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Elizabeth McGovern.

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Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern on Season Two, Corsets, and What Cora Would Think of Her

She was nominated for an Oscar at 20 (for Ragtime) and engaged to Sean Penn at 23, then Elizabeth McGovern disappeared from the public eye, moving to London to get married and raise two kids with British director and producer Simon Curtis. Now she's back on the small screen as Lady Cora in Julian Fellowes's Downton Abbey, playing — appropriately enough — an American married to a Brit, the Earl of Grantham. This Sunday's season two premiere picks up with the Downton estate, both upstairs and downstairs, preparing for World War I. We spoke to McGovern ahead of the episode about how the war will affect her marriage, corsets, and what Cora would think of the modern woman.

Does Cora’s life seem appealing to you?
No, that’s the one thing that doing the part has really proven to me: It’s not an era I would actually like to live in, because as a woman you just had so few options. I think I would go crazy. Though it is very relaxing. It’s peaceful. It’s peaceful for people to know how their lives are going to be, pretty much.

Do you think that helps explain the appeal of the show?
I do, actually. Now we have to contend with overstimulation and too many opportunities all the time, and too many decisions all the time. At Downton Abbey, everything is set. Everybody knows their place. I think people find it soothing.

Are you surprised the show has been so popular in America?
I am. I think there are a lot of different reasons. I think people find it a relief to get pulled out of this world with too many choices, too much stimulation, into one where there’s peace and there’s rules and restrictions. There’s also just a sheer entertainment element, plot. And then the third element is that no matter how the characters behave they’re essentially good people. I think people appreciate that. In an effort to make a show dramatic or stand out there’s often a sort of inner horribleness about all the people. I think that there are bad characters in Downton Abbey, but most of them are trying to do the right thing. That’s my experience of life. It can’t be that unusual.

What do you think Cora would think about you?
I think Cora would feel that I was quite an indulged person because I enjoy all the benefits of a family and marriage without having to give up a lot of my personal freedoms, which she takes for granted is part and parcel of the package of marriage. So I think she might be envious, secretly.

Are there any story lines that you’d really like to be developed that haven’t been yet?
Of course I personally would like to explore a bit more the Robert-Cora relationship, because I think it’s a fascinating one. In the second series, the war has an impact on their marriage, which I don’t think is unusual. Because it tests it in a way that it might not have been tested if there had been no war. Essentially the prospect of the outcome of the war instills a sense of true insecurity in both Cora and Robert, because their way of life is completely threatened. And their reaction, both of them, is to feel lost and unsure of what their role is as a result of this. And I think that sheds a glaring light on their marriage, particularly since it was a pact made in support of this lifestyle that had worked very well for them. But when that is called into question by the war and the uncertain future, they have two very different reactions to that circumstance; it’s sort of revealing their emotional resiliency — the fact that they have very different levels of emotional resiliency, and it sort of puts a fissure between them.

Do you think Cora ever wants to cheat on the Earl?
I’ve certainly never seen any evidence of that in the script and I wouldn’t say so. But if I were Cora, I’d have to say at a certain point I’d have to look at my life and say, "I gave up my past, my country, my fortune for this man."

You’ve said that when you moved to England, you had to make certain adjustments. What kinds of things were you referring to?
Well, when I moved to England I was making a lot of personal adjustments because I was getting married and starting a family, that sort of thing. As far as cultural adjustments, I think people’s cultural references often went over my head and as time went by it was easier for me to pick up on that stuff. But the big difference is that in America you can sort of count on people saying what they’re thinking. Whereas in England, somehow the instinct is to apply what you’re thinking but not actually say it.

Do you have to wear corsets even under some of the later dresses that are looser?
I think that the consensus is, unfortunately, that Cora would hold fast to her corsets even as the clothes loosen up. The girls are probably more quick to abandon theirs.

Photo: Patrick McMullan