ELIZABETH McGOVERN plays Lady Cora in the British television series, “Downton Abbey.”

ELIZABETH McGOVERN plays Lady Cora in the British television series, “Downton Abbey.”

When we met last summer in Beverly Hills, Elizabeth McGovern looked resplendent in a red dress, as elegant and refined as anything her character, Lady Cora on “Downton Abbey,” would wear.

PBS’ British import, “ Downton Abbey,” was the surprise hit of television last season. Originally set as a four- part miniseries from Julian Fellowes, writer of “Gosford Park,” it was such a success — critically, ratingsand award-wise (it won six Emmys and has four Golden Globe nominations) — that there was a demand for more. It is back for a seven-part second season which began Sunday on the network’s “Masterpiece Classic.”

The series tells the story of the Crawley family and their servants beginning in 1912, at the time of the sinking of the Titanic. An American heiress, Lady Cora — the Countess of Grantham — had been a part of an arranged betrothal. Her husband, the earl (Hugh Bonneville), had married her for her fortune and to keep his estate afloat. She in return received a title, but over the years learned to love him.

Like Lady Cora, McGovern is herself an American living in England.

“She’s had to indoctrinate herself into a society that is quite foreign to her,” says the actress about her character. “I’ve rehearsed that bit for some 20 years of living there.”

Unlike Lady Cora, though, McGovern did not marry a lord, but a relatively unknown theater producer, Simon Curtis, in 1992. They subsequently had two daughters. The couple still lives in west London, and over the years have worked together in television and on the stage.

Curtis recently directed “ My Week With Marilyn,” starring Golden Globe and likely Oscar nominee Michelle Williams.

McGovern, who went to high school in North Hollywood (her father was a UCLA professor), is also up for a Golden Globe on Sunday as best actress in a miniseries or movie made for television. At 19, she received an Oscar nomination for her second film, Milos Forman’s 1981 drama “Ragtime.”

While she had a solid film career in the 1980s — starring opposite Robert De Niro in the gangster epic “Once Upon a Time in America,” with Nicolas Cage and former boyfriend Sean Penn in the drama “ Racing With the Moon” and Kevin Bacon in the romantic comedy “She’s Having a Baby” — McGovern lived in New York City (she attended Juilliard).

“ Hollywood was not my lifestyle as an adult,” she says.

Eventually meeting Curtis, they married and she moved to Chiswick in London.

When she heard about “Downton Abbey,” McGovern wrote a note to Fellowes, telling him how much she wanted the role.

“I hardly ever do something like that, but I did in this case because I wanted to be a part of it,” says the actress, adding that she’s shocked by the series’ success. “It’s not what I’m used to because my career has really been stuff that I’ve committed a lot of passion and energy to but it’s not necessarily drawn big audiences.”

“ Downton” is often described as a new version of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the 1971 series that was a hit on PBS, chronicling the lives of an upper-class wealthy family and their servants, and on the surface it’s an easy comparison.

Its story is somewhat complicated.

The Crawleys have three eligible daughters, but the rules of inheritance say the estate must pass to a male heir. So they have arranged for the eldest, Mary (Michelle Dockery), to be married to her cousin, who was next in line. But when he dies on the Titanic, the new heir is a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a middle-class lawyer who is not accustomed to the lives of the privileged. He clashes with Mary, who has a dark secret, leaving the daughters’ and Lady Cora’s fortune in doubt should the earl die.

“ Downton’s” producer Gareth Neame says the series differs from the other classic miniseries of PBS’ past in one key way — the writing.

“ I would say the show is closer to something like ‘Mad Men,’” Neame says, “where you have a period setting, but modern writing, than it is to a lot of the former ‘ Masterpiece’ productions like ‘Pride & Prejudice’ where you have a Victorian novel that is adapted and the screenwriter has to be, to a greater or lesser degree, quite faithful to the novel that’s been laid down. We have all the freedoms that any modern narrative would have.”

McGovern believes the series works because it does what every successful show does — put a bunch of people in a restricted space and watch them bounce off of each other.

“ These are people whose lives are separated by extremely strict rules in terms of behavior and protocol and yet they are completely and inextricably bound together by mutual need,” she says.

The actress says she finds it interesting how the servants know practically everything about the family they are working for while the family knows almost nothing about them yet depends on them. She points to a scene in the first season as an example.

“ My character is in the bath, completely bare and vulnerable, and standing next to her is her lady-in-waiting covered head to foot in black, completely impenetrable,” she says. “They are sharing this life together that when you think about it is extremely odd. And yet they completely take it for granted. It says it all to me about what an unusual relationship these people have with each other.”

Though she has done research for the role, McGovern says that Fellowes is obsessed with getting the details of the era right and uses a historical adviser to help.

“I always find it fascinating that women in that era would constrict themselves so profoundly in the wearing of these very, very tight corsets,” the actress says. “I feel very free and liberated that we don’t do that anymore. But I find myself today tottering around on these incredibly high heels to try to impress journalists. I’m in such pain at the moment. I realize nothing is actually really changed at all.”

Season one of “ Downton Abbey” ended with the announcement of World War I. Season two picks up two years later, in 1916, when much of the patriotic fervor in the buildup to the conflict has been replaced by a sobering and often horrific reality. Season two has already aired in England — to high ratings — so it’s easy to find out what happens. But suffice it to say, there will be some real twists and turns.

Meanwhile, Fellowes is reportedly working on a third season. That would suit McGovern, who — while she loves to come back to Los Angeles (she has family here) and misses working here — enjoys “being an American in London.”

“I would never become so English,” she says. “I play in a band, and we play American sounding music.”

She says her band, Sadie and the Hotheads, which includes the Nelson Brothers, indulges her by playing songs she has written.

“I wouldn’t dream of covering a song I hadn’t written because I just don’t think I would be any good at it,” she says.

McGovern refers to the band as “my resolute attempt to bring a little bit of America to Chiswick.” (Check them out at www.sadieandthehotheads.com.)

It sounds kind of freeing, and maybe the corsets will be gone for “ Downton” three, which supposedly will take place in the 1920s. But McGovern says she learned a trick from her co- star, the venerable actress Maggie Smith.

“She told me always put a hard board under a soft couch so you don’t sink down, which is quite profound help, especially when you’re sitting in period costume.”


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