Lady Cora rocks! Downton Abbey's Elizabeth McGovern on her REAL passion – gigging in pubs with her barnstorming band
21:30 GMT, 8 June 2012
01:24 GMT, 9 June 2012
A hip rock ’n’ roll joint in London’s Shepherd’s Bush is not really the sort of place one expects to bump into a proper lady. But here she is, the oh-so-genteel Countess of Grantham, slumming it in jeans and… well, let’s just say she wouldn’t make it through the tradesman’s entrance at Downton Abbey.
And as for that scary old baggage the Dowager Countess Violet – brilliantly portrayed by Dame Maggie Smith – clapping eyes on her… Carson, the smelling salts!
Lady Cora rocks. Or rather Elizabeth McGovern, the actress who plays her, does. And I mean she properly rocks. Yup, Elizabeth, 50, is a guitar-strumming, foot-tapping, lyric-belting rock chick. Which is why she’s here in west London’s Bush Hall, a favourite haunt of the likes of the late Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, REM and The Killers, flashing more flesh than a 1920s flapper girl in a skimpy satin top.
Rock chick: Elizabeth McGovern writes songs and plays in a band when she's not acting in shows like Downton Abbey
Later this month she’ll be taking to the stage at the Isle of Wight Festival as lead singer in the band Sadie And The Hotheads, which includes brothers Steve and Simon Nelson. Music, you see, is her real passion. And the Earl of Grantham’s missus not only enchants with her breathy vocals (think Marianne Faithfull at her finest), but she also writes the songs.
‘Sadie is my alter ego,’ Elizabeth says. ‘She’s who I am. I am middle-aged. I’ve been in a long relationship, I’m watching my kids grow up and I’m looking at the world through that prism – the joys, the frustration, the boredom, the despair and the philosophies that get you through.’
Elizabeth has actually been married to Simon Curtis, the brilliant director of My Week With Marilyn, for 20 years, and has two daughters, 18-year-old Matilda and 14-year-old Grace.
‘A long relationship is everything,’ she says. ‘It’s incredibly comforting and it’s boring at times. Not boring, that isn’t what I mean, but there’s a song I’ve written called All The Time.
'There’s a strain of it which is in the melody saying, “Baby I love you all the time,” but in each verse there’s all the detail of what a day-to-day existence with someone is like – get up, take the kids to school, watch the clothes in the washing machine go round and round…’
Which sounds, well, er, boring ‘Oh no,’ says Elizabeth of her marriage to a man for whom she upped sticks from her native America, where she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Ragtime and engaged for a time to Sean Penn, and moved to Chiswick, west London.
Simon was actually the person who gave her a guitar and got her started on music when she was turning 40 and a mother to two young daughters with little work.
‘Moving here was like piecing a person together from scratch,’ she says. ‘After a few years Simon handed me this guitar because he was looking for things for me to do. I started plucking away on it.
Hit the jackpot: Elizabeth admits Downton is a show any actress would gag to be part of
‘Then I saw an ad in a local newspaper: guitar lessons by Steve [Nelson]. I remember it like it was yesterday. There was his number. I just called up and the next week Steve was at my door. We started doing lessons and he said, “You should write a song.” I said, “Oh no, I can’t do that.” He said, “You should try.” And the next week, because he’d put that in my brain, I’d written five songs.
'Then it became week after week just the two of us writing songs together. We just had that spark between us. I was shocked I could do it. I didn’t ever think that was something I’d be capable of and it’s a feeling of power that’s lacking in my professional life as an actress.’
Hang on, Elizabeth. Rewind. You are starring in about the most famous period drama on the planet, something most actresses would give their eyeteeth for. You’re not saying Downton is boring too
'As an actress you are
powerless. You're always being told where to go, what to do, what to
wear and what to say'
‘Oh no, Downton is the kind of drama any actress would gag to be a part of,’ she says. ‘But as an actress you are powerless. You’re always being told where to go, what to do, what to wear and what to say.’
Now, this feisty rock chick doesn’t strike me as the sort of woman who’s happy to be pushed around. How does she manage
‘I don’t easily,’ she says. ‘I find as I get older I get more frustrated by it. It seems as a grown-up woman not so appropriate. But I do feel very engaged by Downton Abbey. This last little section we shot (they’re currently filming the third series) has been one of the most challenging, stimulating storylines I’ve had the privilege to play,’ she quickly adds.
Elizabeth is refreshingly honest. About six weeks ago she was reported as saying, ‘The show in the first season was more to my taste than the show in the second season.’
