Interview: DOWNTON ABBEY'S Elizabeth McGovern and Sophie McShera


The Great War is over and a long-awaited engagement is on, but all is not tranquil at DOWNTON ABBEY as wrenching social changes, romantic intrigues, and personal crises grip the majestic English country estate for a third thrilling season.

With the return of its all-star cast plus guest star Academy Award®-winner Shirley MacLaine, DOWNTON ABBEY, Season 3 airs over seven Sundays on PBS beginning on January 6, 2013. BWW brings you a series of interviews with the award-winning cast of this popular PBS series. Next up, actors Elizabeth McGovern and Sophie McShera

AN INTERVIEW WITH Elizabeth McGovern

Elizabeth McGovern says she is more comfortable than she’s ever been for this third series of Downton Abbey. Quite literally, in fact:

“I'm happy to say that as the times have marched on the outfits have become more liberated - so they're a lot, lot less uncomfortable this year. The corsets are a lot more flexible. Not nearly as bad!”

It’s not just the clothing that is becoming more liberated as we rejoin Cora at the beginning of the new series. It’s the attitudes as well.

“Basically, the forward thrust of the series as it begins is that the world is changing. You see all of the characters either adjusting to it or not adjusting to it in their different ways. It’s clear that Cora is having an easier time with the new ways of things. She’s flexible about adjusting to the new way in which life is going. When you meet her mother [Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine] you see why – Cora’s already made this enormous adjustment from the culture where she’s come from. So she can more easily adapt to ways of life that aren’t long established by tradition.”

What was it like having a screen legend like Shirley MacLaine on the Downton Abbey set?

“I think it gave everyone a boost of energy. She has an idiosyncratic way of going about everything, which was really refreshing. She’s a great storyteller, very funny, full of life and full of great observations.”

McGovern, of course, is American by birth, which means that she has a distinctive take on her countrymen’s reaction to Downton Abbey

“It’s always shocking to me - they're effusive in their love for it, at least the last couple of times I’ve been. They just can’t get enough of it.”

She says that only once in her career has she has seen a comparable reaction.

“Very early on I did a movie called Ordinary People that I felt had a very emotive impact in a similar way. That impact didn’t go on for so long - obviously because it wasn't a series. But it evoked a similar response.”

And it’s the kind of response an actor always hopes for.

“You want people to notice and respond to what you are conveying and I do have that feeling with Downton. People pick up on tiny little details and nuances in the story and talk to each other about them. That is incredibly gratifying.”

She says that fans like Cora for her steadfastness.

“I think a lot of people respond to an aspect of her which is an old-fashioned version of strong womanhood. It’s out of step with today’s notion of a strong woman, which is more like a Madonna-style – ‘I’m going to get what I want out of life and you can all go and get stuffed.’ Instead, Cora is a woman who’s more self-effacing but you feel is very strong and in the end will get it her way. At the same time she’s deferential to her husband and her husband’s family in accordance with the times, playing the role of a wife in that period. So I think it’s a throwback to an older idea of feminine strength.”

McGovern arrived to Highclere Castle in February to begin filming again, and she says that returning to the house that the nation knows as Downton Abbey brought with it a sense of calm.

“There’s nothing like that first journey up to those front doors. It’s just the most beautiful vista known to man. On the third time round I'm finding there’s a kind of peace and feeling of trust and mutual respect that only comes from working on something for a really long time. It’s a job that I really love. I love the cast and I like the ritual of it. It’s not an over the top intimacy, but just a feeling of trust and respect that you can only earn after an amount of time working on something.”

And she says that the pace of life in the early 20s is something she could get used to, too.

“It’s the quiet rituals and the attention to detail that I think we’ve lost in our life now. I do love it and I do find it relaxing to be in that world. I think that’s what audiences like about it to a certain extent as well. What was strange was at the beginning of filming when I was spending two weeks at Highclere Castle – and then driving home and picking up my kids from Westfield. That was a culture shock. It’s like going to another planet.”


For someone who has spent two whole series playing a kitchen maid, Sophie McShera, Daisy in Downton Abbey, has picked up surprisingly few culinary skills.

“We tend to pretend a bit more rather than actually making anything. I can make getting peas out of a pan and putting them in a bowl last a whole scene.”

Which is almost a skill in itself. McShera’s Daisy, of course, spends more time niggling with Mrs Patmore, the cook and her boss, than actually cooking. This series, however, Daisy has had enough.

“She was promised a promotion, she’s begged and begged for it, and she starts series three wondering why that hasn’t happened yet. She is a little bit annoyed shall we say. In fact basically she starts behaving like a total bitch!”

Like a stroppy teen might, Daisy instigates her own form of protest. Like a tired mother might, Mrs Patmore puts her fingers in her ears and hopes it will pass.

“Mrs Patmore is an infuriating character who just ignores the whole thing. And that really works - but obviously for Daisy it makes her so much more annoyed. She’s really trying to assert herself as this young woman that should have a proper place in the house. And nobody seems to be listening.”

Add to that the introduction of a rival in the form of a spritely new kitchen maid called Ivy; and the new footman Alfred, who immediately turns her head, and Daisy is not in the happiest of places. Her reaction?

“She does this thing where she sort of tries to be really bossy to Ivy. It’s because she’s emulating how she feels she would be treated in the same position. So she does a bit of Patmore-style bossy-booting! And she enjoys it. She’s playing this part and she relishes bossing Ivy around a bit because there’s a lot of bitterness there - because Ivy’s prettier and everyone fancies her and somehow Daisy’s still bottom of the ladder, even though strictly speaking she’s not any more. Nobody’s paying her any attention. She’s not getting any respect.”

Happier times are only to be found away from Downton Abbey on Mr Mason’s farm.

“I love all the scenes with Paul [Copley, who plays Mr Mason]. Their relationship is just lovely and he is the one person I think, apart from Mrs Patmore, who really cares for her. He is the first person that sees real potential in her and that’s a shock to Daisy. She’s a bit bewildered and a bit panicked but very flattered by his generosity and his kindness.”

McShera is not the first Downton Abbey cast member to describe coming back to film a third series as like going back to school.

“It’s like going back to see your friends. We have so much fun and there’s none of the nerves that you’ve had before. It is just excitement - you’re just dying to get back to everyone and swap stories.”

And she says that the new series will not disappoint.

“As soon as I read the script I had that same feeling, that excitement that I had when I got my first script for the first series in episode 1. And being with [director] Brian Percival again makes us all so happy. You feel like you trust him and you just know this is going to be good. And of course with Julian scripting the stories are brilliant. I can’t wait for everyone to see what happens.” 

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