There is twinkling touch of Calamity Jane meets a breathless, excitable, Sugar Kane (ala Marilyn Monroe in the Severn Year Itch) about Elizabeth McGovern, the forever young, American actress who stars in Downton Abbey. In the early nineties, McGovern turned her back on film super stardom, moved to London and married and Englishman – the British film director, Simon Curtis, of My Week With Marilyn fame.
McGovern is smart, talented, hugely underrated by British audiences, and now she has another accomplishment to ad to her stellar cv. McGovern hasn’t quite run away and joined the circus; no, she has gone one better than that. She has run away and joined a rock ‘n’ roll band, her own in fact – the rather too cute and improbably sounding Sadie and the Hotheads. She has even played a rock festival. Goodness, whatever would Dame Maggie think?
I should at this stage point out that McGovern comes from a remarkable family with a genius for daring, originality and for generally being unconventional.
Her paternal grandfather was William Montgomery McGovern, a swashbuckling professor, adventurer, journalist and Buddhist monk – a superstar in his day, who explored the Amazon and the Himalayas and is rumoured to be the real life inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones.
Perhaps the only difference between McGovern, her clever father and grandfather is that she chose to film and theatre as her metier, not academia.
By her mid ‘twenties, she had already starred in three American, cinematic masterpieces: Ordinary People, for Robert Redford; Ragtime, for Milos Foreman, for which she was Academy nominated for best supporting actress, for her portrayal of the original 19th Century Super Model – the dazzling, coquettish, real life showgirl, Evelyn Nesbit – and finally Robert de Nero’s tragic lover in the epic love letter to the era of the American gangster –in Sergio Leone’s violent, unforgettable, blood-soaked epic – Once Upon a Time in America.
Now she has British audiences thoroughly smitten with her performance as the steely New York heiress whose shiny millions rescue a slightly tarnished, fictional English Dukedom in ITV’s most successful franchise since Brideshead Revisited – Downton Abbey.
As Cora, Countess of Grantham, McGovern is reminiscent of the breezy, ambitious heroines who inhabit Henry James’s great American novels – the sort of girls that unwittingly highlight the uncomfortable juxtaposition between old European money, and the brash, optimistic, breeziness of youthful, American new money.
In the flesh, McGovern, is just as twinkly, appealing and a bit of a kook, and I mean that as a compliment. For when she isn’t playing a duchess, she likes to put on heels and a sassy, form-fitting red dress and sing how she exclaims, with disarming, tell it how it is, slice of life songs about ‘the mundanity of middle age’ – her words – in the tiny packed out bar of The Portobello, on The Portobello Road with her band.
“When I first went there, I was just a woman with a guitar and no one knew my past, or what I had done,” she says. “I could be myself. Writing songs about where I really am in my life. A middle aged woman, married, watching my kids grow up and going to bed with the same guy for the past twenty years.” She makes this sound ridiculously dull, when in fact she is anything but dull, and might just become a run away sex symbol and poster girl for the baby boom generation. She makes no secret that right now she finds it more satisfying to sing and be herself, than she enjoys inhabiting other people as an actor. Though it seems a bit disingenuous of her to wonder if anyone ‘is really interested’. Is she kidding? The success of Downton means of course they are – especially as the series will return in 2013 with storylines and hemlines straight out of the Jazz Age.
In fact, life has gone a little crazy, since McGovern decided to take guitar lessons, in what she charmingly calls, “a response to a chance encounter, with Simon, my guitar teacher, which I never expected to lead anywhere at all.”
Interest is about to go sky high, despite McGovern’s circumspection. There’s an album out of songs out about love, dept collectors and juggling motherhood at the school gate which is really rather good – and next month there’s a UK tour, while McGovern confesses that being in a band is ‘quite complicated, so much to do!’ and just hopes “there will be some money to pay the boys in the band some expenses at last!”
