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Old 09-16-2012, 07:02 PM
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Default Shirley MacLaine in Downton Abbey, interview

Also from www.Telegraph.co.uk

Shirley MacLaine stars in Downton Abbey, and she is trying to get the English to share their emotions, she tells Benji Wilson

By Benji Wilson 7:00AM BST 14 Sep 2012

Shirley MacLaine is coming to Downton Abbey. She plays Martha Levinson, widowed American heiress and mother of Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. And, while it would be pleasing to imagine that she signed up because she adores the series, or the costumes, or the British theatrical tradition, the reality is a little more personal.

“I had a crush on Bates [the Earl of Grantham’s brooding valet]. And Julian Fellowes being as canny a person as one can be, he arranged a lunch for a bunch of us at which Brendan [Coyle, who plays Bates] was there. I don’t know if Julian thought maybe Cora’s mother would take up with a younger man – I don’t know what he thought. But I would not have said no.”

That is MacLaine all over – bawdy, brash, husky, incorrigible. At times she flirts. At times she chides (“Well that’s a little clee-shayed, Benji,” comes out like the sort of admonishment she might offer her beloved dog). At other times she veers off in to New Age gobbledegook about past lives and lost civilisations. Yet she is never, ever boring. Some say Downton needed a breath of fresh air. What it has got is a pair of bellows.

At 78 MacLaine remains as prolific as when she was churning out classics such as Some Came Running (1958) with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin or timeless Billy Wilder comedies such as The Apartment (1960) with Jack Lemmon.

Her best actress Oscar for Terms of Endearment in 1983, after many nominations, seemed to crown a career that had taken in dance, musicals, high comedy and great drama, both real and fictional. Yet she has never stopped. I talk to her in Los Angeles but she has just come from New York, filming with Ben Stiller, and is on her way home to Santa Fe.

“I live in too many cities. I just finished a movie and I had to pack everything up in New York and put it in a suitcase and send it to Santa Fe, where I live. Now I’m in LA, and I need some of the things I sent to Santa Fe…”

In Downton, MacLaine’s heiress is from the days when American women who had money were looking for titles, and British titled men were looking for American money. This is the same pact that Martha’s daughter has made with Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). Wearing head-dresses and lavish jewellery, in a performance that is always only a nudge and a wink away from parody, Martha arrives as a resplendent New World counterpoint to Maggie Smith’s stuffy Dowager Countess.

“Martha’s basic role in these episodes is to plead with the Dowager Countess to wrest herself, if possible, away from tradition,” says MacLaine. “Because that’s what caused the war in the first place. And [for the Countess] to become more flexible in relating to change.”

Yet the Dowager Countess is not a lady renowned for her flexibility. As a result, MacLaine’s arrival has already been heralded as the matchup of the matriarchs. She plays down the possibility of fireworks.

“Martha is extremely outspoken but the Gunfight at the O K Corral does not happen between Maggie and me. We had our moments but it’s more sophisticated than that.”

The real life meetings on set between Smith and MacLaine sound every bit as intriguing as their scripted encounters.

“I’ve known Maggie for 40 years. She told me about the night we met at an awards ceremony. I was either a presenter or a host, and I was also up for something. Whatever I was up for, I lost. We were standing at the catering table back stage and there was a huge chocolate cake on the table. She said I tucked right in, saying, ‘Oh ---- it, now I can get fat.’ She remembered that!”

Most of their time working together was spent in a church, filming the wedding of the Earl’s oldest daughter, Lady Mary, to the dashing Matthew Crawley.

“She and I were sitting in a pew. Neither one of us likes to get up and sit down over and over because we’re old ladies. So we sat there together for about six hours just reminiscing about life and health and politics and showbusiness. It was so fabulous to be with such a great person for six hours straight.”

The story from the Downton set is that when Martha first arrived, and Shirley MacLaine first stepped out of her limo on the gravel, the director had to tell Laura Carmichael, Michelle Dockery and Jessica Brown Findlay to stop gawping and concentrate. MacLaine loves a good anecdote like nothing else so I pass this one on.

“I don’t know why anybody would be in awe of me. I am aware of who I am, but I was wondering why they were all so closed-mouthed. They were all so polite! I wanted them to say what they were feeling inside – but what a silly thing to expect – they’re English!”

She is fond of the Downton cast, praising in particular their self-effacement. “Remember, I come from such an excessively overdone, red-carpet place called Hollywood. So I’m used to people blowing up their success in ways that are far above and beyond the truth.

"What got me the most was the day I realised, when we were shooting outside the castle and it was wet and it was cold, that these extraordinary actors they just did their work; they didn’t relate to being famous all over the world.”

In any case, if they did want a bit of old Hollywood glamour they only had to ask. MacLaine has written 13 books of memoirs: she is an anecdote tombola.

“Every now and then they [the cast] would ask me about the Rat Pack or about Billy Wilder or about one of my prime-minister lovers. [In the Seventies MacLaine had an affair with the then Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme; she was also lovers with former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau.] We were sitting around that damned dinner table for two weeks. There was a whole lot of ‘I’ve got your attention’ time. They did well for stories.”

She becomes most animated when we talk about the time she spent at Highclere Castle, where Downton was filmed, earlier this year.

Ever since her extraordinary 1970 memoir Don’t Fall off the Mountain, she has been renowned for views that vary from the esoteric to the downright batty: she claims in that book, for example, that she slept with Charlemagne when she was a Moorish peasant girl in a past life. Kooky or cuckoo, it all meant that Highclere, where a replica of King Tutankhamen’s tomb is a permanent exhibit, was “right up my alley”.

“We were shooting in a house that everybody said was haunted. They said pictures fell of the wall if any arguments ensued with the cast and of course King Tut’s tomb was in the basement. I’m glad it wasn’t the real thing or they wouldn’t have gotten me upstairs to work! I’d have been down there having a past-life experience with Tut. So I enjoyed that castle very much. Now that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience: to shoot in such a hallowed place.”

So why make it just once in a lifetime: surely, with all of the hullabaloo that has accompanied her entrance, she must come back for Downton’s fourth series next year?

“Really it depends on my doggy – she’s 13 and I don’t want to be away from her for more than two weeks. But of course I would go back.”

I tell her that I am sure the producers of Downton Abbey would be more than happy to fly her dog over for as long as required.

“Are we talking about a private plane here? I would love to do it. But my personal life means a great deal to me, probably more now than ever. Because I don’t have to work. I just love the people there… Let’s not put the cart before the horse as they say. Let’s make it a surprise.”
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