Why Elizabeth McGovern Couldn't Have Done Downton Abbey Without Her Theatre Training

Interview   Why Elizabeth McGovern Couldn't Have Done Downton Abbey Without Her Theatre Training
 
The lady of the estate talks about the upcoming film, the play she’s writing, and what show she wants to bring to Broadway.
Elizabeth McGovern
Elizabeth McGovern Mark Seliger

Elizabeth McGovern has a regality about her when she steps into the quiet hotel suite at the JW Essex to speak about her latest project: a return to Downton Abbey. Having played Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, for six seasons on the series, McGovern reprises her role as the lady of the manor when the Downton Abbey film hits cinemas nationwide September 20.

But McGovern has been a darling of the theatre as well as the screen. An Oscar nominee for her performance as Evelyn Nesbit in the 1981 (non-musical) film Ragtime, McGovern made her Broadway debut in Love Letters in 1989. Soon after, she starred as Ophelia in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Hamlet.

But like her Downton counterpart, McGovern is an American transplant in the U.K. Since the ’90s, McGovern took to the British stage, performing in shows like Hurlyburly in the West End and Three Days of Rain at the Donmar Warehouse, as well as recent productions of God of Carnage and The Starry Messenger (opposite Matthew Broderick). She returned to Broadway to star as the matriarch in Roundabout’s revival of Time and the Conways in 2017.

Here, she shares the many ways in which her theatrical training aided her television and film work.

READ: Downton Abbey’s Carson and Molesley Spill Details About the New Movie, Cast Chemistry, and Why They Both Owe So Much to Theatre

What was it like to return to Lady Grantham? Does your theatre training help you in getting back to a character?
Elizabeth McGovern: I think my theatre training does help me in every way. I can’t say there’s a specific moment when I felt it kick in, but generally it’s been essential for me. I feel like I’m one of those actors that I couldn’t have survived as long as I have without it. I think there’s a lot of people who learn how to be an actor and it’s just the craft of movies, but for me going on stage and doing those kind of parts from the beginning to the end night after night after night and working out the kinks and trying and experimenting and failing, that was totally the way I had to [learn]. It comes in handy for me all the time, there’s no doubt in my mind about that.

Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern, and Michelle Dockery in <i>Downton Abbey</i>
Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern, and Michelle Dockery in Downton Abbey

Do you feel Downton has a theatricality about it?
I think it requires some technique to convince an audience that you’re somebody who’s in that period. It’s really an ephemeral thing. I think a training in the theatre has everything to do with that. It’s an awareness of the way you hold yourself and the way you speak and the way your physicality is relating to other physicalities and it is different than what we accept as being modern. I do think it’s very difficult to achieve without going out on a stage and being in plays from all different periods and just getting the experiences. Working with this English cast, there’s not one of them that hasn’t done hundreds of plays. I’m very sure. I couldn’t have spoken their language, I couldn’t have participated in the same way without my background in theatre.

Do you have a routine even mentally of getting into Lady Grantham?
There’s a ritual for the preparation to me for an evening in theatre, which is such a healthy ritual for life, generally. It’s about finding a place of still so you’re back into your present. Once I understand the lines and understand the character arc, the discipline is to bring myself back into a quiet place where I can really be there. On a TV show, because the fact that you don’t have that kind of special moment in time and you’re there all day long and you have to be ready at any moment to suddenly kick in and you never know when that’s going to be, there’s not that same healthy ritual. That’s why I always miss theatre—not just for itself. But mentally it’s really good for me to every day require myself to just be in the moment. It doesn’t really apply on a TV show so much.

What relationship dynamic were you most looking forward to revisiting?
For me, the most fun scenes are the scenes where there is a personal dynamic with everybody. Part of the thing that people love about Downton Abbey is really the most grueling, boring thing for an actor, which are these big scenes of the party or the parade. I can’t tell you how long it takes to shoot those. You really have no meat to work with. That’s the flip side. I long for any scene with any interaction that’s a relationship between actors.

Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville in <i>Downton Abbey</i>
Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville in Downton Abbey

You do have this wonderful moment with Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith, helping her in a back door kind of way. That was a wonderful relationship evolution to see.
It’s a real indicator of how Cora does do a lot of work behind the scenes. She’s not like the Dowager, she’s not like Mary, she’s not going to take control of the situation. She’ll quietly do the stitching underneath the garment.

Now that it seems we’ve really wrapped Downton, do you have plans to go back to the theatre?
Theatre’s the thing that really is the hopeful place for me. As I’m getting to be the age I am there are just so many more interesting parts. I’m really excited about something I’ve written, which is an adaptation of a book for the theatre. We’re in the process of setting it up right now so I’m not sure it’s going to happen, but that’s one of the things I really want to throw my back into looking ahead. It’s something for me to perform in. We also did this really sparky revival of God of Carnage, so we’re hoping to bring that back [to Broadway], too, with the same cast.

Who is on your wishlist of future theatre collaborators?
There’s so much energy in the theatre in England at the moment, particularly for women. I’ve just seen so many incredible performances in the last five years. I feel like I’m in the middle of a Golden Age. There’s some really amazing directors right now doing really innovative kinds of theatre and reinventing the language of it and using film and using sound techniques, because we have so much more technology at our beck and call, and this is the kind of thing that really excites me. It’s what I’ve tried to include in this thing I’ve written. So those directors that are doing that sort of work [I’m interested in].

Look back at Elizabeth McGovern in 2017’s Time and the Conways:

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