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Laura Carmichael and Elizabeth McGovern on Their ‘Utterly Powerless’ Downton Abbey Characters

Photo: Vulture and Karwai Tang/WireImage

When you take away all of the ballgowns, the valets, and, yes, even the abbey, Downton Abbey’s Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and her daughter, Edith (Laura Carmichael), have had to endure a whole lot of gendered bullshit since the Crawleys came into our lives in 2010. Edith, famously, was plagued with just about every misfortune interwar Britain could throw at her as a young woman “coming into” society, while Cora was mostly relegated to mom purgatory in favor of the family’s feistier (and more quotable) women. The new Downton movie, in theaters today, managed to shift the dynamics a little bit: Edith is now happily married — and pregnant! — to a nice chap with an ever nicer title, while Cora continues to exude her signature quiet confidence to boost up the success of her daughters.

Still, when Vulture spoke with McGovern and Carmichael earlier this week in a Manhattan hotel suite, the women were candid about how far their characters have (and haven’t) come with their differing levels of powers, and how that’s affected their outlook on the roles. And, in a lighter topic, we also discussed Maggie Smith’s favorite GIF, which is not what you’d expect.

Laura, were you pleased that absolutely nothing bad happened to Edith in the movie?
Laura Carmichael: A very strong “yes.” [Laughs.] That was my fear of going back into the world of Downton. Don’t spoil her happy ending! I’m so happy she was in a good place. There’s still a struggle she’s going through, with her husband potentially leaving for a year. But it’s not at the level of Edith’s problems in the past.

I worried you might get Matthew’ed during your driving scene.
Elizabeth McGovern: Oh dear God, imagine?

LC: Thankfully, she’s very happy.

EM: Remember that season where you had to learn how to drive a tractor?

LC: I still can’t drive. I had lessons and I can drive, so that’s me legitimately driving that car. But I don’t have a license or anything.

EM: You had the right to be nervous then!

And there’s no sisterly drama between Edith and Mary, either. How times have changed.
LC: They’re still a little bit rusty, and they tease each other. They know how much they push each other, but they’re very content with their lives. They’re living apart, which definitely helps.

EM: It takes the pressure off the rivalry.

It’s just so perfect that Edith outranks everyone in the family now. Marchioness is such a great title.
LC: I’m always a bit nervous saying that word in front of Julian Fellowes, because he’ll be like, That’s not how you pronounce it! I love, of course, that she outranks them. But what’s nice is that doesn’t affect them in any way. In the practical sense, they’re quite modern, but they do have new rules and responsibilities that go along with living in a gigantic castle. A Marchioness is high up there in the ranking.

EM: She’s above Earl, but below Duchess. There’s not a lot of Marchionesses anymore, the Duchesses are a dime a dozen.

Something I always found interesting with your characters throughout Downton is that, despite both of them being within a family of high rank, they persistently had little to no power compared to everyone else — Edith was always treated with contempt until her marriage, while Cora didn’t really have much to do except be dutiful mother and wife, since the Dowager Countess was the family’s matriarch. Did that start to affect your psyches after awhile? 
EM: The most singular thing that always strikes me is that neither of them really take the lead. Cora literally has no power whatsoever. She has no power even over their own money. It’s quite straining that and it goes across generations — when Cora’s children grow up and when Mary marries, Mary then completely takes over the running of her mother’s house. Cora very graciously steps aside. It’s a really interesting challenge for me, because it feels like I have absolutely no control or power, or really a role, in any way. Which is kind of a challenge to play. But it’s very real. The Dowager herself technically stepped aside when Cora came into the marriage, but she lives on the property in a separate home and is always present. I imagine today that if my two girls grew up and I was expected to step aside while they ran my own house, that would be a really serious adjustment for me. But it’s also interesting how Edith has a whole storyline now that she’s achieved this power, but still feels utterly powerless in her life. There’s nothing she has any control over.

LC: You see in the film how Edith misses London. There’s a scene where Bertie tells her, You must spend more time in London. 

EM: He was picking up on her frustration.

LC: It’s a great moment of understanding. Edith has definitely had an interesting change. Julian managed to show these changes for women in a way that made sense for their characters. Edith started off as the most traditional girl in the beginning, and just wanted to be married and have things come her way, and things never came her way. That forced her frustration into a bit of action, and that made sense for her. I always felt that Cora’s separateness came because she’s an American as well. She’s not playing the same game as Violet and Robert are playing.

EM: I don’t know. Even if she were playing the game, it’s not much that she can do. I always feel such a relief to step out of the period when we’re done filming because it’s like, God, I have a voice and have some control! Even though I’m just playing a part, I find that this feeling of being straight-jacketed is really palpable. In no way, even in my most sentimental moment, do I actually want to live in that period.

Do you think your characters feel the same way as you about their power?
EM: I don’t think Cora particularly feels that way, because she would have no other expectations for herself, ever. That’s just how I feel. She deals with it very gracefully, and maybe she’s a bit relieved that it’s not really her responsibility. In her subtle way, she does insert herself. For instance, in the film, she talks on Edith’s behalf to the Queen and rearranges Bertie to stay home and be with his pregnant wife. She knows how to work the system when she needs to. She doesn’t stamp her feet. She does take a firm line when it’s important.

LC: The fun thing about playing someone in the aristocracy is everyone has an innate sense of confidence and power walking into a room. I enjoy that because it’s definitely not my personality.

EM: The confidence of being born into it.

LC: You can complain about anything, but there’s a sense of knowing you’re important. When Edith writes a letter to the Times, it’s immediately published because she’s the Earl’s daughter. I always quite enjoyed that, even with the frustration of Edith being held back a bit by her gender and misfortune.

To celebrate the Dowager Countess not dying in the film, can you tell me your favorite Maggie Smith story?
LC: She always makes us laugh. We howl.

EM: What she says backstage is arguably funnier than what she says on camera. She’s always uncomfortable in her wigs and costumes. I remember one time she had a high neckline on a dress, and she kept yanking at it, and she goes, Now I know why the French invented the guillotine. 

LC: There’s this one cat GIF that really makes her laugh. Whenever she got tired she would tell us, Show me that cat again. After a while I started collecting GIFs in a folder of my phone called “Funny Photos for Mags.” She doesn’t have an iPhone.

What’s the GIF she loves so much?
LC: [Long pause.] It’s kind of rude. It’s a cat with its mouth totally agape with the caption, Lesbians eat WHAT? She thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen.

Two Downton Abbey Faves on Their ‘Powerless’ Characters