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Why Elizabeth McGovern of ‘Downton Abbey’ Is More Like Cora Than You Realize

The American-born star spills the (Earl Grey) tea on the beloved series and new film

Elizabeth McGovern on the red carpet for the world premiere of Downton Abbey A New Era at Cineworld Leicester Square in London

Karwai Tang/WireImage

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Elizabeth McGovern, 60, rocketed to the top of Hollywood in her early 20s, including a 1981 Oscar nomination for Ragtime and an engagement to Sean Penn. “It was so exhausting, I couldn’t sustain it,” she told the Daily Mail. “We also wanted to do different things. He likes to pretend he’s not really a Hollywood person, but he is.”

McGovern later married British director Simon Curtis, 62 (Cranford), left her hometown of Los Angeles, spurned some blockbuster roles (“No regrets!”) and moved to the posh, veddy olde-English London neighborhood of Chiswick. Now she plays Cora, wife of Lord Grantham, in Downton Abbey: A New Era, directed by Curtis. She talks with AARP about their new movie, which helped bring many film fans over 50 back to theaters.

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Some go Hollywood — have you, an Angeleno, gone Chiswick?

Yes, I suppose you could say that. I forgot to make a game plan.

You’re like our American delegate to the British aristocracy — like Cora. Do you feel like that sometimes, or does Cora?

Ha ha! No, I feel like an actress who stumbled on to a part that I’m now forever playing! Cora will always be somewhat of an outsider, and frankly doesn’t care. She is a free spirit.

After 11 years, how does it feel to be part of the Downton family?

It doesn’t feel like acting anymore. We really love each other.

Elizabeth McGovern and Laura Carmichael stand next to each other in Downton Abbey A New Era

Ben Blackall/Focus Features

Elizabeth McGovern (left) stars as Cora Grantham and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Hexham in "Downton Abbey: A New Era."

Is the movie partly about the change of generations, as well as changing times?

Yes. Cora has watched her daughters enjoy more freedoms than she ever would have expected for herself. There is a scene in the movie in which Cora tells Edith to “keep working.” I felt, when we shot it, that this comes from a very deep place in Cora. She wants her daughters to take the reins and run with them. She wants them to have more control over their lives than she ever had.

In the new movie, there’s a different flavor in the comedy, such as when Hollywood invades the Crawleys to film a movie at Downton. Is that your husband’s touch? 

​It’s always been comic, but Simon understands how to capture that. It was very much his idea to have the family keep accidentally walking into the frame when they’re shooting the movie. Simon just has such an instinct for that humor. A lot of comic stuff Laura Haddock — who plays the actress in their film — does they just came up with on the day. The looks on their faces, little details you can’t plan ahead — it’s thinking on your feet. You have to be loose enough to capture those moments and have the confidence to go with it.

The movie is about social change coming to Downton — the decline of the aristocracy. How does the movie-within-the-movie express this?

The film people coming in and upsetting the entire status quo is such an organic idea, because historically film was about to take over the role of the aristocracy in people’s imaginations. Celebrities replaced the aristocrats. And it throws everything into a tailspin, which culminates in the downstairs people sitting around the dining room table in their finery — and one gets to be a Hollywood screenwriter. It shakes everything up in a way that is funny and delightful and dramatic and emotional all at once.

Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern in a scene from the film Downton Abbey A New Era

Ben Blackall/Focus Features

(Left to right) Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern as Robert and Cora Grantham.

Your American character Cora seems less nonplussed by the changes than the Brits.

​Cora has always been much more able to roll with the changes than her husband, Robert, or any of the English people. She’s American, from a newer, less rigidified culture, so change is much more natural. She doesn’t belong to all the archaic machinations the family are very attached to — she doesn’t even really get them at all. 

​​In this movie, she’s more concerned with some scary news about her health. She has the same disease that killed Isobel Crawley’s fiancé!

​She has this secret, and her preoccupation is the fact that she might not have any future with the family. 

Are there any tears involved in this feel-good movie?

There will be tears. That’s all I can say! There will be tears.

Does the theme of time’s passage feel different to you now, at 60?

I agree with whoever the genius was that first noticed how time speeds up as you age. How true that is.

What can explain the enormous response to Downton, especially to viewers over 50?

I think, at first, the show appealed to people nostalgic for a simpler time. Now everything has changed so much, and the show has survived for so long, I think people are nostalgic for the way the world was when they first started watching Downton!

Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.