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Downton Abbey's Elizabeth McGovern talks to Saga

Gabrielle Donnelly / 23 August 2012

Elizabeth McGovern has been a key member of Downton Abbey since the beginning. What lies in store for our American character this Christmas special?

Elizabeth McGovern
Elizabeth McGovern. Image: Lev Radin/

Elizabeth McGovern is talking about restrictive underwear. Or more precisely – since we are talking about the new season of Downton Abbey, in which the action has moved into the free-and-easy Twenties – she is talking about the absence of it.

‘There is no way,’ she says, speaking heavily and with the conviction that can be born only of bitter experience, ‘that I can convey to you what a profound experience it is not to be wearing a corset. In the series, we’ve been through the years leading up to the First World War, the years during it, and now we’re in the years after it, and I have actually physically inhabited the clothes of each era in that I have not only tried them on but spent the major part of my days wearing them.

Unforgiving corsets

‘Corsets are so uncomfortable that they drive me mad, and it is incredible how much it changes your world view to be out of them. You can move around so much more freely, and the passage of air is not constricted – you have more oxygen making its way to your brain so you have much more ambition, much more desire to achieve things and connect with the outside world...’

She stops, and – because one thing the actress who plays Lady Cora has never been lacking in is self-awareness – laughs wryly.

‘And then you fast forward to the modern era when we’re all putting ourselves into Jimmy Choo shoes, in which we can’t breathe, think or even walk, so it seems we women have come full circle!’

She’s rocking on a pair of positively vertiginous heels herself this morning, showing off long shapely legs under a short, fuchsia-coloured silk dress, and not seeming to find great trouble in any of the above-mentioned activities. She’s also looking flat-out fabulous, tall and – frankly – irritatingly slender at 51, her lush dark hair cut into a naughty schoolgirl bob, her fierce grey eyes softened by the hint of a grin lurking in the corners of her mouth.

Hollywood to Downton Abbey 

Jimmy Choo heels or Edwardian ankle boots, she’s been marching to her own tune since she was a girl.  A Hollywood ‘A’-list actress and fringe member of the Brat Pack (remember them?) in her twenties, she abandoned her career to move to London when she fell in love with an Englishman, spent a decade and a half mostly happily occupying herself as a housewife, mother and… um… middle-aged rock ’n’ roll singer, and now has burst back into the acting limelight again with Downton. Not what you’d call the most conventional of CVs, is it?

‘I’ve always made up my own rules,’ she agrees, nodding, her soft American voice unmodulated by two decades of English life. ‘That’s one reason I’ve made sure to hang on to my accent. Don’t get me wrong, I love living in London and I do try to fit in. But when I go back to America I feel like I’m coming home. I do love Britain and love the people here – and given the choice now I probably would be the one in our marriage to want to stay in Britain while my husband would want to go to America because he loves it there. But being American is still part of who I am, and there’s also a psychological need for me, while I live here, to keep myself even more resolutely American than I might have been if I’d stayed there. I don’t know why that is – I just feel an instinctive need to cling to a sense of myself, and who I am and where I am from.’

An impressive family 

Where she is from is actually a pretty impressive family. Her father, William Montgomery McGovern Jr, is a university law professor whose own father, William Montgomery McGovern Sr, was an explorer, anthropologist, journalist and lecturer, who is thought to have been the inspiration for Indiana Jones, no less; her mother Katharine Watts Wolcott, a high-school teacher whose grandfather, the splendidly named Ethelbert Watts, was a prominent American diplomat.

Elizabeth says that she and her younger sister, Cammie, now a successful novelist, had a happy upbringing in Illinois, moving to Los Angeles when she was 10. She studied acting and, when only 19, was cast as the girlfriend of Timothy Hutton’s mixed-up teenager in the heart-tugging family drama Ordinary People. The next thing she knew, this slightly shy and bookish girl was at the top of the Hollywood heap.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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