Shirley MacLaine: 'I’m still not sure why Downton Abbey is such a hit’ Fresh from the set of the third series, Shirley MacLaine explains why the Granthams’ future rests on her shoulders.
By Barbra Paskin 13 Mar 2012 in The Telegraph
Veteran American actress Shirley MacLaine is amused at reports of Dynasty-style catfights between herself and acting legend Maggie Smith now that she’s joined the cast of Downton Abbey.
“Maggie’s got nothing to fear from me, and I’m just thrilled at the prospect of working with her,” declares the 77-year-old Oscar winner. “I love her to death. She and Meryl (Streep) are my very favourite actresses.”
In an exclusive interview at her Malibu home on the eve of her departure for London, MacLaine is bursting with her customary energy, only slightly tempered by a lingering cold.
With her faithful terrier, Terry, flopped beside her on a couch, she confesses to a quiver of anticipation at the thought of playing Martha Levinson, the wealthy mother of Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) in the third series of the hit ITV show.
Most actresses would admit that being cast opposite the redoubtable Maggie Smith – who is just six months younger than her American counterpart – would be enough to test even the strongest of nerves.
But Shirley, who won the Oscar in 1984 for Terms Of Endearment and has been nominated for another five Academy Awards (against Maggie’s two Oscars and four nominations, but who’s counting), says she is nonchalant about her new role.
“When my agent called and asked: 'Do you want to go head to head with Maggie Smith in the British series?’ I just chuckled,” she laughs throatily. “It’s not going to be a problem, I’m certain Maggie and I will get along just wonderfully. Intimidating? Certainly not!”
One salivates at the thought of these two venerable actresses pitting their wits against each other – especially as the script calls for MacLaine to cross swords with Maggie Smith’s combative and cynical Dowager Countess. It’s certain to be a riveting clash of caustic British versus American style.
“But I still don’t know exactly what happens,” says MacLaine, tantalisingly reaching for her Downton script and flipping through it.
“I’ve got this script but it doesn’t tell me what has happened between the end of the second series and beginning of the third one.
“All I know is when I show up, it’s a year later and it’s no longer a convalescent home for wounded soldiers.”
One thing seems certain: the fate of Downton Abbey may rest on her American shoulders. But her character will invoke the imperious Dowager’s scorn for advocating that the British should adapt to changing times.
“Of course I, as my character, go over and say: 'Why don’t you become a little bit more American and more comfortable with change and let it go?’ ”
Good grief – let Downton Abbey go?
“We have all these wisecracks about what my character says about the family,” reveals MacLaine, without expanding on this, “and about why I’m there. And it’s all done in a manner that’s very witty and biting… although in some ways it’s honestly cruel.”
MacLaine smiles enigmatically, reaching for another handkerchief to smother her sniffles.
“I’ve been watching the series on TV and I love it. But I’m still not quite sure why it is such a big hit. Here as well as in the UK. I knew I loved it but I didn’t know all these other people were looking at it. I found it very encouraging about the intelligence of the audience, to tell you the truth. Yet I’m asking myself what is it about this show that is proving so irresistible?”
One answer, she conjectures, is that people on both sides of the Atlantic want to be transported away from a time of plunging economies, home foreclosures and financial failures.
“When times are bad, people like to lose themselves in the sheer glamour of another period: beautiful wardrobes, magnificent meals served in elegant settings. It’s brilliantly done, great writing and fabulous costumes and all that – and certainly the ambience of that time and age is appealing.”
Fast-forward a week or two from our interview and Shirley has begun filming on Downton Abbey and is tweeting dispatches from the set.
“Everything is going well,” she writes after her second day. “We shot outside in wind and rain. Love the cast and crew.” And the following day: “Amazing day on Downton Abbey. I love the British humour and temperament and functionality. Maggie is so subtle and so much fun!”
Shirley MacLaine has always had a propensity for causing raised eyebrows – and, as she has become older, she has found herself playing up that side of her character. She doesn’t believe in being politically correct and says her age allows her the freedom to speak her mind. Even if at times it sounds outrageous.
Utter frankness is what propelled her latest memoir, I’m Over All That, on to the best-seller list. She appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show, telling the talk show host – and all of watching America – that she’d once slept with three men in the same day.
Pretty candid, I remark.
“Yes I was rather candid, wasn’t I?” she beams mischievously, without a hint of shame.
After completing her fortnight’s filming on Downton Abbey, Shirley will put herself under the directorial wing of Ben Stiller, who has cast her in his remake of the classic film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which starred Danny Kaye.
In a wonderful show of irony, she will play Walter Mitty’s mother. What Ben Stiller didn’t know was that Shirley and Danny Kaye once shared an intense romantic relationship.
“He couldn’t believe it when I told him. He’d had no idea, and I couldn’t get away after that,” she laughs. “He wanted to know everything.”
MacLaine, who has written a dozen best-selling memoirs explaining her psychic beliefs, admits that she wonders what Danny would make of her being cast as his mother in the film he immortalised.
Has she tried to communicate with him, I can’t resist asking.
“No,” she admits. “Although I told Ben I would!”
But that’s another story.