A Conversation With… Elizabeth McGovern

A Conversation With… Elizabeth McGovern

Elizabeth McGovern is best known for portraying Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey. But that role is just one of many that make up her incredible career. Ahead of her return to the London stage as Ava Gardner in a play she’s written herself, we sat down with Elizabeth to chat all things acting and why she owes Robert Redford a debt of gratitude.

Elizabeth, tell us what you’re up to right now? 
Right now, I’m sitting in the kitchen in my favourite chair. It’s a big armchair and Ashley, the dog, takes the soft part in the centre. She and I have worked it out that I get a little corner on the edge! This is pretty much what I’ve been doing since March 2020! But I’m so excited about my new play Ava. We started rehearsals late last year and it’s now finally ready for everyone to see…  
So, tell us a bit more about the play – you’ve written it and star in it, right? 
Yes, about seven years ago I found a book at home and thought it would be an interesting story to adapt for the stage, and it came with a great part for me to play, which was a bonus. Since then, we’ve workshopped it a couple of times and dreamt about this production night and day. It’s so exciting to feel everything coming together the way it was meant to be. Anatol Yusef is the actor in the role opposite me, and Gaby Dellal has been the perfect director. She really seized the project with both hands. 

For me, acting was such a natural fit – there was nothing else I ever wanted to do. It just seemed like home to me.

You’re playing Ava Gardner – what is it you find about her or other Hollywood stars of her generation so interesting? 
In my opinion, Ava Gardner was a very appealing person. I spoke to a lot of people and read lots of books as part of my preparation for the play, and it was near impossible to find anyone who wasn’t charmed by her, even though she could be quite aggravating at times. I was also interested in exploring the impact fame has had on someone in the long term and take a nostalgic look at the studio system from today’s perspective. It was fascinating to explore a woman of her generation and to try to understand the psychological legacy we’ve inherited from people like her. But most of all, she’s an entertaining character. She’s actually very funny…
In the play, Ava recounts some of her most famous interactions over the years. Can you tell us about a few co-stars or directors who have made a real impression on you and why?  
I have had the most ridiculously blessed career. One of the people I feel the most gratitude for is the man who gave me my first job: Robert Redford, who directed Ordinary People. Only now can I fully appreciate his skill, care and expertise. But I’ve learned something from everyone along the way. Like Ava, I’ve poured some of my experience into this play, remembering my own personal learning curve and how it all transpired to lead me to this point, where I feel so in control of the production we’re putting on.

One of the people I feel the most gratitude for is the man who gave me my first job: Robert Redford.

And what about any projects which have really stood out to you over the years?  
Well, Downton Abbey has been what I call a marriage. There are ups and downs and many boring stretches, but you create a shared history and it’s gratifying and deep. The Downton Abbey sequel comes out in March. I’m so excited and I think people will love this one. It’s very sad but very funny also. Other jobs are love affairs: short and intense. Some are better than others. Some are disastrous – but I couldn’t possibly name names… 
You’ve had such an illustrious career both on stage and in film – what is it you love about the stage?
I love the stage because it (hopefully) coaxes people away from what’s become a rather isolated screen – it’s wonderful to be able to be part of that. I really believe that the mental damage of isolation has come close to overtaking the danger of Covid itself. It’s time to get out into world again (wearing masks and being careful, of course) and Ava offers an invitation to escape. I can’t speak for anyone else but, personally, all the screens and tiny boxes on Zoom are really getting to me… 

And what is it about the London stage and Riverside Studios which felt like the right place to put Ava on?  
Riverside Studios couldn’t be a more perfect place for us. For a start, it’s a beautiful building overlooking the water, surrounded by restaurants and pubs. It has been a theatre, a cinema and a production studio over the years. We’re planning to borrow from the language of cinema to tell our story on stage. Theatre and film feed one another, they cross-fertilise all the time, and this building has been a hothouse of development for both. My husband’s [director Simon Curtis] first job was assisting Helen Mirren when she was in The Cherry Orchard in the early 80s. Where? Riverside Studios. Also, check out Sam’s Riverside, the restaurant – Sam himself can often be found there… 
When and where did your love of acting start – was there anyone who really supported your dreams?  
For me, acting was such a natural fit – there was nothing else I ever wanted to do. It just seemed like home to me. My parents knew nothing about show business, but they were unjudgmental and really let me pursue my dream. They gave me the benefit of the doubt, I suppose. They came to every school play and always had something nice to say afterwards. Trust me when I say that can’t have always been easy! 
Was there ever a moment that felt like your ‘big break’?  
I remember curling up on my mother’s lap (even though I was 18 and very tall) and telling her I’d got the part in Ordinary People. She knew nothing about the film business, but she liked Robert Redford. I remember my granny had a book of pictures of him on the shelf in her house and one Christmas we gave her a t-shirt with a giant picture of his face on it! She wore it everywhere. I’ve already said how much I owe to Robert Redford, but it really did put me on the map and send my career in a new direction.

Over the course of your career, how has the acting world changed?
It's definitely an exciting time right now, especially in terms of opportunities for women. The conversations that the #MeToo movement has engendered have created a profound awakening. Lots of women my age have been left wondering why they felt they had to accept so much without questioning any of it. In this business, women can often feel quite isolated – and that probably had a lot to do with the silence in days gone by. The opportunities were so few, and woman were forced to compete on a scale you thankfully see less and less these days. The positive thing is, we’ve demonstrated now that if women infiltrate the power structure in a real way, this can change.
Also, female empowerment is not something that only effects the acting world. It’s prevalent in all industries and societies. If you need help or guidance, go to The Girl’s Network. It’s an organisation I work with that engages with young girls from all backgrounds to support them achieve their dreams. Their work gives the girls they mentor confidence and the tools they need to take on the patriarchal status quo. 
The play also focuses on the interaction between public and private life – how do you find balance?
It’s a hard question and not an issue I focus too much on – we all know fame is such a fickle thing. Ultimately, I think living in Chiswick helps. Everyone here is so nosey about their neighbours – regardless of whether they’re a celebrity or not!  
AVA: The Secret Conversations runs from 14th January-16th April 2022 at Riverside Studios, 101 Queen Caroline Street, Hammersmith, W6 9BN. Visit AvaGardnerPlay.com.

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