Oscar-nominated actress and star of Downton Abbey Elizabeth McGovern, 57, recently visited Australia to promote The Chaperone (out now), based on the book of the same name by Laura Moriarty. Watch the trailer below.
The film is only peripherally concerned with the transformation of Kansas teenager Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) into a Hollywood sensation. Instead, the focus is on the woman who accompanied the silent film star-in-the-making to New York, McGovern’s Norma – and it’s a tale that has a lot to say about the role of women of a certain age in 1920s America and the opportunities available to them. We chat to McGovern about the film, which she also produced.
Actress Louise Brooks’ life was an interesting one, but what interested you about the story of your character, chaperone Norma?
The impact Louise Brooks had on a very ordinary woman in this period is what’s really interesting. This girl was emblematic of sexual liberation and really impacted the culture of her time – and if you’d done the biopic where she rises to fame then self-destructs, it’s been done many times before. This is a different take on the phenomenon and the America it reflects.
There was a real Norma, wasn’t there?
There was, and her name was Alice Mills, I think, and she really became Laura Moriarty’s fictional character – she makes up all this other stuff about her. For some reason, she volunteered to go with the 15-year-old Louise to New York. We don’t know what happened to her or why she was there, and that intrigued Laura Moriarty.
You’ve visited the 1920s before. How did you find Norma’s outfits – they’re nothing like what Downton’s Cora would wear!
No! I was really impressed with Candice Donnelly, the costume designer. I said, “I need this character to be a bit gauche and the farm girl still by way of contrast to the ultra-sophisticated 15-year-old who’s wrong-footing her every step of the way.” Candice really achieved that – the costumes are beautiful and elegant, but always reflect the character of Norma.
Did you wear Norma’s uncomfortable corset?
Oh yeah, I did. In every scene.
Downton creator Julian Fellowes wrote the script. How was your dynamic different on the film?
In Downton, he writes, I act, no discussion. I was part of the process of developing this screenplay so at times I had feedback – that took a lot of courage to adjust our relationship so it was a slightly different one. But he was very open and clever about taking notes.
What was the highlight of making the upcoming Downton movie?
I really enjoyed the reunion with the other actors.