Elizabeth McGovern
Fabrice Dall'Anese/Corbis Outline

Downton Abbey actress Elizabeth McGovern is a born performer — both on set and onstage.

Like Lady Cora Grantham, the endearing matriarch she plays on the global sensation Downton Abbey, Oscar-nominated Elizabeth McGovern is an American expat, having moved to London in 1992. No one need worry about McGovern the actress, who has forged a formidable career in film, television, theater and music. But her Downton character, as season four of the highly addictive prime-time soap returns to PBS this month, struggles with the grief of losing both a daughter and a son-in-law, as she recently told American Way.

American Way: It’s been a tough spell for Downton Abbey’s Grantham family of late.
Elizabeth McGovern:
Yes. At the start of series four, we’re having to process the very tragic and sudden death of my son-in-law, Matthew, which came hot on the heels of [my] daughter’s sudden death in childbirth. Of course, you have to cast your mind back; in those days, these things did indeed happen much more.

AW: Cora is a profoundly strong woman. Is her character a pleasure to play?
It’s nice for me to hear her described that way. So much iconic feminine strength in the 21st century is so strident, embodied by people like Madonna — whereas Cora is more of an old-fashioned idea of feminine strength, which is about being incredibly flexible and adaptable. It’s not strident; it’s just a strength that is always there beneath the surface. She has no agenda about proselytizing or being a feminist. She just gets her way very quietly.

AW: Why do you think Downton Abbey has connected so profoundly with audiences around the world?
That’s the $64,000 question. If I could answer that, I’d only do projects that were as successful as Downton Abbey. And if any of us could answer that question, we’d only be making shows as successful as Downton Abbey. I’m as baffled as the next guy. I don’t know.

AW: You have your own band, Sadie and the Hotheads. What does music mean to you?
It’s something that’s come to me late in life, so, for that reason, I’m so caught up in the passion of it. Recently, we’ve had the opportunity to do some really fantastic gigs — opening for Sting at [the] Montreux [Jazz Festival], playing the Isle of Wight [Festival] twice, touring the U.K. We’re building an actual following now; things are beginning to go very well. It’s given me a new energy about performing. It’s very exciting for me.