'Downton Abbey': How Maggie Smith's Slugfest With Imelda Staunton Pays Service to the Dowager (Exclusive)

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Series newcomer Imelda Staunton as well as creator Julian Fellowes open up to ET about working with the screen legend.

The return of Downton Abbey, creator Julian Fellowes’ beloved period drama turned film now in theaters, also means the return of Maggie Smith, who reprises her role as the fan-favorite, Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. The legendary actress, who has won three Emmys for her performance, once again steals every scene she’s in while also getting an emotional final moment that grounds the film with some poignancy. 

In the film, which picks up just over a year after the events of the series finale, Violet finds herself back at the Yorkshire country estate as Downton prepares for a royal visit from King George V and Queen Mary. Of course, she wastes no time to squabble with Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) while also fretting over the state of the Crawley family fortune once she finds out that a distant cousin, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), is also going to be staying with them. 

Fellowes, Imelda Staunton and others open up to ET about working with Smith on the movie and paying service to her character in what’s currently the “final chapter” of the franchise. 

First off, “Maggie demands great moments in that you write for her with the knowledge that every time you give her a one-liner or whatever, she will hit the bullseye with it,” Fellowes says. “You can’t just have her in a scene.”

To his credit, actor Jim Carter (Mr. Carson) says that Fellowes “captures her sense of humor and she delivers it in spades every single time.”

“You always have to feature her in some way,” adds director Michael Engler, who says that even when she’s not the focus of the scene, it’s hard not to pay attention to her. “She always gives you so much that even in the scene where she's just, you know, watching or listening, I always find myself wanting to cut to her because she's done it in such an active and detailed way.”

That said, Fellowes knew that he had to give Smith material worthy of her time, which meant introducing a new sparring partner in the form of Lady Bagshaw, whose presence unsettles the Dowager. “We deliberately created a story that would allow her to slug it out with another major actress,” he says, adding: “We were conscious of wanting to get one of the greatest heavyweights in British acting to be an equally balanced person with Maggie on the screen so it wasn’t going to be a walkover.”

In comes Staunton, the wife of Carter who has previously worked with Smith on stage and screen, most recently in two installments of the Harry Potter film franchise. “Imelda was our first choice and we were very glad to get her,” Fellowes says. “We knew from the start that we’d have fun seeing these two queens of the theater knock the daylights out of each other.”

For Staunton, the film was a welcome chance to step into the arena with the likes of Smith and Wilton, whom she compares to tennis greats Roger Federer and Raphael Nadal. “You’re working with the best and that’s what you want always,” she says.  

“As an actress, you want good lines and you want good stuff to do and I don’t mind serving stuff to her,” Staunton continues. “Also, no one can do it like her. Even if I had Maggie’s lines, I couldn’t deliver them like she does.” 

When it came to filming those moments between the two characters, Engler says “it was a real masterclass of acting.” 

“It’s always fun because she never settles into a performance. She’s always shifting. She’s always changing,” he says of Smith, adding that the two women were “always looking at every angle they shot as an opportunity.”

But Bagshaw is not in the movie merely to be Violet’s punching bag. In fact, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear why she distanced herself from the Crawleys and how her return has long-lasting effects on the family dynamic. (See Tom Branson’s romance with Bagshaw’s maid, Lucy, for more details.) “She’s a match for her,” Staunton says of her character, adding that “it’s been a hard struggle in her life.”

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If the series were to continue with more films, it would make sense if Bagshaw is around while the Dowager is not. Before the final act of the movie, it’s revealed that Violet has cancer and doesn’t have long to live. In an emotional moment with Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), the family matriarch passes the torch to her, the next generation, in hopes of seeing Downton continue to thrive and modernize with the times.   

That scene “leaves us hanging at the end,” Carter says, adding that we’re all left to wonder what will happen next. “The door open for her to have a remarkable recovery or a spectacular funeral.” 

When he wrote the scene, Fellowes didn’t think of it as just a goodbye to Violet. “I thought we were saying goodbye to Downton,” he says of seemingly bringing her story to a close. As ET previously reported, when the creator wrote the film, he thought it was the end. But given its success at the box office and fandom surrounding it, “we all have to put our thinking caps on again,” he admits.