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Jazzing it up: Elizabeth McGovern on her life, roles and new directions

Elizabeth McGovern. Photo/Getty Images

Actress Elizabeth McGovern may be on a tear with the upcoming Downton Abbey movie and Jazz-Age New York drama The Chaperone, but as she tells Diana Wichtel, it’s been a battle to get there.

At an Auckland waterfront hotel, Elizabeth McGovern is taking tea and receiving the press. In real life she isn’t overly stately. She does have the transatlantic vowels and a softly spoken stillness that made her the perfect sort of American – she’s from Evanston, Illinois, by way of Hollywood – to be strapped into stays as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ globally popular posh period soap. The television series is finished – the last episode aired in 2015. Lady Grantham is not. There’s a Downton Abbey film coming up. That must have been fun. “It was fun. It was as though we never left.” The film’s teaser trailer has maids whipping off the dust covers, bells tinkling urgently in the servants’ hall, the Jacobean-style pile standing stubborn in the face of social change. It’s like we never left, either.
RelatedArticlesModule - Elizabeth McGovern the chaperone

A family affair

McGovern is really here to talk about another, not entirely unrelated period project, The Chaperone. The film is based on the novel by Laura Moriarty, about wild child and prodigious silent-screen It girl Louise Brooks and the very fictionalised chaperone who helped launch her on a career with the arc of a shooting star. McGovern stars as the chaperone.

She optioned the book and has a producer credit. Her husband, British director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn, Woman in Gold), is an executive producer. Fellowes wrote the adaptation and it’s directed by another Downton alumnus, Michael Engler. It’s a sort of family affair. “That tends to happen more in England than ever was my experience in America,” McGovern says. “I think it’s because everyone’s in one city. In America, people are either in LA or New York. In England, once I got my career going, I had the pleasure of working with people more than once, which is a luxury because you’ve already built a kind of bond. Hopefully.”

McGovern in Downton Abbey. Photo/Supplied

Once again she finds herself wrangling a young woman with modern ways who pays her no mind. “Men don’t like candy that’s been unwrapped,” goes one futile lecture to her charge, who responds with an eye-rolling 1922 version of “Whatevs”.

In the book, the chaperone is called, inconveniently, Cora. “That was the first change we made. I can’t play everybody named Cora.” The chaperone became Norma, a woman trapped in a marriage to an older man whose interests turn out to lie elsewhere. Norma sees a chance to exchange Wichita for the you’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore experience of New York City after Louise (a high-voltage Haley Lu Richardson) is offered a place at the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts. She’s just 16 and requires a minder.

Norma packs up her corsets. Louise isn’t having a bar of those misogynistic instruments of control and torment. She has bobbed her hair, rolled down her stockings and embraced hedonistic flapperdom. She reads Edith Wharton. Both Brooks and her chaperone have been betrayed by those who should love them. Both have their demons. It’s game on as, in typically efficient Fellowes style, the film ticks off racism, sexism, sexual abuse, homophobia and the toxic legacy of domestic secrets and silences.

Singing in her band Sadie and the Hotheads alongside Michelle Dockery. Photo/Getty Images

Corsets are binned

Some have found the style and pace a little sedate for a story that revolves around a thoroughly modern force of nature such as Louise Brooks, but the focus is on the women’s interior lives. Louise is in hectic flight from sexual abuse as a child. Norma, abandoned as a baby, is on her own quest to find out about her past. It’s a kind of buddy movie. “Absolutely,” says McGovern. “Two mismatched people hit the road, that classic thing. But I have never seen people in a buddy movie mismatched in quite this way.” This isn’t Downton, where the aristocracy have the money, power and real estate to do pretty much as they please. There’s no escape for Norma without hurting her children.

Her solution seems disappointing at first: it involves more secrets and lies. It’s also a tribute to the sort of work-around strategies women are forced to devise to survive and thrive. If bras aren’t burnt, corsets are binned and love is not entirely sacrificed on the altar of convention. “Norma does the secretly strong thing,” says McGovern, as if the thought has just occurred to her. “That’s the thing about this movie. On the surface it seems like just another costume drama. Nothing huge happens. But it’s kind of subversive.”

It also has Géza Röhrig, who was shattering as a member of a death-camp Sonderkommando in the extraordinary Oscar-winning film Son of Saul. In The Chaperone, he’s German immigrant and love interest Joseph. Bold casting. Not easily achieved, says McGovern, for an independent movie.

