Elizabeth McGovern: from Downton to a life on the road

Elizabeth McGovern.

Elizabeth McGovern: from Downton to a life on the road

It has been a long and winding road, but Elizabeth McGovern has finally made it. After an Oscar nomination at the age of 20, a starring role opposite Robert De Niro at 23, and a little-known television drama called Downton Abbey, the American actress has landed the big one: a live appearance in Barnstaple. That’s Barnstaple, Devon. At a venue called The Factory. On the Roundswell Industrial Estate. Oh, the glamour.

There’s Worcester, too; and Wimborne Minster; and Milton Keynes; searing destinations for McGovern’s band, Sadie and the Hotheads. This is what happens when, in the midst of a long and successful acting career, you discover that you were, all along, a singer-songwriter, with a desperate need to play obscure venues in provincial backwaters, and in deep midwinter, too.

“It was around 2001 or 2003 when my kids were quite small and I was at home a lot and started writing songs and singing,” she remembers. “It just took over my brain.”

McGovern, who plays Cora, Countess Grantham in Julian Fellowes’s aristo-soap, doesn’t have to subject herself to hours in a minivan. At 51, her career is enjoying a fruitful renaissance after two decades of domesticity, during which acting took second place to the raising of her two daughters, Matilda and Gracie. Yet, despite Downton’s success on both sides of the Atlantic, the music thing nags at her.

“I was playing the guitar as a private hobby and I thought I’d get some lessons to improve my technique,” she says. “And I saw an advert in a local newspaper, 'Guitar lessons by Steve’ – that’s Steve Nelson – and instead of having lessons we just started bashing song ideas around, because he is a songwriter himself. I became addicted.”

So there she is, in the alter ego of Sadie, looking as un-Cora-like as it is possible to be, fronting the Hotheads, a bunch of mellow, greying musicians, ironically named. There is a wistful quality to the songs, reflections on mid-life and the mundane, delivered in a voice charming in its imperfection.

“My first idea, when Steve suggested we record, was to get somebody else to sing, but that was a complete non-starter, because nobody wanted to sing my songs. They are so personal.

“There is sadness and happiness and the passage of time, elements of the palate that makes up my life. They are written from the perspective of someone not in the throes of great agony or despair, just somebody getting on with stuff.

“They aren’t dripping with sentiment. The love they address is the kind you have for the person you raise kids with – 'We started out on a romantic beach, and now I’m doing your laundry’.”

The man for whom McGovern does the laundry is the film and TV director Simon Curtis, her husband of 20 years. On meeting him, she felt naturally at home with the Englishman and the relationship blossomed. The discovery that she was pregnant changed her life. Bidding farewell to New York and Hollywood, she headed to Britain with Curtis and a new, rather less glamorous, existence in Chiswick. The former girlfriend of Sean Penn, nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Ragtime, who co-starred with Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America, found herself changing nappies in leafy west London.

“Having children didn’t erase ambition, but it put things into a different perspective,” she says. “It gave me something far more powerful than my feelings for myself and my career.”

There was occasional frustration, though. “It’s very tough for people who have had a good education and a job to suddenly be doing nothing but picking up toys and not having any sophisticated conversation. I think that women have created a new set of problems for themselves. Once, they had kids and that was enough; that was what you were expected to do and it was a full-time job. Now, I look around me and I see all these incredibly stressed-out women. If they are only raising kids and taking care of the house, they are somehow considered to be loafers, feeding off society.”

Does she feel British now? “I feel like an American living in Britain. When I go home, people comment on my phoney English accent, which may be a surprise to you, because I probably sound as American as Donald Duck.”

In Downton, she plays another American transplanted to the old country. Cora is a typical “Buccaneer”, the name given to American heiresses, daughters of self-made men, packed off to England in search of aristocratic matches. Love was secondary to the securing of a grand title. In return, the Buccaneers offered chin-promoting genes and vast amounts of cash from steel and oil, promising salvation for many an endangered estate. McGovern fought for the part. Downton, she says, allows viewers to take a warm bath in the alleged certainties of the past.

“People have a need for ritual in their lives that they are lacking now,” she says. “Downton Abbey is so full of the domestic ritual that was so intractable in that era. In America, they think it’s some sort of intellectual, deep historical thing, in a way that the Brits don’t, quite.”

How long will she remain in the role?

“I haven’t the foggiest. I know we’re doing next season.”

Simon is supportive of her musical venture, which has so far resulted in two CDs, after initial concerns about the sounds emanating from his wife’s practice sessions. “It was painful for him at the beginning, a bit excruciating having to see me go through those stages of just not being very good. It’s very hard for me to accept my voice the way it is. I want it to be Barbra Streisand or Mariah Carey and it’s not. But I’ve worked hard. I’ve taken myself from hopeless to OK.”

McGovern is proud of her compositions, which often reflect a recognition that, in life, happiness is rarely unaccompanied by pain.

“One of my favourites is a lullaby. I start out saying, 'Whatever they said when they put you to bed, they were wrong, that’s my song.’ It’s basically saying to the baby, 'I’m giving you a load of rubbish because I’m telling you that life is fair and everybody has a chance.’ All the things you tell a child are rubbish. But you need to tell them that because you need to tell yourself.”

She glories in the miseries of life on the road, the humiliations of being an unknown band, plying its trade in godforsaken places. “Our favourite festival story is when the band drove for three hours – I cannot remember where – and it was the coldest, most miserable day. One of those English summer days. We walked on stage and it was like a wind tunnel, this sound ricocheting around. I thought, 'I can’t hear anything and my fingers aren’t moving because they are frozen.’ We were trying to sing to this field of mud, and there was not one person out there. On the horizon, there was a silhouette, and as it got closer I saw that it was a man dressed as a pirate. I thought I was hallucinating.”

She admits that her rediscovered fame has helped secure gigs for the band. They now actually earn money from their appearances. “It’s everything. We were playing to an empty field and now there is a certain momentum. It’s going to take a long time, though. There’s a lot of resistance to someone who’s been an actress and is now sashaying around.”

Life, she says, has never been planned. She prefers it that way. “At one point I was in Hollywood and then I was in a club in Bridgnorth strumming a guitar. It is as far from my teenage idea of what I would be as an adult as I can imagine.”

She’ll keep going, though. Next stop, Barnstaple.

“There’s no reason on earth why a 51-year-old mother of two who’s been an actress all her life should make a band work,” she admits. “But that’s maybe a reason to try.”

The 'Downton Abbey’ Christmas special is on ITV1 at 8.45pm on Christmas Day

Neil Tweedie Telegraph.co.uk