Elizabeth McGcovern

Elizabeth McGovern: life grace and dignity

Not unlike the character she’s played for the past four years, Elizabeth McGovern glides gracefully into the restaurant of a hip photography studio in west London. The waif-like 52-year-old—better known around the world as Downton Abbey’s Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham—takes gentle, unhurried steps and orders coffee in an almost hesitant voice that struggles to rise above the clattering of cups and saucers.

Downton Abbey, of course, is more than just a TV programme. It’s become an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning TV phenomenon. Shown in more than 200 countries, it’s one of the most popular British exports of all time. And now that it’s just returned for a hugely anticipated fourth series, Elizabeth is clearly primed for probing questions about how this year’s storylines will develop. She reveals only that we should keep our eyes on Tom Branson, the former chauffeur and Irish Republican who now sits at the Crawley family’s top table, after marrying the late Lady Sybil.

“Household life used to be so clearly delineated, but all this flux is bound to have ramifications,” she says, with her eyebrows raised high enough to hint that these ramifications will be very serious indeed.

Although series four has only just arrived on screen, Elizabeth has reportedly been asked by the producers about doing a fifth. So is Downton one of those shows that will just keep on going? “No one connected with the show feels that it would or should go on for ever,” says Elizabeth.

But wouldn’t she miss it? “Are you kidding! Downton has changed my life. It’s given me an unbelievable level of success at an age when I’m able to enjoy it. Jobs like this don’t come along very often.”

In fact, Elizabeth knew serious fame before Downton. She was Oscar-nominated for 1981’s Ragtime at just 20, appeared in the epic Once Upon a Time in America in 1984 and for a time became something of a Hollywood starlet. She then scaled back her career when she married British producer Simon Curtis in 1992, moved to London and started a family. Yet, she’s continued to appear in films, on TV and in acclaimed theatre productions.

I guess you’d have called me an independent kid.

The daughter of a law professor at the University of California, Elizabeth grew up in Los Angeles. She was “bookish and quiet” as a child—“the kind of kid who went to the park and read every sign so I could learn about the flowers and wildlife. My family are geeks. We enjoy learning for the sake of learning.

“I was a child of the Sixties, so I certainly had a good time as a teenager—I’ll leave that to your imagination!—but my parents were pretty laid-back, so there wasn’t really that much to rebel against. I guess you’d have called me an independent kid. I preferred to do my own thing.”

It’s a trait that seems to run in the McGovern family. Her paternal grandfather was William Montgomery McGovern, a swashbuckling adventurer and anthropologist. Having explored the Himalayas and the Amazon (and learned Chinese)by the time he was 30, he went on to become a noted military strategist during the Second World War.


“Have you heard the story about him being the inspiration for Indiana Jones?” laughs Elizabeth. “I have no idea if it’s true, but wouldn’t that be sooo cool! He certainly lived an incredible life and was apparently the first white man to go to Lhasa in Tibet. He was also one 
of the first Westerners who properly studied Buddhism, and he lived in a Japanese monastery.”

When I do get time off, I’m way too busy going to the supermarket and cooking the family dinner

William died when Elizabeth was three, but he does appear to have had some influence on her. “The trajectory of my career when I was younger made life pretty adventurous. If anything, though, I found myself searching for solid ground. When I met my husband, I knew I’d found it. But I did give up my life and my career, and move to England for love. I guess that was pretty adventurous.”

And what about her grandfather’s other passion: Buddhism? “Living in a monastery and meditating? I wish! I’ve been working constantly for two years. Even I’m bored with myself. When I do get time off, I’m way too busy going to the supermarket and cooking the family dinner to go and live in a monastery. And I’m probably too angry to meditate.”

Angry? But onscreen as Lady Cora she has such calm and poise. “Well, I’m glad I’ve fooled everyone—I must be a pretty good actor. I’m not trying to paint a picture of some terrible personality disorder, but you ask anyone who really knows me and they’ll tell you they see a lot of anger.

“Look at the way we treat the world and let each other down. The unfairness of life. I’m not necessarily talking about my life, because I get compensated very well for my job, but that doesn’t stop me getting cross at some of the things I see. 

“I’m not proud of it, because anger is not useful. I’d love to be able to handle life with Cora’s grace and dignity. But hey, that’s just how it is. I try my best in life and I’ll keep trying.”

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