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Interview: Elizabeth McGovern on the Theatricality of DOWNTON ABBEY

Downton Abbey: A New Era hits theaters this Friday, May 20.

Interview: Elizabeth McGovern on the Theatricality of DOWNTON ABBEY

After six seasons of the television series and a hit film, Elizabeth McGovern returns to her role of Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, for Downton Abbey: A New Era, the latest installment in the Downton Abbey franchise.

From award-winning creator Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey: A New Era features the much-anticipated cinematic return of the global phenomenon and reunites the beloved cast as they go on a grand journey to the South of France to uncover the mystery of the Dowager Countess' newly inherited villa.

McGovern, who has also been seen on screen in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Ragtime, and The Handmaid's Tale, is also no stranger to the stage, recently seen on the West End in AVA: The Secret Conversations. She has also been seen on Broadway in Time and the Conways, Hamlet, and Love Letters.

BroadwayWorld caught up with McGovern to discuss what audiences can expect from the new film, the theatricality of Downton Abbey, and what she would like to do in future iterations of Downton Abbey.

We've seen you in many iterations of Downton Abbey. What continues to draw you back to this character?

My first knee jerk reaction is the cast. I feel very bonded with them and I feel a lot of affection and I don't want to let anyone down, so I want to keep doing it because I think it makes them happy. I think it makes our audience very happy and that makes me happy. So that I think is the first and foremost thing for me.

We've seen your work all over film and television, but also on stage. You've done a lot of work in theater and there is a certain sense of theatricality to Downton Abbey. What are your sort of favorite differences between performing within these mediums?

Well, the wonderful thing about theater, of course, I'm not the first person to say this, but you own it. You own your performance. I mean, you rehearse, rehearse and rehearse and you listen to a director, but when you go out on that stage, it's your arc and it's your relationship to the other characters and the audience. In film and television, you never own it. Your performance is a result of a lot of people's work. The editor, the director, really everything. So there are other things that are, as you know, very joyful about doing film and television. I mean, the opportunity to have lived with a character for as many years as I've lived with this character alongside all the other characters is something that there's no other art form in the world that would provide that. I mean, you're actually growing year after year with your character and that's kind of an extraordinary feeling, but nothing for me quite equals the power of owning your your instrument, the way, the way you do in the theater.

Interview: Elizabeth McGovern on the Theatricality of DOWNTON ABBEY
McGovern in the 2020 UK tour of God of Carnage

Well theater audiences love Downton Abbey so much, too. So why do you think Downton Abbey resonates with theater fans specifically?

I think there's something slightly larger than life, about all the characters it's not traditional naturalistic television. There's a sort of sense of humor that bubbles underneath even the serious bits and the characters are theatrical creations. It's a kind of a very difficult tone to nail.
But I think it is a theatrical tone, so maybe that's why.

I like going to see theater and movies that are slightly, I mean, I love very, very naturalistic things, but I would hate for everything to be that way, because I think part of the fun is to get away from the kitchen sink and from the chores and things that make up day to day life and to throw ourselves into something where larger-than-life characters say things and behave in ways that we don't dare to do in our day to day existence. So I think there's a real place for that theatricality. And maybe that's it, maybe that's why theater audiences love it.

For those fans and just for all of the Downton Abbey audience members, what can they expect from this new film that they may not have seen in previous iterations of Downton Abbey?

Well, I feel like the extraordinary thing about this movie is that somehow we genuinely managed to preserve everything about Downton Abbey that fans have come to count on in the sense that all their characters are there saying all the things that you would have expected. But there is life in it. It has somehow managed to get a shot of oxygen and it feels like it's come to life again for me, partly because the script is so good and there's certain plot devices that really shake things up at the ol' Abbey, like the Hollywood invasion and which turns everything on its head and suddenly downstairs is upstairs and sitting around the table. And Mosley's got a new career as a screen writer at all these delightful things. And then I think also transplanting the characters to the environment at the south of France and watching how they react to that in different ways also reinvigorates it in a way that I couldn't possibly have predicted, but I feel like it kind of provided an opportunity for emotions to bubble out. You know, when Robert breaks down, it's not the kind of thing that he habitually does and it probably possibly wouldn't have happened back at home, but there's something about the relaxed atmosphere at the south of France that provides an atmosphere in which it could happen. So basically I think that we've sort of done the impossible in the sense that we've preserved everything that people like about Downton Abbey, but it is fresh.

Interview: Elizabeth McGovern on the Theatricality of DOWNTON ABBEY
McGovern and Laura Carmichael in Downton Abbey: A New Era

If there is another film or another series that may be rebooted, is there something that would excite you about coming back? Is there something that you haven't been able to do with your character yet?

Oh, that's, that's an interesting question. I don't know. What I mostly feel is I would want this to end before we tried to milk it too much and it lost its authentic energy and authenticity generally. And I think I would be, um, more cautious about that than perhaps some of the others in the cast. I want us to preserve what makes it special. I'd rather stop while we were still on top, personally. And also I'd rather personally do other things, I love it but I think for me, I'm looking for different challenges. Having settled that, if it came around again, who knows.

Watch the trailer for Downton Abbey: A New Era here:

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