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The actor: Elizabeth McGovern began her motion-picture career with an impressive one-two punch: Her first film, Ordinary People, won Best Picture, and her second film, Ragtime, scored her a Best Supporting Actress nomination. After spending more than a decade working almost exclusively on the big screen, appearing both comedies (She’s Having A Baby) and dramas (King Of The Hill), McGovern began to split her time between film and television. She can currently be seen in the critically acclaimed PBS series Downton Abbey, which begins its second season on January 8.
Downton Abbey (2010-present)—“Cora, Countess of Grantham”
Elizabeth McGovern: I was inclined to really want to be a part of anything that Julian Fellowes had written, because I love his work. I had loved Gosford Park, like everybody, but I had seen all the things that he had done that weren’t so famous and loved them as well. Actually, it was an instance where I did something I don’t normally do, which is that I wrote him a letter and begged him to let me be in it. [Laughs.] And the next thing I knew, I was. But I did audition and things like that, so it was a long process.
The A.V. Club: It’s certainly not your first period piece. Do you enjoy the opportunity to step back in time for roles like this one?
EM: I do enjoy it. Very much. I just find it fascinating, like everybody, to be in a different life. It’s an escape.
AVC: Did you do any research to prepare for the role?
EM: To be perfectly honest, so much research has been done for the cast by Julian, who is very, very passionate about historical accuracy, and he has a person who works with him who’s our historical advisor that helps quite a bit. I would sometimes try to fill in the cracks by reading literature of the times, just because I find that to be revealing. But no, I didn’t really read any history books, per se. But I learned a lot just by being on the set and talking to the people that are there who know about the period.
AVC: You’ve mentioned that you were interested in the class differences that are spotlighted in the series. What particularly intrigued you?
EM: For me, it’s fascinating to throw a group of people together in a house in which their lives are very intimately and inextricably entwined, and yet there are these very rigid rules that separate them permanently, and there’s a sort of codependence in operation that works very well in many ways for all of them. It’s an endlessly fascinating situation, because you have a group of people—the servants—who know absolutely everything about the private lives, in many ways, of the people they work for. And yet the people who are ostensibly in power know little to nothing about the private lives of their servants… although those barriers start to blend. But even though the aristocratic family is ostensibly in power, it actually doesn’t always work that way, because the servants enjoy quite a bit of power because the people are so dependent on them. It’s sort of an ever-changing pattern or formula, and a really fascinating one.
AVC: That formula begins to change in the very first episode, when someone joins the staff that has a direct connection to a member of the higher class.
EM: Yes. Or, as you’ll see in the second series, the relationship between me and my ladies’ maid, O’Brien, who is a really strong figure in the first series, becomes much more complex. Because you see all the ways that Cora’s actually very emotionally and psychologically dependent on O’Brien. O’Brien bolsters her confidence and often gives her advice as to what to do. But at the same time, Cora still likes to turn that around and lord it over O’Brien when she has the chance. So it’s a very close-but-not-close kind of liaison.
California Fever (1979)—“Lisa Bannister”EM:
[Laughs.] Oh, my God. [To her publicist] This man has done his research. Well, I can’t tell you very much about that, because I actually can’t remember. I think the name of the series kind of says it all. That was a summer job I did sort of to earn money, because I thought I was going to go to college. What a joke. [Laughs.] I remember walking along the beach in a swimming costume. And Jimmy McNichol was in it, wasn’t he?
AVC: Yes, he was. And Lorenzo Lamas, too, I believe.
EM: Yes, I think he was. In fact, he was, actually. It’s starting to come back. Unfortunately. [Laughs.]
AVC: So were you actively looking to get a full-time TV gig?
EM: At the time, all I was actively looking for was to get some money. [Laughs.]
Ordinary People (1980)—“Jeannine Pratt”
EM: First film. Very exciting. A movie star at the helm [Robert Redford] who… I didn’t have the experience to really, truly appreciate at the time what an extraordinary director he is. And continued to be. The way he gets performances from his actors… It’s been unparalleled in my career, his supportive, caring, and intuitive way of telling a story through his actors. I’ve come to appreciate how unusual it is, years later, having had much more experience.
AVC: Given that it was your first job, were your knees knocking at the thought of working with all the stars in the cast?
EM: Well, they were all people that were good at putting me at ease. That was very lucky for me.
