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Rosanna Rothery discovers a hotheaded side to Downton actor Elizabeth McGovern

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: January 31, 2013

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WHAT should I wear to interview the Countess of Grantham? I'm thinking vintage Edwardian, perhaps a beaded silk panel dress? Or maybe an exquisitely embroidered bodice?

Admittedly, we're not going to be engaging in polite conversation over a lavish dinner laid out with damask tablecloths and silver candlesticks, but, as those of us who are fans of Downton Abbey know … appearances must be maintained at all times.

Now I think I can confidently assume that Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora, in the popular ITV costume drama, probably didn't require a maid to dress her curls today. Yet even so there is something rather ladylike about her.

There's that charming low voice, that gentle politeness and a noticeable humility, a strength underpinned by graciousness. Even Elizabeth admits to identifying with certain aspects of her on-screen persona: an American who has to graciously navigate her way through English society.

"I know from my own experience from having been an American who moved here and had to adjust to the way things are done here and raised two children, who are actually a different culture to my own, that it is not always that easy," she says. "There are ways in which Americans and English constantly misinterpret each other because they have a different cultural frame of reference. I think I do admire the way she copes with being an American in a society that isn't her own."

As Downton fans know, a fair few viewers needed to be consoled after the untimely and tragic death of the character Matthew Crawley during the Christmas Special. Elizabeth, who had an Oscar nomination at the age of 20 and a starring role opposite Robert De Niro at 23, is now getting used to such strong outpourings of emotion about the TV show.

"It's not something I'm used to. I'm loving it but I'm always shocked by it," she says. "I'm shocked that people feel the story as profoundly as they do. But I'm obviously so pleased."

Elizabeth is heading to Barnstaple next week in altogether different guise. She will be on stage at The Factory, wielding her guitar, as Sadie from her band Sadie And The Hotheads.

So is Sadie her alter ego?

"She started out that way for sure," she admits. "Over the years, though, she's just become the respect for that thing that everybody has inside them, that thing which makes them themselves and makes them unique."

Sadie, apparently, is that set of experiences that belong only to you, your life and your background. They inform the way you see things and the way you express things.

"To never run away from that – that's your Sadie, that's that thing inside of you," she says.

Her songs tend to be whimsical, sometimes wistful, reflections on the mundane and midlife, all delivered with a raised eyebrow and a mischievous smile.

"I am inspired by what I see when I stand in my house and look around me," she says. "I try to invest the day-to-day humdrum of life with everything that I see in it. For me there is a lot of magic, beauty, sorrow and joy but it's not because there is a particularly tragic story being played out."

She hopes people recognise their own self in the music.

"I am not someone who would typically start a music career. I'm 50 years old. I've got kids. I've got another career. I think I am just doing it in the hope that other people walk away and think, 'If I want to do something why don't I just do it, because what have I got to lose?'. That's the spirit of it."

A fairly humble ambition for any performer.

"It's not someone who is standing on the stage saying, 'I want you to listen to me because I am so brilliant at singing and I'm a brilliant musician that you are going to be in awe of'. Because I am neither of those things. It's more that this is my life experience and this is the way I see it. It's kind of like having a conversation with an audience: Do you see it this way? Do you think this is funny? Does this lift your spirit? And I hope that it does. And if it doesn't that's okay too, I can accept that."

Elizabeth had been strumming away on west London's open mike circuit for many a year before forming the Hotheads with her former guitar teacher and releasing two albums. There was no instantaneous success. No overnight sensation. Just hard graft. The unexpected factor came in the shape of media interest due to Downton.

"This phase of performing songs and trying to sell a CD has come as a complete surprise. I never imagined in a million years we would get this far with it. That's an unexpected thing that I couldn't see coming."

Elizabeth may be Sadie, the hothead who follows her dream and is true to herself but her songs all come drenched in an appealing, laid-back charm. Even away from the world of the stiff upper lip and stately homes, this elegant American will never be out of place in polite society.

Sadie And The Hotheads are at The Factory, Barnstaple on Thursday, February 7, 7.30pm. Tickets: £15 (adult), £12.50 (student) from Petroc's Brannams campus reception, Beats Workin' Barnstaple, North Devon Theatres (01271 324242), www.undergroundtickets. net/event/336

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