Interview: DOWNTON ABBEY'S Shirley Maclaine, Phyllis Logan



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 Phyllis Logan and Shirley MacLaine.


So how much of a chore is it for Phyllis Logan, aka Mrs Hughes, to come to work on Downton Abbey?

“Excuse me,” she says, pointing out of her trailer’s open door at the view over Highclere Castle’s wild flower meadows. “Look at that. I’ve got the room with a view. What’s not to like? Every time I come up here it is still breathtaking, beautiful and wonderful.”

The same could not be said for her character Mrs Hughes, the head housekeeper.

“She has some issues of her own to be dealing with at the start of this series,” says Logan. “They do get resolved but it is a bit challenging and I think it does give her a different sort of perspective on things - on life.”

It leads to an unlikely alliance with Mrs Patmore. “They become a little more of a partnership let’s say. There’s always been a little bit of tension between them because of the store cupboard key business in series one. But in these circumstances that all seems to go by the board when they realise that they could actually be succour for each other in certain circumstances. So yes, that’s a nice development too.”

As head housekeeper, Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson, the Butler, have a relationship founded on mutual respect and decorum. But Mrs Hughes may turn out to be a little more progressive than her counterpart.

“They still have that nice warmth and respect between them but he still is very much Mr Play-it-by-the- book. Whereas Mrs Hughes is more progressive, in as much as a head housekeeper ever can be. I mean she is still in her corset but you know, apart from that, I think she is a little more of a lefty than he would ever consider right or proper.”

And her path through the third series is to become even more forward thinking.

“As we go on through the series, she looks out for someone who you wouldn’t think she would be supportive of in any way - she actually shows some kindness and support for this unlikely person. There’s a part of her that doesn’t accept fools gladly but I think she realises that we all have our foibles - and perhaps she’s seen more of life than people might think.”

Logan says it’s been refreshing to have a storyline that takes her character out of the house for a change.

“Rather than just wandering about looking vicious with a set of keys jangling off my hip! Yes, it is nice to give another dimension to it.”

Playing a character whose stock in trade is restraint means that when the director says cut, the fun starts. “Screaming and laughing - that has been going on. Anyone who comes down to the set in Ealing where we film the below stairs segments will know that it’s very ribald. I mean this is what is so lovely about it. You are looking like this, all buttoned up, but then yesterday we were all pretending to moon the camera! So we do have a laugh. Siobhan and Rob I would say are the main protagonists in that department...”

When Shirley MacLaine got the call asking if she would like to play Cora’s American mother in Downton Abbey, she did what any right-thinking woman would do. She went to the hairdressers.

“I happened to mention it to somebody - as you do in a hairdressing place - and suddenly all the women there had these theories about what Elizabeth McGovern’s mother would be like. I thought, ‘My god, the whole world’s obsessed with this show and this family.’ And that’s how it started.”

MacLaine gives some historical background to how she pictures Martha Levinson:

“In those days the American women who had money were looking for titles, and the titled men were looking for American money. So Martha fits the bill of the American matriarch who lands across the pond with money. And they expect her to finance whatever’s wrong with Downton Abbey.”

Naturally, it’s not quite as simple as that.

“She is extremely outspoken. Martha’s basic role in these episodes is to plead with the Dowager Countess to wrest herself, if possible, away from tradition. Because that’s what caused the war in the first place. And to become more flexible in relating to change.”

It raises the prospect of MacLaine and Maggie Smith, two of the modern film and stage greats, locking horns, yet MacLaine says their interaction is a little more subtle than just sneering and brickbats.

“The gunfight at the OK Corral does not happen between Maggie and me. We do a little sparring, we have our moments but it’s more sophisticated than that. Martha is not just a crass, cranky American coming in there to call a spade a spade. She’s very smart and to a large extent sensitive as to what’s going on with all her daughter’s children. And Maggie’s character is so well established but you have to look beyond what is her expected reaction to Martha. The Dowager Countess is a human being who has complications and a past of some pain that Martha understands - and to some extent addresses herself to.”

For MacLaine, her time spent filming in the UK earlier this year was a treat.

“Because they like me to be bawdy. And they know that I naturally am so it’s not a put on.”

She particularly enjoyed Highclere Castle.

“Now that’s a once in a lifetime experience, to shoot in such a hallowed place. I enjoyed very, very much that castle and the grounds and the past and the hauntings and the energy. I'm very much in to that stuff.”

But as a ‘jogging pants and tennis shoes’ type of girl, she says that the costumes she had to wear were less to her liking.

“I hated to put that stuff on. I'm not one for wardrobe. But Caroline (McCall, Costume Designer) was brilliant. I knew that it was half of my character so I had to do it – it’s like dialogue, you have to do it right.”

Much of Martha’s wardrobe was sourced from American originals kept in an antique costume house in the San Fernando Valley in California.

“We did most of the fittings there,” MacLaine explains, “So my clothes originated in America because I was American, and I was wearing wardrobe - dresses and tops and hats and shoes - from the 20s that had been stored in this place ever since. It could not have been more authentic. The wig maker came out from London and we did all the clothes there, so what you’re seeing is not the English version of the American clothes of the 20s - they were the American clothes of the 20s. And I have to say, you will not recognise me.”