Ted Sod: Will you tell us where you were born and if you had any teachers who had a profound influence on you?
Elizabeth McGovern: I was born outside Chicago in Evanston, but I was raised in Los Angeles. My mother is a teacher -- she was never my teacher -- but I would say that she had a profound influence on me. I had a writing teacher in my junior or senior year of high school, whose name is Christine Adams, who had a very big impact on me. She taught a method of thinking clearly about things, and I’ve always remembered it. I really responded to it.
TS: Was becoming an actress something that you always knew you wanted to do?
EM: Well, I probably did deep down, but I didn’t like to admit it. I thought that coming from an academic family, it was a silly profession to pursue, but in a subconscious way, I really wanted to act. I always did plays in high school; that was definitely the most vivid memory of my high school experience. It brought life into Kodachrome for me. I attended a school in North Hollywood, and it wasn’t until I was aimlessly applying for colleges that an agent came to see one of the plays we did and asked me if I wanted to go on some auditions for summer work and I did. That led to a job, which got me started in my career before I even got the chance to think about it too deeply. I let the decision be made for me in a way. It was a very odd way to get into this profession. I do believe in it as a profession now. I think that there is some good that you can give to the world, and that keeps me going.
TS: Is this the first time you’ll be performing at the Roundabout?
EM: No, it’s not. The last thing I did in New York was Hamlet at the Roundabout. I played Ophelia, and I think that production was twenty-five years ago.
TS: Why did you choose to do the role of Mrs. Conway? What do you think the play is about?
EM: For me, the play is about -- and this may sound pretentious -- the shades of light and dark that make up a family. It is encapsulated by the title, because what you see is this microcosm of family life at two different times in its existence. One time is very happy, and the other is quite the opposite. You experience the dynamics that have gone into creating both those realities. Both of those realities are very true for the family; one is very dark and depressing, in which none of their dreams have come to fruition and they’re all bitter and angry, and the other is a reality in which they are at the cusp of their lives and they’re full of love, gaiety, and joy. J.B. Priestley, the playwright, has woven a tapestry which for me adds up to a complete life experience -- it includes both light and dark, and you can look at it from two different angles. You see the way that this family and their actions affect and bounce off one another and create both unhappiness and happiness.
TS: Would you give us some insight into your process as an actress? What are the challenges of playing Mrs. Conway and what are the challenges of doing a period piece like this?
EM: That is an interesting question. I have spent a lot of time in this period. I’ve been embodying it for quite some time and living the reality of it. In fact, weirdly, I’m currently doing an independent film which is also set in this period, so I’m destined to always be in a corset and early 20th century dresses. It is almost part of my unconscious now; all of the things that at the beginning of Downton Abbey might have been research for me are now really deeply in my bones. I’m not an expert in a historical sense, but I have lived in it in my imagination. I feel research makes my job more fun and fills in the space between the lines in terms of my own imagination. Research allows me to bring things to life inside my brain, but I don’t know if it is absolutely necessary -- it’s just a lot of fun. I think my process as an actress is to really study what is in the writing and getting all my clues from what that writer teaches me about the character and her relationship to the other characters. I like to let the writing guide my work and then be open to what the director is suggesting in terms of characterization. Also, for me, it is very exciting to respond to other actors and what they are bringing to their roles -- that will influence me, too.
TS: I’m curious about how you view Mrs. Conway even though rehearsals haven’t yet begun.
EM: At the moment, I am really fascinated by Mrs. Conway because even though she is a mother who obviously adores her children, as a person, she is so unevolved; she is not self-aware. I would describe her as a crap mother; I can’t think of a better way of putting it. She has a lot of love and passion, but so little emotional intelligence. You can see her wreak destruction on her kids without meaning to, and you see the damaging effect that it has on them as they develop and grow. I am very eager to explore that. She is probably one of these people who would have been well-advised not to become a mother at all, but, of course, that probably wasn’t something that was an option for her. She did what was expected of her and had a pack of children. I don’t mean to imply for one second that she doesn’t love them or that she’s not devoted to them, but she is not really grown up herself is my assessment. I haven’t started rehearsing or exploring this with the director or the other actors yet; but right now, I think she is still a child herself.
TS: I keep wondering why Mrs. Conway seems to favor her son Robin over her eldest son, Alan?
EM: My instinct – again, this is without exploring it in rehearsal -- is that she has a romantic fixation on Robin; she has substituted Robin in her mind as her husband; it is as irrational as that. Alan is, in her estimation, an uncolorful, unexciting guy. She just doesn’t get him; she doesn’t take the time to see what is there, to appreciate what the audience will about Alan. He is the one who has the wisest things to say. For me, he is the moral voice of the play, but Mrs. Conway cannot see that because she is caught up in Robin’s charm. I don’t think all mothers are maternal; they sometimes put their children in positions that aren’t appropriate for them psychologically.
TS: Priestley’s writing seems very modern to me in that way.
EM: Yes, it is modern in the sense that we now look at character from a psychoanalytic point of view, whereas the playwrights who wrote before Freud didn’t necessarily write about the subconscious.
TS: How do you see what happens in act two?
EM: I’ve never seen it in performance; but on reading it, I think it is very significant that Priestley ends with that quote that Mrs. Conway’s daughter Kay asks her brother Alan to tell her – knowing it will cheer her up. The quote basically says, “There is lightness and there is dark. There is both. That is the fabric of life.” My feeling is that Priestley is showing us that the Conway family we see in the first act is exactly the same family that we see in the second act, but it is their darker side. It is when everything has gone awry. That isn’t to say that in another decade they’ll have found their way again and things will be better. I don’t think that Priestley is saying that we’re all headed for hell and that life is going to be all bitterness and woe. The reason I say this is because Alan does comfort Kay with those words.
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist?
EM: I love these questions! I have invested a lot in my marriage and children, and that feeds me. It has given me the energy to stay really excited about the work that I do. I think if I lived for nothing but work, it would soon lose its allure. I’ve had years and years of being away from acting, and that makes me really hungry for it when I come back. I stay inspired by seeing other people’s work; that has always been really important to me. And it’s something that I share with my husband because he is someone who loves seeing things. Also, I love the process of acting. I find it hilarious and fun and, yes, sometimes I despair, but it’s always oxygen for me.
TS: A lot of public school children will be very well prepared for seeing this play, and they’ll be studying theatre as part of our outreach program in the education department. If a young person were to ask you for advice about being an actor -- what would you say to them?
EM: I would say to find the joy in every aspect of it. Find the joy when you do find work and also when you don’t have work, as strange as that sounds. Find the positive in not working; invest in life, invest in the opportunity to develop other parts of your brain, your body, and your soul -- look at not working as an opportunity. If you are committed to doing that, you and your work will grow and grow and grow. That is not to say that there aren’t going to be frustrating times and times you feel you have fallen short or the business has disappointed you, but learn to forgive and forget. Find the joy.
Time and the Conways runs through November 26 at the American Airlines Theatre. For tickets and information, please visit our website here.
2017-2018 Season, A Conversation with, Time and the Conways