The charm behind McGovern’s beguiling, part-time, rock n roll adventure, which lifts it beyond mere celebrity vanity project, is that she has an arch knack for story telling. Her playful, kittenish songs have the ring of authenticity, are rather fun and just a little bit naughty. She isn’t the next Cheryl Crow; or Dolly Parton, but she does deliver an appealing slice of pure Americana – with snatches of rhythm and blues, Dixie and country – according to The Telegraph’s, Neil McCormick:
‘At times, the oddness of the songs, McGovern’s slightly wayward timing and tendency to veer towards flatness lends the band the woozy flavour of a drunken Dixieland jazz band, but then they straighten up and rock out with slick efficiency. McGovern swaggers like a rock queen.’
In the flesh, McGovern is laid-back and remarkably lacking in arrogance. She likes nothing better than to take her guitar on the Downton set and jam with fellow actress Michelle Dockery, who plays her eldest daughter, Lady Mary. “ It’s relaxing and fun, and it’s amazing how quickly the time passes. I could see that Michelle was good singer. One day I heard her singing to herself, and so I lured her to my trailer, ha, ha, and we tried out some songs. It’s her vocals you can hear alongside me on about six or seven songs on the album – and if she is around when the tour starts, she has said she would love to come and join us.”
In the flesh, McGovern is as pretty and fine featured as a doll. At eighteen, she was plucked straight out of the Juilliard School of Art and Drama – New York’s equivalent of RADA – to play Timothy Hutton’s girlfriend, in Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People. The film was a critical and commercial hit, winning Redford best picture and three further Oscar’s.
Though it is the celebrated Italian director, Sergio Leone, who she remembers with great fondness and admiration.
“ I saw the director’s cut of Once Upon a Time in America at Cannes recently. There is something about the way he deals with the violence that is like a hard poem. It is ugly and horrible, but there is a beauty to it. Leone doesn’t glamorise these people, but he does find beauty in their loyalty, and their betrayals, which give it the scope of grand opera.” She adds, “The interesting thing is that in real life he wasn’t like that at all – he was the most gentle, warm, family man.”
McGovern is pleasantly unstarry, and down to earth. As for her motivation to be in a rock band she is unequivocal. Virtually purring, she says, “Mmmmm – I guess it’s a comfort blanket thing. The music brings home to me. I grew up in a family that was very orientated towards classical music. Bach and Beethoven were always in the background. My brother was a protégée on the piano, and I have a lot of memories of going to see him play and take a bow after winning a competition. Later, I discovered music for myself, and loved music that touched by soul. I’m a child of the late sixties and seventies. I went to a very hippie school in LA. Not that I was ever a hippie, I am too straight arrow for that, and I loved school too much. But everyone was wearing tie die shirts and it was all about the music and artists like – Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.”
Not that she is short of female role models.
“Joni Mitchell has to be the first name on my list. I don’t think anyone has equalled her as songwriter. I think all roads lead back to her. I love Lily Allen too. I think she is capable of great storytelling; with great wit too. And while I am not a big fan of Madonna, I do completely love some of her songs – Such as True Colours and I love the American artist Gretchen Peters. There’s a song of hers I really identify with, it’s called Five Minutes. It’s about a waitress who is taking a cigarette break. The chorus always goes back to, I’ll just be five minutes’. You learn everything about the woman in the story of the song – and it is just a beautiful example of song-craft.”
As to going on the road, she confesses to a mild sense of panic.
“It’s one thing to say let’s be in a band – it’s another thing to go on the road! There is another part of my personality that loves the adventure, the romance of the road and there’s a masochistic streak too! I love England, I feel very comfortable here; but I definitely, always feel American. The difference is that when an American says they quite like something, that’s exactly what they mean. When a British person says that, it means they don’t really like it at all!”
“Britain is like a mature, wine,” she suggests. “ While America is new, and fresh and innocent and full of itself, like a kid. I am so lucky to be raising my kids here, because they get the benefit of a culture that has been through some ups and downs. I think there is something about that that makes it more balanced. America is a country full of energy, full of ambition, and full of extremes, and it’s very, very exciting. The only problem is that American’s also think that they are the only country on the planet! I miss people I know back home, and I used to pray for a decent cup of coffee when I first came to live here – but now everything, including the coffee has improved!”
Copyright Alison Jane Reid – December 2012. All rights reserved.
A slightly shorter version of this interview appeared in Country Life Magazine on January 17th 2013.
Elizabeth McGovern and her band, Sadie and The Hotheads are going on the road. For more info, tour dates and tickets go to