Elizabeth McGovern was "giddy" to return to her character, Cora Crawley, for "Downton Abbey: A New Era." In the age of COVID, she was glad to get out of the house.
"As an actor, you get to rip off your mask for the time during the day when you're actually doing scenes. For everybody else, it's a giant pain in the neck, particularly the studio that has to pay for all the testing," said McGovern, whose movie opens in theaters Friday. "I feel so grateful that they went ahead and did it anyway because, for me, it's nothing but fun. Obviously, you have to wear a mask but I was doing that anyway."
McGovern was happy when the PBS series ended after six seasons but said she feels like Cora the minute she slips back into her costumes, which became more comfy when the time frame advanced from the corseted 1910s to the freer 1920s. She plays an American heiress whose now-loving husband (Hugh Bonneville) married her for her money, which he needed to keep the titular estate running.
"The kick is being with the people in the cast again. I just really, genuinely enjoy that. We all felt so lucky. We'd been trapped in our houses, for the most part, like everybody, and here was this invitation to step outside," said McGovern, who rose to fame in Robert Redford's 1980 film of Edina writer Judith Guest's "Ordinary People" and earned an Oscar nomination for "Ragtime."
Even better, it was an invitation to the south of France, where the Crawleys spend part of the movie investigating a family secret. A big reader in her spare time, McGovern took advantage of the opportunity to research glamorous life on the French Riviera in the 1920s.
"It's a way to find interesting things to read that you might not ordinarily read," said McGovern. "This was the crowd that started the idea of the south of France as a destination in the summer. It had never occurred to anybody, which is mind-boggling. We were where [F. Scott] Fitzgerald used to stay, so it was fun to have those ghosts haunting us."
Although Cora's cloistered life would drive McGovern "stark, raving mad," she has learned to appreciate the character's outlook.
"There was a choice, very early on [in the series] that she is a woman who, because of the era she lived in, had to give up all autonomy, had to relinquish any control she might have of her family fortune, relinquish her name, relinquish even running her household because her daughter is next in line," said McGovern. "I would sometimes get frustrated with that because it seems so easy and glib. But that's what they wanted and I think that's what audiences like about her."
Events in "A New Era," which finds a more introspective Cora than fans are used to, helped the actor come to grips with those frustrations.
"She looks back at her life and makes a choice to decide that it's been a happy one, and I made a choice as an actress to be happy about that," McGovern said.
The actor likes the way Cora's happiness contrasts with the present day, when it's easy to get caught up in social media posts about events we're not invited to or what people in the stately manor down the street are accomplishing.
"This is a character who says, 'I'm happy with what I've had.' At the end of the day, I'm going to say I'm happy with that message and I'm inspired by her," McGovern said.
After six seasons on TV and two movies, McGovern has definitely spent enough time breathing rarefied air to know it's a losing game trying to keep up with the Joneses — er, Crawleys.