Let’s just say the comment went down about as well with programme-makers as the first telephone at Downton did with the Dowager Countess, who asked waspishly, ‘Is this an instrument of communication or torture’
Elizabeth says: ‘As an American I think I’m less guarded about saying the first thing that comes into my head. All I was trying to explain was that in the second series we had a different challenge with the war, and it became a slightly different show. It seemed I was casting aspersions on the second series, which was never my intent. I’m happy to say the third series is brilliant. It really is. Anyway, whatever people want to write about it, at least they’re interested.’
Surprises in store: As Cora in Downton with Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham. They are currently filming the third series which the actress says is 'brilliant'
Which, of course, we are. The summer’s barely started and already speculation about what exactly will be going down in Downton Abbey this autumn is rife. To date we know the Oscar-winning actress Shirley MacLaine will make a guest appearance as Martha, Lady Grantham’s wealthy mother. Oh, and that there’s to be a marriage, a birth and the death of a well-known character. Who ‘My lips are sealed,’ says Elizabeth.
Given that Dame Maggie Smith and the rather gorgeous Dan Stevens (Downton heir Matthew Crawley) are said to have not yet committed to a fourth series, my money’s on them.
‘I’m not allowed to say anything. All I can tell you is it’s a changing world and each of the characters is adjusting to it in their own way. You can see shifts in class and everybody’s reacting to that in different ways.’
The third series is set in the Roaring Twenties at a time when the ladies left their corsets in the closet and let their hair down. Today, Elizabeth is wearing hers in a blunt bob with a bit of a messy, just-got-out-of-bed twist. She’s softer and sexier than her on-screen character and says she’s rarely recognised in the street.
‘Every now and then someone is quite friendly, but generally no, I’m not recognised. I look very different. I don’t let Downton be a part of the other side of my life. I’m old enough now that it doesn’t creep through the cracks of the windows and the doors of the house.
‘One of the nice things that’s happening on set is that because we’ve been working together for three years there’s real trust and relaxation among the cast.’ Does she jam with the rest of the cast off-set
‘I wouldn’t say so because a lot of them are either kids or a lot older. We’re in different places in our personal lives. I don’t want to be hanging out with the kids, although I’ve had Michelle Dockery (her on-screen daughter, the irrepressible Lady Mary) sing with me on our new album. We did a festival together. I’m comfortable hanging around with the people I like to hang around with – musicians.’
Alter ego: With her bandmates, Sadie And The Hotheads, who will play at the Isle of Wight Festival this year
Elizabeth has always had music in her life, albeit more the sort of classical music that features in the period drama. Her brother was something of a child piano prodigy and her father, a law professor, and mother, a teacher, were forever dragging her off to watch him perform.
‘I didn’t dislike it, but I didn’t feel I belonged in that world,’ she says. ‘It was a classical music world and it was my brother’s thing. I’d describe my family as very eccentric. They didn’t buy into other people’s definition of success.
'My parents were both academics and very content to follow the beat of their own drum. We were allowed to pursue our interests without having to tick boxes in terms of achievements. That’s given me the freedom to follow my natural inclinations on things.’
'I don't see many middle-aged women
around writing about this sort of stuff. Mothers do have feelings too.
Just because you’re a mum doesn’t mean everything else goes out the
Elizabeth says when she first began performing her songs she was nervous as hell.
‘By creating Sadie I could become this other character who was confident enough to sing. Also, Sadie is that thing inside you that’s unique to you. It’s not about pleasing anybody else. It’s your true inner voice. I’m not trying to impress anybody – I don’t have anything to impress anybody with. I’m not musically gifted. I’m very aware of that. I’m not particularly talented but I have something to say, which is my life experience.’
I wonder what her husband makes of his rock chick wife spewing out their private lives in the lyrics of a song ‘I think he really is proud of me. I have come a long way,’ she says.
‘When I first started doing it I wasn’t great. But over the past ten years I’ve been performing every chance I get. I’ve gone to every pub. He sees that I’ve come a long way. At first it was a little bit difficult because he was watching something that wasn’t very good. He’s also such a savvy showbusiness person. I think he wasn’t sure where my musical style was going to fit into the commercial world. I’d be reassuring him, “Don’t worry, I’m OK with not being Barbra Streisand. It’s just somewhere I’m comfortable.”
‘All I am is what a lot of people are: married, middle-aged and moderately happy. I don’t see many middle-aged women around writing about this sort of stuff. Mothers do have feelings too. Just because you’re a mum doesn’t mean everything else goes out the window.’
With which she seats herself down in a gaudy velvet chair for the stylist to tease her tousled bob into rock-chick chic.
One last question, does Lady Grantham have a Sadie within too ‘I think she’d have a lot to sing about but probably too much good taste to actually sing about it,’ she says with a very unladylike twinkle.
Sadie And The Hotheads will play at the Isle of Wight Festival on 23 June. Tickets are available from www.isleofwightfestival.com, or tel: 0844 499 9955.