole thing an injection of humor and emotion that is so hard to do after so much time. And also, the way he commanded the group's respect, which is also very hard to do coming in at this point. So, I was very proud of him.

It was remarkable to me that with so many characters and so much going on it never felt rushed. The movie even includes, in one of my favorite scenes, a musical number when a Josephine Baker-like singer performs at a party.

Thank you for saying that because it's true. I hadn't thought about it that way. But he seemed to instinctively know exactly when to take time and it was never dull and it was never slow-moving. But I never felt like it was rushed, either. We did have time to really feel the atmosphere when we needed to.

What have you learned from the time you've been in this series?

I think the discipline of getting in front of a camera, for as many hours as you have to, to turn out series episodes and work with so many different directors, so many different actors. There's hardly anybody in British Equity that hasn't been in the show. It's been incredibly invaluable for me. Mostly it's helped me to become very flexible about how I work and to be able to work in different ways and work more quickly and worry less. Because you just have to. You don't have time to overthink or get neurotic. I cut my teeth in my early days doing feature films, and there's just so much more time on a feature film, especially actors that do very well, they are so indulged. But when you do a series like "Downton" nobody is indulged. You have to just get on with it. And it's actually I think, quite healthy. So, that's been good for me in terms of my relationship with my craft. If I can be so pretentious to use that word.

Are you surprised by how important "Downton" has become all over the world?

Shocked, absolutely shocked. It's just the strangest thing. Three days ago, there was a woman from China, who was interviewing us absolutely obsessed by the show. And China at the moment seems like it couldn't be more culturally different to where we are now. But she just wanted to know what Maggie Smith was like. Absolutely fascinated by Maggie Smith. And you just think, well, we're not that different. Why is it so hard? 

"Downton Abbey: A New Era" is available only in theaters on May 20th.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow reviews movies and DVDs each week as The Movie Mom online and on radio stations across the US. She is the author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

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