If Not For You (1995)—“Jessie Kent”
EM: [Laughs.] That was my first experience at doing a sitcom, which I found to be about as terrifying as jumping out of a plane without a parachute. And I wasn’t expecting that, because everyone had told me that sitcom life was the easy life. But that was not my experience. And I didn’t do it for long enough to get used to it. But just this whole idea of dealing with a script that was constantly being reworked up until the final minute, and contending with a live audience and a camera at the same time. I walked away from it with so much respect for actors that do that sort of thing very well. I take my hat off to them, because it is in a category of its own in terms of sheer terror. [Laughs.]
AVC: So I take it another sitcom is not necessarily in the cards?
EM: Oh, no, don’t get me wrong: I loved it! [Laughs.] But, I mean, the shaking would take probably… After a night where we would shoot one of these shows in front of a studio audience, my false eyelashes were still quivering at 5 the next morning. I was just so nerve-wracked!
Kick-Ass (2010)—“Mrs. Lizewski” / Clash Of The Titans (2010)—“Marmara”
EM: Oh, well, those roles are distinguished by the fact that they’re two very, very small cogs in a big wheel. [Laughs.] But sometimes you’ve got to do that. There were times when I was driving through the streets of London and see the big posters and think, “Oooh, I’m in both of those!” But they were easy to do because they were small bits.
AVC: How did you find yourself in two big-budget action films? With all due respect, that’s not exactly a genre that’s a hallmark of your career.
EM: [Laughs.] Well, with one of them, Kick-Ass, somebody had dropped out, and I just happened to be around, so they said, “Will you come in for a day?” And that was a script I really liked, so it was easy to decide to do it. Actually, you know, both of the movies I liked doing. And I’m not a big blockbuster movie person, so it was really exciting. I didn’t seek them out, but I was happy to do both of them when they came to me.
Ragtime (1981)—“Evelyn Nesbit”
EM: Well, that was another very early, magical experience, and that was my second job, so you can imagine that, really, I felt like I was just the luckiest actor in their 20s that you could possibly imagine. Because it was Milos Forman, who’s such a film visionary, and it was an iconic part. Evelyn Nesbit was really one of the first stars. And then we went to shoot in London, and… It was a dream of excitement and adrenaline combined with this sort of terrible feeling that I wasn’t quite ready in terms of my experience with acting. I mean, I was really winging it. I didn’t really know what I was doing. But I tried not to think about that and just carried on, so it was somewhat tempered. In some ways, at the time I was sort of mature enough to think, “I kind of wish I knew what I was doing a little bit more, but what the hell, I’m gonna go with it.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Ragtime was James Cagney’s last theatrical film. When I talked to Peter Gallagher about working with Cagney a few years later on his final TV movie [Terrible Joe Moran], he said he still very much had his wit about him.
EM: Oh, yes, I just remember this twinkle in his eye. I didn’t have any scenes with him in the movie, but, of course, I would see him when we would have dinners on location and things, and that wit was very much present. And a warmth. He really was a lovely man.
AVC: Given what you were saying about your uncertainty at the time you worked on the film, were you shocked when you got an Oscar nod?
EM: I was. And that was tempered by the fact that I was, like, “Oh, I’m not sure I really deserve this.” But, of course, I was thrilled. Glory always walks hand in hand with a sinking feeling of humility with me, because it’s always accompanied by something that will humble me. And that was definitely true in that case, because I thought, “Oh, God, this is glorious, but… I’m not quite there yet.”
She’s Having A Baby (1988)—“Kristy Briggs”
EM: That was a part and a movie I really loved. I think I remember that, when it came out, I loved it more than the critics did. [Laughs.] In retrospect, much to my surprise, it’s found an audience and a cult following. People really like that movie even years later… I remember my sister and I watching a screening of the film and we were just clutching each other, laughing and thinking that it was just the funniest thing, but we were sitting in an audience that was just completely stone-faced. So I think it’s one of those movies that’s not for everyone, but if you get it, you really find it amusing. And there are enough people that have got it over the years that people still come up to me and tell me that they really enjoyed the movie. But that’s not the way it was received. For whatever reason, the cosmos wasn’t quite in the right place, the stars weren’t quite lined up when it came out, and it had a very mixed reaction. But I always really enjoyed it, personally.
AVC: How was John Hughes to work with?