“You and I love Son of Saul, but the foreign sales person is a different animal altogether. What they need to do is have a marquee name,” she says. “You have a casting discussion and you talk and talk and it always ends up, ‘Let’s go to Richard Gere.’ The number of times I heard that I cannot tell you.” It’s apparently a matter of some delicacy – Lady Grantham was nothing if not diplomatic – to de-Gere a project. “I would always say, ‘Yes, interesting. I’m sure that would be a challenge for him.’ Then you get on your knees and pray that Richard Gere will have the wisdom to read the script and turn it down and you can move on.”

With husband Simon Curtis in 1994. Photo/Getty Images

Starting again from scratch

In Downton Abbey, Cora brought a useful American fortune to the Crawley enterprise. In The Chaperone, Norma’s marriage is hardly a passion project. McGovern married for love. She’s 57 now. She moved to London when she was 30 to be with Curtis. “So, I’ve been in London more than I’ve been anywhere.”

After putting in five years on Downton, not counting the movie, does she feel English? “No.” Britishness, like the aristocracy, is possibly something you have to be born to. See the Downton exchange when Cora’s American mother, played by Shirley MacLaine, of all people, was about to arrive in England. Lady Violet to Cora: “I’m so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.” Matthew: “But isn’t she American?” Lady Violet: “Exactly.” This is the sort of thing that gives Cora – and possibly McGovern – her enigmatic outsider’s smile.

In the US, McGovern experienced early fame. She was 19 when she scored a role in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. She was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for Ragtime. She has acted with Robert De Niro, Brad Pitt, Dudley Moore … She was once engaged to Sean Penn.

McGovern was engaged to Sean Penn after they met on the set of 1984 film Racing with the Moon. Photo/Getty Images

In London, she experienced starting again almost from scratch. “Everybody thought I was a bit nuts when I moved there, including me. People have looked at the trajectory of my career as though I’m somebody who rebelled against Hollywood, and, as much as I’d like to wave that flag, I don’t think it’s really accurate. I didn’t find it to be a horrible place, but I wanted to do a certain kind of work.”

Patriarchal? “Yes, it was, I’ll be honest. That’s what it is. I like to think that my daughters are entering a world in which they will put up with less than people of my generation did.”

Transplanted, she fitted acting in around raising her two daughters and learnt to make her own fun. There was Freezing, a sadly short-lived comedy she made with her future Downton husband, Hugh Bonneville. She played … herself, Elizabeth McGovern, an Oscar-nominated American actress with a British husband, shivering in her under-heated new homeland, enduring all manner of humiliation as she hustled for work. Sample offer of a role on a British hospital soap opera: “It’s about a woman who decides to kill her husband after he disables himself in an industrial accident at a kebab meat factory.” Her husband directed. “His idea was he would exploit my situation.”

With Haley Lu Richardson in The Chaperone.

Sadie and the Hotheads

She has found her own ways to exploit her situation. There’s her band, Sadie and the Hotheads, a whimsical, down-home enterprise that sees her rock out to things such as the self-penned Cow Song: “Lighting busts the night and it rains everywhere/The cows are getting wet, but they’re still there.” Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) has been known to join the band. “I started out just playing with my friends at open mikes. Because it felt so anonymous, it was easy to do.” Then Downton came along. “That brought the band more attention. I always felt it was going to be a little personal hobby, so it’s all a bit of a surprise,” she says. “We’ve got an album out right now. It’s called The Truth. Any excuse, I have to mention it …”

As with Norma, McGovern has been good at negotiating spaces in which to operate. There was a time when she felt she had gone from playing girlfriends to playing wives and then mothers and that was her lot. “I was very happy to do it for a long, long time, and probably will do it again, now, for the rest of my life. But, I just thought, ‘I can’t sit and wring my hands while somebody else goes out and has an adventure and their life changes and I’m at home. I just can’t do it.’”

Then she found herself producing and starring in The Chaperone. It does seem there are more roles these days for older actresses. “It’s hard for me to have perspective on that because they’re not coming my way,” she says. “A lot of the fuel for The Chaperone was my personal frustration as the years went by. But I don’t think that’s a total reason to make a movie, because audiences don’t care about my frustration. I’m hoping it’s a strong enough story.”

As with Cora and Norma, she’s had to play a long game. The effect of Downton has been both a blessing – you acquire the power to drive a movie – and a curse. “Sometimes the experience of being in such a successful show can feel like a burden. Everywhere I go people think I am this countess. But then I have to remind myself all these other opportunities would never have come up, including making this movie, which is close to my heart. So, the only attitude is gratitude, really,” she says. “That’s where you finally end up.”

The Chaperone, in cinemas now, click here to read our review.

This article was first published in the May 4, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.