One cannot bow over the phone, but that irrational impulse seizes you when Elizabeth McGovern comes on the line. The actress, 56, has just finished a long photo shoot for “Time and the Conways,” a Broadway revival at Roundabout Theatre Company. Something about that honeyed purr, that transatlantic accent and her demure yet self-possessed answers make you forget that McGovern only plays an aristocrat on TV. Over six “Downton Abbey” seasons, her beloved character, Cora Crawley, aka Lady Grantham, has endured a miscarriage, a grown daughter’s death, financial crisis and Lady Mary’s bedroom shenanigans. On the series finale, she told husband Robert, “I think the more adaptable we are, the more chance we have of getting through.” McGovern herself can relate to such a statement. A film career that seemed promising in the 1980s (“Ordinary People,” “Ragtime,” “Once Upon a Time in America”) sputtered. She was engaged to Sean Penn for a brief spell in her 20s, but that fell through. True love came with British film director and producer Simon Curtis, whom she married. She moved across the pond, from Los Angeles to Chiswick, West London, where she still lives. She spent the last 20-odd years raising daughters Grace and Matilda. In 2008, she formed, of all things, a folk-rock band, Sadie and the Hotheads. In 2010, her fortunes took a dramatic turn when Julian Fellowes came calling with the “Downton” pilot script.
Now, after an absence of 25 years, she’s back on Broadway. On the one hand, “Time and the Conways” will be catnip to “Downton” fans: a tragicomic family drama by J.B. Priestley set in 1919 and 1937, a period that overlaps with “Downton.” But the Conway clan is decidedly middle class, and the play a wistful meditation on change and fate. Its first and third acts are set in 1919, at a jolly family get-together. The middle act, however, shows the family fallen on hard times years later. Tenderly optimistic, but shadowed by melancholy, it’s perfect material for this remarkable star.
Your last Broadway credit is a 1992 “Hamlet” with the Roundabout. How did this homecoming happen?
For once, I can legitimately give credit to an agent—just when we thought they were completely useless! Mark Subias, my agent at UTA [United Talent Agency] saw the show when it was done in 2014 at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, and he put me together with director Rebecca Taichman to reincarnate the project at the Roundabout. I had a relationship with Todd [Haimes, head of the Roundabout], so it seemed like a serendipitous thing. “Hamlet” was the last play that I ever did in New York, so it feels full circle to me.
How are you approaching the character of Mrs. Conway?
I’m interested to explore someone who is a really crap mother, as opposed to all the perfect mother roles that’ve been written over and over. I think she was probably not meant to be a mother. She’s unable to apply any emotional intelligence to raising her children, and yet she’s not a bad person; she’s filled with love for her children. I think she probably would’ve been a lot better off had she pursued a career as an actress. I’m interested by the kind of impact that mothering can have.
As a performer and a mother, did you also have to navigate similar tensions?
Yes, of course. I freely admit it. I can understand only too well this mother’s need to be at the center of attention, and the way it affects her mothering skills. Her own sense of herself absorbs all the oxygen in the room.
Are you having “Downton Abbey” déjà vu, considering the time period?
That happens when I crawl into the 1920s dress. Aside from that, there really aren’t too many parallels. With “Time and the Conways,” you could set it in a different era, and it would still play. It’s not so much about the particular mood of that period, more about family dynamics and the passage of time. My approach to it is less colored by the time when it’s set, than “Downton” possibly was.
In the play, Priestley seems to say we can never predict the future, even if it’s fate.
This is very much my feeling about the play: It swings from dark to light, then back to light again, and it always does, even in life. It’s something to keep in mind when you’re feeling in despair. When you study history, the pendulum has swung back and forth always. I think about my daughters, who are now coming of age in a time of so much anxiety and insecurity; they look around and don’t see anybody in a position of leadership that they can respect. I feel it’s my job to be reassuring and constantly on guard, to keep hold of a feeling that we will swing back, we will bounce back, we will survive. There is light and dark to every life. It jumps backwards and forwards in time, and you see it. It feels like it’s never going to end, but time always proves, over and over, that it does. For the play, I hope that there will be a takeaway in some parts of the audience, that it’s not a play about the inevitability of doom.
Not many people know you front a folk-rock band, Sadie and the Hotheads. Any chance you’ll gig in NYC during the Roundabout run?
Ooh, I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ve got another CD that has taken quite a long time to do, because of the fact that we all go off and do other jobs. We have to do it in fits and starts. The hope is that at some point next year, we’ll release it on the back of a tour, a UK tour or something that we can put together.
You play guitar. Who are your personal guitar heroes?
I don’t really consider myself a guitar player. I write songs on the guitar and sort of strum along. My inspiration is the songwriters, you know, Joni Mitchell, or in today’s world, Lily Allen: idiosyncratic, lyric-based musicians.
While here, what New York outings do you have planned?
We were at the Gotham Comedy Club the other night, watching Judd Apatow be absolutely hilarious. This is the first era of having kids who are more or less launched. I’ve got my husband with me: It’s funny for us because we’re free now, for the first time, in so many years. I think we’ll make the most of it.