EM: The beauty of John Hughes was that he had a very childlike way of thinking, a kind of innocence. He was a quiet guy, a shy man, and I think not always at ease with ordering people around and being this kind of director-type. He was a sensitive person.
The Brotherhood Of Poland, New Hampshire (2003)—“Helen Shaw”
AVC: Series creator David E. Kelley said that he views this as his great unheralded work, the one that didn’t get the love it deserved.
EM: Oh, that’s nice to hear that he feels that way, because that was a show I really loved. It changed quite a bit from pilot to reality. I wasn’t sure what pressure was being put on David after we shot the pilot, because the pilot was very different in tone from the show we ended up shooting. And my taste was always to the pilot. But it was one of those things where, as an actor, you read the script and respond to the pilot knowing that it could go in any direction. I really enjoyed the original concept the most, but then there was a lot of experimenting with tones and trying to take it in different places, and they didn’t give us long enough to really find the series like that. But I think David had it from the start. That’s just my personal taste, though.
Once Upon A Time In America (1984)—“Deborah Gelly”
EM: Well, that is a movie that is considered in much of Europe and in England to be one of the top 10 favorite movies of all time. It’s really such a work of individual vision. But its release in America was completely destroyed by the production company. So they made the choice to put a movie into theaters that was so cut up that it actually made no sense.
AVC: So you saw that version, then?
EM: I did.
AVC: I imagine you were horrified.
EM: It was almost too extreme to be horrified. It was almost a joke. It was so unbelievably bizarre that, in order to save an hour, they thought it would be a good idea to release a movie that literally had no plot that made sense. But, yet again, it’s that way where I differ from the big studios in the sense that they don’t really get too involved in the content. They really care about the packaging and the marketing. That’s their thing. And, of course, people that work on the movies care about what’s in between the first frame and the last frame, but that doesn’t seem to really occur to a movie studio. It’s odd to me, but they’re coming from a different perspective.
King Of The Hill (1993)—“Lydia”
EM: That was Steven Soderbergh. A great movie that has not really been seen. I absolutely loved it, and I only saw it when it first came out. It’s weird that it disappeared. I haven’t really ever heard about it again, but I remember really liking it. Much more than that, I think it’s a really sweet, underrated movie.
AVC: That was still relatively early for him as a director. How was he at the helm?
EM: Oh, an expert. He absolutely knew what he was doing. And he was a lot of fun, too. He’s a great guy to have dinner with. I mean, you know, he’s odd. [Laughs.] But aren’t we all? I didn’t have such a big part in the picture, but he’s an expert. He’s top of the line. He knows what he’s doing, and he did even then.
Three Moons Over Milford (2006)—“Laura Davis”
EM: That was an intriguing idea… at the start. That was not my happiest work experience. I wasn’t on the same wavelength as ABC Family, I don’t think. I mean, it was fine. I was happy to have a job.
AVC: That concept wasn’t really an ABC Family show, anyway.
EM: I think maybe it was an unhappy marriage. Because it could’ve been a curious, quirky idea. I thought it was something that had a lot of potential. I liked the pilot. But after that, nobody knew which direction they really wanted to take it. But this idea that you have a limited time, how does that affect you as a planet? I think that’s kind of an interesting way of exploring the human character. I mean, I love to work. I love the challenge of it, so I’m always enjoying it on a certain level. But of all my jobs, that was the most of a struggle.
Racing With The Moon (1984)—“Caddie Winger”
EM: Oh, that was a wonderful, happy time in Mendocino, working with two great actors, Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage. I loved that movie. It’s a really sweet film. I don’t think it’s macho enough for those guys. [Laughs.] Well, I don’t know, I shouldn’t put an opinion into their mouths. And I haven’t seen it in a while. But I just think of it as having a very special feeling.
The Favor (1994)—“Emily Embrey”
EM: Well, that was fun. It was a movie that I enjoyed when I saw it, but I don’t think it’s regarded as a particularly great film. [Laughs.] But it was nice to be in a movie about two girlfriends. They’re not done very often, and it’s not nearly as good as Bridesmaids, which I absolutely loved. Of course, that’s kind of the gross-out genre, whereas this was more romantic, I suppose. But I sort of like the idea of a movie with two girlfriends at the center of it. And, hey, I had a love scene with Brad Pitt. There are worse ways to make a living. [Laughs.]