IT IS as Lady Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, nouveau riche American incomer and thorn in Maggie Smith’s side, that Elizabeth McGovern is best known and best loved.
A whopping 12.1 million people watched the Christmas Day Downton Abbey last year, a humdinger of an episode in which Matthew Crawley – much-loved heir to the estate and brand-new baby daddy to boot – made a dramatic exit under his own open-top sports car.
But she has been an internationally acclaimed actress since her teenage years, when her breakthrough role was opposite Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton in Robert Redford’s 1980 directorial debut Ordinary People. The Academy obviously rated their efforts, awarding it four Oscars, including Best Picture.
She went on to star opposite James Cagney in Ragtime (for which she was nominated Best Supporting Actress) and played Robert de Niro’s paramour in Once Upon a Time in America. She was also engaged to Sean Penn before the actor got swept away in the human tornado that is Madonna.
When we talk, McGovern is busy filming the fourth series of the Julian Fellowes aristo-drama, and there has been much speculation that this could be the penultimate one. “That’s not my call,” she says. “There’s an expectation that there will be another one but I’m not sure. There is going to be a lot of excitement, but nothing that I can tell you, sorry.”
But, rather than discuss the goings on in the Crawley household, she would much rather talk about her music and her band, Sadie and the Hotheads, which is coming to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer, and with which she writes songs, sings and plays guitar. Michelle Dockery, who plays her Downton daughter, Lady Mary, occasionally joins her at the mic.
Performing on stage as herself, exposing herself through her own lyrics rather than playing a character with a script and a back story, is an “unnerving” experience, she says. But it’s also an empowering one. “I think that’s why I created this character Sadie. That is the character I am when I’m playing. But that makes it really exciting too.
“I’ve written the songs and I’m singing what’s inside my head and I’ve come to the age where I really like doing that and like not feeling it’s my responsibility to fit somebody else’s image, which is what you do, particularly as a woman actress.
“Quite often you’re twisting yourself into a man’s fantasy of you, because in the movie business – and in most businesses – most of the decision-makers are men.
“So there’s a frisson there because it’s coming from inside my heart and soul. Yes, it makes me feel much more vulnerable, but it’s exciting as well.”
And so, for now, she is combining the two areas of her life – as she describes it, “the acting brain and the singing brain”. “Even though it’s exhausting, I like feeling that the two are in parallel. I guess time will tell, but I don’t know if the music her will ever be able to support itself financially. I just take each day as it comes in that respect and hope I can pay my musicians enough to make it worth their while. Anything beyond that would be a bit miraculous.”
There’s a real sense of McGovern being a woman comfortable in her own skin. Having spent a entire career trying to please people – audiences, directors, critics – now, at the age of 51, she has found something that pleases herself. And, to her great joy, it seems to please audiences too. “It’s a wonderful, empowering, almost spiritual thing,” she says. “I don’t want to sound pretentious about it, but it’s a community with a similar philosophy and outlook.
“I’ve played music with this group for ten years,” she says, “and it’s something I wasn’t really expecting in my life. It was just a reaction to meeting these very talented people in London [one of the band members is Rowan Oliver, of Goldfrapp, on drums] and having this spark that got us all writing songs and playing together.”
At first, she says, they weren’t particularly ambitious, just playing the odd pub gig here and there. The feeling was that any kind of commercial success was simply too unlikely. But they plodded away anyway, simply because they enjoyed it so much. “I think anyone who has ever performed music will understand when I say that it is a definite addiction. There is nothing quite like it,” she says.
“So it has been something I’ve been nurturing over the past decade, but it’s only really since we did this second album and that Downton Abbey has been a kind of PR platform that we’ve gone up a notch in the level of gigs we’re able to get and the kind of interest we’re able to spark.”
However, the freedom to create without any kind of commercial pressures, purely for the passion of it, has resulted in a style of music that defies categorisation and therefore confuses those tasked with marketing it. Some people have called it rock, others folk/country. One publication suggested grunge. “What has always interested me is finding the music that illuminates the lyrics,” she says.
“So if a song wants to have a jazzy feel to it because of the nature of the lyrics, I have musicians who are capable of doing that, as I have musicians who are capable of also creating a sound that has a real American country feeling or an Irish folk feeling. So we indulge that and we go all sorts of different ways with the songs.
“That makes it more difficult for people to market, but I like all kinds of music. I also appreciate that when you go see our show you’re not feeling as though you’re listening to the same song over and over again. Sometimes we’re really loud, then sometimes we take it way down and are really quiet, so people’s ears are kept awake.
“Some contemporary music doesn’t seem to have the confidence to just pull it back and maybe just focus on one spare instrument.
“I’m always insisting with the band that just because there’s a guy sitting there with the piano, there doesn’t have to be piano over everything. But, likewise, there’s piano when there needs to be.”
The result is Marmite music. “You either love it or you hate it,” she says. “It’s a bit different. We haven’t really catered to anybody else’s agenda with it, but it’s something I feel I can hold my head up high about because it is what it is.
“I want my audiences, if they have made an effort to come, to have a good time. And I really, genuinely feel they do – they walk out with a smile on their faces, and that is important to me, obviously. But if somebody doesn’t wanna come, I’m fine with that too.”
Her doggedness when, let’s face it, she could have been forgiven for simply focusing on a successful acting career, has been, she feels, an important lesson for her two teenage daughters, Matilda and Gracie (their father is British film director and producer Simon Curtis, whose most famous work is My Week with Marilyn, for which Michelle Williams won a Golden Globe). “They’ve watched me persevere in spite of the fact that, particularly at the beginning, there wasn’t a lot of encouragement.
“And yet there was something in me and in the band that stuck with it, and now we’re getting a lot more back from it. I think that has been nice for them to observe because so much of the time there’s this feeling that if something isn’t immediately available and if there’s not immediate gratification, kids don’t stick with things. But this was a very slow, ongoing project that has taken a lot of time and a lot of work.”
Her eldest daughter appeared in a comedy show at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, which her parents attended, and McGovern had such a great time she can’t wait to return. “I absolutely love Edinburgh,” she says. “I had the time of my life last year. I thought it was absolute heaven – that’s why I’m so excited to be going back.”
She’s excited, too, just to be part of a community of like-minded troubadours. “Music is this world that has been a real discovery for me because there’s so much of it going on that is outside the realm of the commercial.
“There are lots of people I wouldn’t have been so aware of until I got involved in that world, who are touring and having fantastic live experiences with their faithful audiences, who they stay in touch with through Facebook and Twitter.
“They are outside the record companies and the old way of promoting music, and it’s really an amazing thing because it’s more organic in a way. It is thriving underneath the radar.”
Sadie and the Hotheads are playing at Edinburgh’s New Town Theatre, 17-25 August, 11:45pm www.newtownedfringe.com