Elizabeth McGovern interview, The Chaperone


“I didn’t really think very much about it,” she says. “That’s the funny thing about Twitter. That kind of interaction, you need to do it [for your career] but I believe it’s totally boring if all you’re doing is putting up either idealised versions of yourself or just promoting your work.”

There is another surprising side to the actress who plays Lady Cora.

Yes, she seems to do a lot of acting in corsets. Yes, she’s built a solid career in film, television and theatre after a blazing start, despite reservations about her success (more later). But, just over a decade ago, McGovern also started singing, writing songs and playing guitar in the rock band Sadie and the Hotheads, performing what one reviewer described as “wonkily endearing songs about subjects such as romancing a farmer and sweet-talking a repossession agency”.

Their performances have surprised costume drama fans.

“When we were touring in the UK in the early days we’d look out at the audience and see that everybody had bought their Downton Abbey book to be signed,” she said before a concert in 2015. “The look on their faces when we came on started playing this rock ‘n roll music can only be described as somewhat shocked.”

McGovern’s acting career began when Robert Redford cast her in Ordinary People – a student who starts dating Timothy Hutton’s troubled character – while she was still studying drama in her late teens at New York’s famous Juilliard School. Her very first movie won best picture at the Oscars in 1981.

The following year, McGovern had an Oscar nomination of her own for playing a former chorus girl in Milos Forman’s Ragtime, though the accolade was not all good news.

“It was incredibly heady but it was tempered by the fact that I knew it was unearned,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t ready. I didn’t really feel in control of my craft or my personal life or any of it so it was a mixed thing to be honest.”

Other Hollywood movies followed quickly in the ’80s: Racing With The Moon (1984) opposite soon-to-be-fiancee Sean Penn, just before he married Madonna. McGovern has described him as “someone who breathes drama every minute of the day”, adding “when something’s tragic, it’s tragic to the gazillionth degree”, so it only lasted a couple of years on and off.

Then  came Once Upon A Time In America (1984) alongside Robert De Niro and James Woods, She’s Having A Baby (1988) with Kevin Bacon and Johnny Handsome (1989) opposite Mickey Rourke.

“I thought it was very easy,” McGovern says. “The films that I started with catapulted me to a place where I was visible early on. They were seminal obviously. Then I feel like I’ve slowly, methodically, worked my way down.

Elizabeth McGovern, above, called on Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes to write a script for The Chaperone.Credit:Studio Canal

“But I’ve had a great time. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I always did work that I totally believed in and I still feel like that’s the only thing I care about.”

McGovern grew up amid the grand homes of Evanston in Chicago, with a father who was a university professor and a mother who was a high school teacher. She started taking acting lessons after an agent saw her in a play.

Since marrying British producer-director Simon Curtis (Woman In Gold, Goodbye Christopher Robin) in 1992, McGovern has lived in London, juggling roles with raising two daughters.

She remains baffled by the enduring success of Downton Abbey, which has delivered her nominations for Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, given the focus on English class and wealth.

“I’m surprised by people’s continuing fascination for it,” she says. “It presents this very romanticised version of that system and that life but people just love it.”

The Chaperone is a passion project that started when McGovern was hired to read an audio book version of Laura Moriarty’s novel of the same name, about a straight-laced woman who discovers a new world when she escorts teenage future silent movie star Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) from provincial Kansas to buzzing jazz age New York.

The Chaperone is about a straight-laced woman who discovers a life she'd never imagined.

The Chaperone is about a straight-laced woman who discovers a life she’d never imagined.Credit:Studio Canal

She decided to buy the rights, called on Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) to write a script and became a producer.

“It just occurred to me that it would be a terrific story for a movie,” McGovern says. “So I became fixated by that idea. Seven years later, after a lot of turmoil, it’s come to fruition.”

That turmoil included potential backers who insisted that no one wanted to see a film about a middle-aged woman. No doubt, just as they once said no one would watch a film about a female superhero.

“I was shocked that people would just say that right to my face,” McGovern says. “They’d say it should be more about Louise Brooks, which is valid. But for me, that’s much more of a predictable movie because it’s the rise and then the self-destruct of a Hollywood star, which we have seen quite a few times before.

“I didn’t think that was as interesting as this odd relationship between the two of them. And I think that an ordinary middle-aged woman is interesting; most of us who are that age are.”

While Jacki Weaver’s amazing career trajectory – 50 hours of television and 23 films since Animal Kingdom launched her Hollywood career in her sixties – suggests there more roles for mature actresses, McGovern believes there are still too few.

“To be honest, nothing comes my way,” she says. “I’m really excited to be doing a play [Kenneth Lonergan’s The Starry Messenger with Matthew Broderick] when I go back.

“I’m so busy in my life – I have so much going on – that I don’t sit around feeling badly about things. But I don’t think there’s lots of material written for women my age.”

While she professes not to be very political, McGovern says it’s difficult not to be engaged given the divisiveness in the US in the Trump era.

“I feel, like a lot of people, very frightened,” she says. “But I cling to a belief that the system is strong enough and that it will resurrect itself  … I’m an optimistic enough person to think that Trump will burn himself out. The best possible scenario is if his base, genuinely and organically, become disillusioned with his schtick because they see it for what it is.”

So in the more comforting world of period drama, what can audiences expect of the Downtown Abbey movie later this year?

“More of the same,” McGovern says. “Only on a bigger scale, with fancy cinematography. We haven’t moved forward very much in time and all of the characters are saying pretty much what they’ve been saying for six years.”

For now – sacrilege for Downton Abbey fans – she has had enough of wearing corsets in period dramas.

“I would be happy never to do it ever again,” she says.

The Chaperone opens on April 25. 

Garry Maddox is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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