After six seasons playing Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, on Downton Abbey, Elizabeth McGovern is once again the matriarch of a wealthy British family of the early 1900s in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways. Revived for the first time since its 1938 debut, the play is a time-jumping story that is filled with optimism and hope as the family celebrates one daughter’s birthday in the present and unimaginable transformations as they face their bitter realities 19 years later. But after watching McGovern perform onstage, which just so happens to mark her first time back on Broadway since playing Ophelia in Hamlet 25 years prior, it’s clear that Mrs. Conway is anything but the seemingly perfect, presentable and understanding mother that the actress embodied on the ITV series.
“I’m finding it a little bit frightening how easy it is for me to understand this mother. I’m not sure I want to analyze why. I feel like I’ve had an understanding of her right from the start -- it was very easy,” McGovern tells ET of getting into the mindset of Mrs. Conway, whose misguided preoccupation with lofty dreams -- success, wealth, status, good looks -- for her children creates unrealistic and unfulfilled expectations, leaving her frustrated with her family and herself. “It’s a bitterness and anger of her own making,” she says, while adding: “I feel purged every night because she’s so angry. It’s nice to vent onstage in that way. I’m calmer than I usually am during the days. I don’t know what that’s about, but I’m enjoying it.”
A mother of two, McGovern is able to channel her energy into Mrs. Conway night after night, now that both daughters are out of the home. “It’s given me wings to my shoes,” she says of using a move to New York City from England with her husband, director Simon Curtis, as a coping method for an empty nest.
But perhaps most satisfying for McGovern -- someone’s who worked onscreen for over 30 years -- is a notable shift away from the girlfriend and ingénue roles to ones like Mrs. Conway. “It’s also nice to be able to play grownup, interesting parts,” she muses. “If you hang in the business long enough, then you earn the right to play a part that has a bit more meat and drive and muscle to it. I’m looking forward to doing more of it. It’s really a lot of fun for me.”
Adding to the fun is an ensemble cast, which includes Steven Boyer, Matthew James Thomas and Anna Camp. “They’re not boringly obsessed with themselves or their careers,” McGovern says of her co-stars. “I think the audience will pick up on that onstage. It's another thing that permeates the atmosphere.”
McGovern also hopes that audiences attending the production will find it to be a coping mechanism in tumultuous times in America. “It lifts you out of the human experience, which you see as being both as one consisting of happiness, light and joy and also very, very black and dark,” she explains. “J.B. gives you a way of seeing a bigger picture and coping with both realities. For me, it makes me feel hopeful and gives me a philosophical calm, which I think is nice today. We need something to get us through these dark times.”
While Time and the Conways’ limited engagement will end Nov. 26, McGovern will be seen back onscreen in The Wife opposite Glenn Close and Liam Neeson’s new thriller, The Commuter. She has also reunited with Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes on the upcoming film, The Chaperone. But she, like the rest of her former co-stars, has no idea what the plan is for a rumored movie adaptation of the series. “I’m glad I’m not the one trying to organize all the actors because that’s going to be a challenging thing to do,” McGovern says of everyone’s busy fall schedules. “If there’s a hunger for it, yes, of course, I’d be up for it. But we’ll see.”
Time and the Conways is now playing through Nov. 26 at the American Airlines Theatre in New York City.