Shirley MacLaine: On ‘Downton Abbey,’ Maggie Smith, and what she doesn’t know about acting
Television • The Oscar-winning actor says she’s more user-friendly than her new iPhone.
Published: January 8, 2013 09:02AM
Updated: January 7, 2013 12:41PM
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This undated publicity photo provided by PBS shows Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson from the TV series, "Downton Abbey." The third season premiere airs in the U.S. on Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013 on PBS. (AP Photo/PBS, Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE, Nick Briggs)

As if the impending nuptials of Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, not to mention all the social and economic upheaval of the early 1920s, were not enough to set servants scurrying and sherry glasses crashing in the decorous halls of “Downton Abbey,” that period drama is getting one more shock to its system when its third season begins Sunday, Jan. 6 on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”

This year Shirley MacLaine joins its cast as Martha Levinson, the mother of Cora, countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), who arrives from America bringing a tart tongue and liberal attitudes unfamiliar to her daughter’s aristocratic household.

As surely as Martha’s unusual sense of propriety affronts some longtime Downton residents — particularly the prim dowager countess, Violet (Maggie Smith) — MacLaine, an Oscar winner for “Terms of Endearment” and a star of films such as “The Apartment,” “Steel Magnolias” and “Bernie,” has lived her life with a similar spirit of irreverence and nonchalance.

As this exuberant 78-year-old actress demonstrated in a recent telephone conversation from her home in Los Angeles, there is nothing that she places off-limits, from her views on sexuality to her ideas about mysticism and reincarnation — at least, once she got her iPhone working. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Hi, Ms. MacLaine?

One second. I’m just trying to learn my new iPhone. (Laughs) I’m trying my best to be technological, in a rather colorful, poetic world I am used to living in.

They’re very user-friendly.

No, they’re not. But I am.

This feels like a perfect segue to talk about life in the early 20th century.

Oh my God, wasn’t that something? Going into that world, with those people who really seem to be living it. I didn’t know “Downton Abbey.” I learned about it at my hairdresser. Really. I look at PBS for news.

What about the show hooked you in?

I realized that Julian (Fellowes, the “Downton Abbey” creator and producer) had either purposely or inadvertently stumbled on a formula for quality television in the Internet age. Which means there are, what, 15 or so lives and subplots, with which not too much time is spent so you don’t get bored, but enough time is spent so you are vitally interested.

Is that why you agreed to meet with Julian Fellowes?

I think I wanted to meet Bates (played by Brendan Coyle), basically. And of course Julian, being so wily, arranged a lunch at which nobody else was there but Bates. I guess he was seeing if he was cougar-able. Or something.

When you’re going up against Maggie Smith — there’s one scene where you serenade her a bit — how do you prepare?

I thought the best course of action in going toe-to-toe with Maggie would be a sense of American expressive feeling. What does she do with that? I told her I was going to sing it, and first she said to me, (genteel Maggie Smith voice) “You know, dear, when you do that, I’m going to fall off the chair.” I said, OK. And then she said, “No, I think not. I think I’ll fall asleep.” I said, OK, that’s good, too. And then she said, “No, I think I will cry.” I said, I don’t know what you’d do that for, but whatever. What she did instead was flirt back. (Laughs) I was so surprised.

The day we shot in the church, when we’re all done up in our white fur, we sat there all day. And Maggie and I don’t like to get up and walk around a lot anymore. So we sat and we reminisced about life and lovers and the business and directors. That was really interesting and so much fun.

When you’re comparing lists of lovers, did you find any names in common?

Oh! No. She never really used names. When we were doing a press conference here, someone asked me if I had known Maggie before. And I said, “Oh, yes, we were lovers in another life.” (Laughs) I don’t know where that came from.

Do you genuinely believe that?

How the hell do you know? Listen, since I don’t know where it came from, maybe it’s true. I have no idea.

You seem to have better antennas for these transcendental experiences.

Yeah, comedic metaphysics. That’s the way I think of it right now.

But in the course of working on a show like this, where you get to inhabit another time period, the setting, the costumes ...

No, I didn’t have any familiarity at all. I didn’t feel that at all. I was more interested in the buttons and whether they were popping open, and rain in my face. That I have come to call reality. But how do I know I’m right? When you look at it, my goodness, I can’t prove that we’re all alive right now. It could be an illusion as far as I’m concerned. That’s the stuff that interests me: What is reality?

Do you feel like you’re more comfortable with yourself than others are with themselves?

Well, I’m not your run-of-the-mill lady from the Valley, am I? Come on, I’ve got lots of reasons to be viewed eccentrically.

You’re OK being described that way?

As long as they don’t do it with a hidden meaning. Right now I would call General Petraeus the most eccentric man I know. Who the hell would admit that and then resign?

You think he should have confessed his affair but not resigned his position?

I think he should have done neither. And gone ahead and done what everybody else was doing and enjoying his life.

People aren’t comfortable with sexual lives that deviate from the norm.

I don’t know what the norm is. The latest evaluations on human sexuality say that we are one-third monogamous, one-third serially monogamous and one-third polygamous. I would say there should be some kind of form to fill out before you promise monogamy.

Do I dare ask which category you put yourself in?

Serially monogamous, that’s what I was.

Meaning, while you’re with someone, you’re faithful to that person?

Yeah, till it wears off. (Laughs)

Where do you find the time to act and still write a new book every few years?

I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older to not strive anymore. That doesn’t mean giving up. It means surrendering to a more wise truth. I don’t plan anything. I just sit down, and it all just happens. I don’t know if it’s any good but that’s the way I act too.

I’m going into this picture (“Elsa & Fred”) with Christopher Plummer. I have no idea what I’m going to do, I really don’t. Christopher and I have worked together before, so we’re friends. But I don’t like leading out the actors and the director by being so prepared that I’d be thrown by their reality. Because I don’t know anything about acting. Never have.

You must come with some ideas.

Yeah, it’s called the script.

When you get offered all these roles where you’re playing family matriarchs or grandmothers ...

How about the great-grandmother?

Does it change the way you think about yourself?

Of course. The one thing I truly have a hard time believing is that I’m 78. I shan’t say that I like everybody helping me down the stairs and out of my trailer. But it’s nice to have 50 percent of them do it.

Would you do live theater again?

I do miss the stage. There’s nothing like it, nothing. When I did my one-woman show and played the Palace and played the Gershwin and all that, I did — what? — eight shows or maybe more a week. Of course you can’t do anything else, and you can’t run quickly for a cab in the rain, and you can’t have a drunken love affair. You can’t do any of that. Because you’ve got to be perfectly healthy. And I guess I value enjoying my life a little bit more than the discipline these days.

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Returning to ‘Downtown Abbey’

“Downton Abbey” returns to “Masterpiece” tonight at 8 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7.