Returning for Season 3 on January 6, 2013 on Masterpiece on PBS, the hit drama series Downton Abbey will see wrenching social changes, romantic intrigues, and personal crises that grip the majestic English country estate, now that the Great War is over. Written and created by Julian Fellowes, the show has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon, breaking records with its fan support and award recognition. The series stars Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Dan Stevens, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter, Penelope Wilton, Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle, with special guest star Shirley MacLaine.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actress Elizabeth McGovern talked about what fans can expect from Season 3, how all of the characters will be dealing with the changing world in different ways, what it was like to work with Shirley MacLaine, how the relationships in Cora’s family will be growing and evolving, what she would still like to get to know about her character, what the success of the show has been like, when she realized the show had become such a phenomenon, how the on-set atmosphere has changed over the seasons, that the scripts almost never change and that there’s never any improvisation, and what being a part of this show has meant for her career. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Collider: What can fans of the series expect from Season 3?
ELIZABETH McGOVERN: I think that the key phrase is “a changing world.” People in the family, downstairs and upstairs, are reacting to it in different ways. Some of them are adjusting quite well. Some of them are seizing the opportunity. Others are fearing that they’ll go under and not survive. That’s the key dramatic undercurrent that fuels a lot of the third [season].
What was it like to have Shirley MacLaine around and do scenes with her?
McGOVERN: Shirley, herself, is a breath of fresh air. She’s incredibly entertaining and fascinating. We just loved having her on the set. She’s full of stories and is a very fascinating person.
What is the relationship like between your characters?
McGOVERN: The relationship with Cora and her mother is one full of affection. She’s protective of her mother. I wouldn’t say it was overly intimate because they lead very separate lives, but they have a nice relationship.
Was it fun to get to see Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith interacting?
McGOVERN: Of course! I can’t wait for people to see that.
You’ve had some really great moments, over the seasons, with both Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Dockery. How will those relationships be growing and evolving?
McGOVERN: Well, the girls are all growing up. Michelle’s character is taking control of the house more and is much more of a woman. I think it’s interesting for Cora, and it parallels my own life. I’ve raised daughters who are English, and I’m American, so they’re culturally different to me, which is an unusual situation. That crops up between Mary and her mother, quite a bit in the third season. You’ll have to see it to know what I mean. I think sometimes Cora looks at Mary, the grown up woman, in awe and wonder like, “Where did this come from?,” even though it’s her own child. Her child comes from a different cultural background than herself, so that’s an interesting relationship. I think the Cora-Robert relationship shows both of them reacting to this changing world, in different ways. It’s slightly easier for Cora. A lot of her role is to ease Robert through these transitions.
Since more time passes on this show than a lot of other shows, are there things you feel have changed the most in your character and are there ways you’d like to see her evolve?
McGOVERN: I would absolutely love that! I would love to know the inner Cora more than we’ve had a chance to. But, that’s not in my power. I’d love to know what drives Cora and what she fights for, on a personal level, as opposed to just reacting to the family. But, in some ways, I do know. You don’t really ever know very much about her. That’s why it was really nice for me to have Shirley on the set. You suddenly know much more about Cora because you see where she comes from, and you appreciate how far Cora has come, to do so well in the Downton milieu. She’s made a long journey to get where she is, as an integral part of that society.
Are there things you have to do, in order to get yourself into the headspace of a woman in this time period, or does she come pretty easily for you?
McGOVERN: She comes pretty easily. A lot of the work is done for me by the costume and by the dialogue. I let that do a lot of the work.
Has the success of this show, both in America and in England, really sunken in for you?
McGOVERN: There’s something about all of it that is dreamlike. It’s an ephemeral business, but it doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. I float through it.
Did you breathe a sigh of relief, when everybody came back for Season 2 and you realized that the success of the show wasn’t just a fluke?
McGOVERN: Definitely! The people that produce it are very invested in that, of course, and I am, too. But, I find that it’s more peaceful for me, inside my brain, to just concentrate on doing the best job and leave that up to the gods, so I don’t really involve myself. It’s a psychological safety mechanism of mine. So, I let other people look after all that and I try to help as much as I can. But, for the makers of the show, it was obviously a huge relief because that’s a hurdle.
Did you have a moment when you realized that this had become such a phenomenon?
McGOVERN: One of the moments I had was when I was browsing the internet for something and an ad flashed up for Downton silverware. It was just a given that people would know what that was. I was like, “My god, a Downton place setting is in an ad on the internet?” That was a sign that it had become a thing to purchase.
How have things changed with the show, from season to season? Does the set feel the same?
McGOVERN: I would say that it does change how it feels on the set, but the approach is very much the same, every year. If anything, there’s perhaps something that is growing, which is a relaxation and trust that everybody who’s working together has for one another because we know each other. That’s a nice feeling. It just comes from sheer hard work, over a great deal of time. Everybody has experienced this slightly cataclysmic thing in their life and that’s bonding. I have a peaceful connection to the cast that is not immensely intimate, but it’s a bond of love and trust. It really is. But, I would say our approach is very much the same. There’s probably slightly more confidence and slightly less anxiety about everything, but there’s still a lot of anxiety because you want it to be as good as it possibly can be.
Were you surprised that there had been some criticism of the change in tone in the second season of the series, or does that kind of scrutiny just become a given when you have growing popularity?
McGOVERN: I like the debate about it. It doesn’t worry me. I like that people are interested. I like to have people talking about it and having differing opinions and having favorite and un-favorite bits. I think it’s all part of what reveals a fascination and a connection to this show. It engenders that kind of discussion, and I like that. I wouldn’t ever want people just to walk around, saying that everything is brilliant. Of course, I would want that, but it’s not as much fun. I like the conversations.
Do the scripts pretty much stay the same while you’re shooting, or do things change on set, at all?
McGOVERN: No, hardly at all, which is extremely unusual. It’s a tribute to Julian [Fellowes], as a writer, because he works at everything so well in advance. I’ve never worked on a series for which that’s so true. Most of the time, there’s constant last-minute changes and rewriting. That happens a tiny bit, but not very much.
Do you ever do any improvisation?
McGOVERN: No. Part of the pragmatic reality is that you have to be very disciplined with that number of people and that number of storylines. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t happen.
What has being a part of this show meant for your career, with all of the attention and acclaim?
McGOVERN: For me, it’s been a miracle. I’m someone who’s done the opposite of whatever the received wisdom is, to keep your career going into your 50’s. I moved to England, I had kids and I didn’t do what most people do, in order to keep a profile in L.A. It wasn’t my choice. That’s just the way my life went. So, the fact that it’s now come around and I’m enjoying this second wind, is something that I would have never, in a million years, expected. I had reconciled myself to being happily out to pasture, a bit. That has been unexpected, and really is so much fun.
Downton Abbey returns for Season 3 to Masterpiece on PBS on January 6, 2013.