In the new film The Chaperone, Elizabeth McGovern once again teams with Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes to follow a woman on the cusp of liberation in the 1920s.
But this is not, as one might assume, a case of Fellowes writing for a muse and creating a role for McGovern, who majorly re-entered the public eye with Downton Abbey. It’s quite the other way around.
McGovern was a vibrant star in the 1980s, with turns in films like Ragtime and Ordinary People. But before Downton, she was better known to British audiences, having relocated to London in the early 1990s. Playing Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham, propelled her back into public life and into the adoration of Downton Abbey’s fervent fans.
McGovern will reprise the role in the Downton Abbey movie this fall, but she assesses her role as “a presence in the film” rather than an active character, calling Cora “the mother in the background.” Right now it’s The Chaperone, a project of her own devising, that has her feeling energized.
Despite Downton’s effect on her career, McGovern says she’s felt obligated to create her own opportunities to snag truly interesting roles like The Chaperone’s Norma, a middle-aged woman who, while serving as a chaperone to a young Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) one summer in 1922 New York, awakens to her own happiness and personal satisfaction.
McGovern spearheaded the project herself, having been hired to record the audiobook of the Laura Moriarty novel on which the film is based. She was struck by the notion that it would make a good film and brought it to Fellowes to develop for the screen.
“This story plays out on the background of an America that was changing for all women everywhere,” McGovern says of what drew her to it. “Women were finding their voices during the 1920s and freeing themselves from a lot of the morals of the past. It’s happening to our two characters at the time time it’s happening to American culture.”
The film follows Norma’s journey from dissatisfied wife and mother to a more liberated, sexually satisfied woman, while also telling a parallel story about Brooks, the silent-film star whose became an iconoclastic symbol of the Jazz Age. McGovern read up on Brooks while developing the project and was struck by how much the young woman was on the forefront of changing movements. “To read about her is to read about the beginning of all sorts of art forms,” she says. “The beginnings of modern dance, the beginning of making movies.”
McGovern also fell for the “buddy story” structure of the narrative, which finds prim and proper Norma and strong-willed Louise rubbing off on each other as they attempt to find some semblance of what they truly want out of life. “You’ve got an older character who learns to own her sexuality by watching this younger character,” McGovern says. “But I love that in the story Norma is able to give something back to Louise at the very end, where she gives some of her own life experience back.”
More than anything, it was Norma’s personal journey that appealed to McGovern. “It’s focusing on her journey, her discovery, and I haven’t had the opportunity to do that a lot of the time,” she says. “Early in my career, I only had the opportunity to be a reflection of the guy’s story. That’s what most women do for most of their careers in film and television, so this was an opportunity I created for myself.”
McGovern describes Norma as feeling “constrained” by societal expectations, trying to conform to a vision of upper-middle-class domesticity. “The story of the film is the story of her readjusting her value system, and it falls apart because it’s not really based on anything real for her,” she says. “It’s an artificial construct that she’s been using to disguise the fact that her life is really empty of a fulfilling romantic love relationship. In the course of the story, she really does find herself, and that’s when she’s takes ownership of her happiness and her sexual life.”
There was something even more subtle about Norma’s journey that McGovern appreciated: the ordinariness of it. The Chaperone presents Norma and her desire for happiness within the bounds of normalcy, in contrast to Brooks’ hunger for fame and an extraordinary life. “It’s under the radar,” McGovern says of Norma’s journey to a more progressive way of living. “She doesn’t really hold any banners or change any of society’s rules. She just figures out how to do it for yourself.” (That includes ditching the binds of her corset.)
McGovern stresses that despite being a screen actress, she feels she leads a quite ordinary life, and that’s something that drew her to Norma. “Society comes up with a set of constraints or rules, and then people find ways for themselves of working within that. That’s what ordinary people do,” she says. “Extraordinary people rise up against the constraints of their society, and if they’re really extraordinary, manage to change them. Norma is a a very ordinary person, but she’s a quiet revolutionary because without really disrupting the status quo, she finds a way to take ownership of her own happiness.”
With discovering, developing, producing, and starring in The Chaperone, that’s something McGovern is also finding a way to do herself.
The Chaperone opens March 29 in New York and will expand April 12.
- Everything we know about the Downton Abbey movie
- See exclusive first-look photos from Downton Abbey movie
- Downton Abbey teaser posters bring back the elegant stars
The Chaperone (2019 movie)