Elizabeth McGovern chats about ‘Cheerful Weather for the Wedding,’ ‘Downton Abbey,’ and domestic life

Thelma Adams

Elizabeth McGovern has old-school class — which won't surprise anybody who's watched her play Cora, Countess of Grantham, on TV's addictive "Downton Abbey." She portrays yet another upper-crusty English mother trying to navigate the marriage of her independent-minded elder daughter in "A Cheerful Day for the Wedding," which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Chatting about marriage, motherhood, and the dangers and delights of treating daughters as friends, McGovern struck me as thoroughly modern -- once she unlaces her corset.

Thelma Adams: You have become a period entertainment icon -- would you liked to have lived in a past era, or are you really a modern girl at heart?

Elizabeth McGovern: Being in a corset for half a day convinces you that we women have been born into the right era. I wouldn't want to go back to those days. Now is a great time to be a woman. Playing this part of Cora while being someone that was raised in the '60s, and all that represents, I find myself gnawing at the bit. I couldn't personally turn back the wheels mostly because there's so much more for women now that we can expect from our lives. I don't think we should take that be granted. All you have to do is step into Cora's shoes for the day!

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TA: Elizabeth, you're a mother of two girls, Matilda and Grace. Did you draw on those relationships in this movie?

EM: It's so easy to access because it's so close to my real-life experience, it's very easy for me to tap into those emotions. I love having girls. They're fascinating and complex and kind of your friend for life in a way. I love my kids, and I'm very happy for what they are.

Elizabeth McGovern
Elizabeth McGovern

TA: In "Cheerful Weather," you play a widowed mother trying to manage the wedding of your eldest daughter in 1932. That's not so far afield from your "Downton Abbey" character, is it? How does Mrs. Thatcham differ from Cora?

EM: She's got a really different lot in life because she's on her own with these two girls. She's lost her husband, and she's had to soldier on, and she's under a lot more strain in that regard. Her temperament is more high-strung as a result. She's got to shoulder everything. She doesn't have a partner anymore.

TA: Most readers are more familiar with your "Downton" matriarch. How much do you personally relate to Cora, and how does she differ from you?

EM: I think the thing that I find very similar to me is Cora's relationship to her girls. It's a really strong, intimate connection; at least that's what I try to portray. There's more formality in their day-to-day relationship than I have with my girls, which is not a bad thing. Much to my despair, it's all become too familiar between parents and kids, and I was a total perpetrator.

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TA: How so?

EM: Those boundaries between parents and their children are all kind of blurred now for the generation of kids that we're raising. We wanted to be good parents by getting down on our hands and knees and playing. But, as they get older, my kids' generation thinks that they are their parents' equal. That's hard to rectify. My girls are really confident. If I had to do it over again, I wish they would have more respect for something [that is] older and to be revered. That's old-fashioned, and I mourn that loss, and the damage is done. That's the difference between Cora's relationship to her children and my own. I negotiate with my girls. They have no concept of me as someone who's their superior in any way, shape, or form.

TA: Is that because they know you too well? Another theme of both the TV series and the movie is that no one tells each other the truth until it's too late, which of course ups the dramatic tension. Are you a truth teller or discreet, or a bit of both?

EM: I'd like to think that, with people that I love, I say whatever it is that needs to be said.

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TA: And with people that you don't love?

EM: I don't think I'm that way with people who mean less to me. I'm quite circumspect and measured with them. If someone is part of the fabric of my life, and sometimes it's not a good thing, I say what needs to be said, whether it's appropriate or not. I air my inner thoughts.

TA: That leads to your husband, Simon Curtis, who has also seen his career pop this year with his feature directorial debut, "My Week With Marilyn." Has this dual success made your lives easier or harder?

EM: It really has been joyous. We're old enough both to appreciate it and not take it too seriously. It's the best time of life to experience it. We know to enjoy it because it's ephemeral. I feel very grateful that there's been this boost at this stage in our life.

TA: Now, there were a lot of upset people when there was a rumor that Season 3 may be the last for Dame Maggie Smith, who plays your mother-in-law on "Downton Abbey." What have you gained from working alongside her?

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EM: I feel this absolutely thrilling sense of continuum working with her that is connecting me to generations of actors today, and to those in the past. When we're working together and she refers to "Larry" and "Viv"...

TA: Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh?

EM: Yes. There's a connection to the great culture of acting over the years.

TA: One last question for "Downton Abbey" junkies: Does John Bates, the valet, get out of jail next season?

EM: I have to say I don't know, because I don't. If there isn't a happy ending, you know the story hasn't ended yet.