Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Dame Maggie? She’s got nothing to fear from me

She’s Downton Abbey’s legendary new star, but how does Shirley MacLaine feel about squaring up to Maggie Smith? Barbra Paskin finds out

Written by Barbra Paskin

Veteran American actress Shirley MacLaine is amused at reports of Dynasty style catfights between herself and acting great Maggie Smith now that she’s joined Downton Abbey. ‘Maggie’s got nothing to fear from me, and I’m just thrilled at the prospectof working with her,’ declares the 77-year-old Oscar winner. ‘I love her to death. She and Meryl (Streep) are my very favourite actresses.’

In an exclusive interview at her Malibu home on the eve of her departure for London, MacLaine is bursting with her customary energy that is only slightly tempered by a lingering cold.

DOWNTON ABBEY EP7 02With her faithful terrier, Terry,flopped beside her on the sofa, she confesses to a ripple of anticipation at the thought of playing Martha Levinson, the wealthy mother of Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), in the third series of the hit ITV show.

Most actresses would admit that being cast opposite the redoubtable Maggie Smith – who is just six months younger than her US counterpart – would be enough to test even the strongest of nerves.

But MacLaine, who won her Oscar in 1984 for Terms Of Endearment and who has been nominated for another five Academy Awards (against Maggie’s two Oscars and four nominations, but who’s counting?), is nonchalant about her new role.

‘When my agent called and said, “do you want to go head to head with Maggie Smith in the British series?” I just chuckled,’ she says. ‘It’s not going to be a problem, I’m certain Maggie and I will get along wonderfully. Intimidating? Certainly not!’

One salivates at the thought of these two venerable actresses pitting their wits against each other, especially as the script calls for MacLaine to cross swords with Maggie Smith’s combative and cynical Dowager Countess. It’s certain to be a riveting clash of British-American style.

But I still don’t know exactly what happens,’ says MacLaine, reaching for her script and flipping through it.

‘I’ve got this script but it doesn’t tell me what has happened between the end of the second series and beginning of the third. ‘All I know is that when I show up, it’s a year later and the place is no longer a convalescent home for wounded soldiers.’

One thing seems certain: the fate of Downton Abbey may rest on her American shoulders.

But her character will invoke the imperious Dowager’s scorn for advocating that the British should adapt to changing times.

Of course I, as my character, go over and say, “why don’t you become a little bit more American and more comfortable with change and let it go”.’

Heavens – let Downton Abbey go? ‘We have all these wisecracks about what my character says about the family,’ reveals MacLaine, without expanding, ‘and about why I’m there. And it’s all done in a manner that’s very witty and biting… although in some ways it’s honestly cruel.’

Honestly cruel’. Is that a clue? What could that mean?

But at that MacLaine simply smiles enigmatically and reaches for another hankie to smother her sniffles.

I’ve been watching the series on TV and I love it. But I’m still not quite sure why it is such a big hit. Here as well as in the UK.

I knew I loved it but I didn’t know all these other people were looking at it. I found it very encouraging about the intelligence of the audience, to tell you the truth. Yet I’m asking myself what is it about this show that is proving so irresistible?’

One answer, she conjectures, is that people on both sides of the Atlantic want to be transported away from a time of plunging economies, home foreclosures and financial failures. ‘When times are bad, people like to lose themselves in the sheer glamour of another period: beautiful wardrobes, magnificent meals served in elegant settings.

It’s brilliantly done, great writing and fabulous costumes and all that – and certainly the ambience of that time and age is appealing.’

Fast forward a week or so from our interview and Shirley has now begun filming on Downton Abbey and she’s tweeting dispatches every few days.

Everything is going well,’ she writes after her second day on the set. ‘We shot outside in wind and rain. Love the cast and crew.’

Next day she tweets, ‘Amazing day on Downton Abbey. I love the British humour and temperament and functionality. Maggie is so subtle and so much fun!’

MacLaine has always had a propensity for lifting eyebrows. And as she has grown older, she has found herself playing up that side of her character even more. She doesn’t believe in being politically correct and says that her age allows her the freedom to speak her mind. Even though at times what she does say sounds outrageous. Utter frankness is what propelled her latest memoir, I’m Over All That, on to the bestseller list. She appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show telling the talk show host – and all of watching America – that she’d once slept with three men in the same day.

Pretty candid, I remarked. ‘Yes I was rather candid, wasn’t I!’ she beams mischievously, without a hint of shame.

After completing her fortnight’s filming on the new series of Downton Abbey, Shirley will put herself under the directorial wing of Ben Stiller, who has cast her in his remake of the Danny Kaye classic The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.

In a wonderful show of irony, she will play Mitty’s mother. What Ben Stiller didn’t know was that Shirley and Kaye had once shared an intense romantic relationship.

He couldn’t believe it when I told him, he’d had no idea, and I couldn’t get away after that,’ she laughs. ‘He wanted to know everything.’

MacLaine, who has written a dozen bestselling memoirs explaining her psychic beliefs, admits she wonders what Danny would make of her being cast as his mother in the film that he made so successful.

Had she tried to communicate with him, one can’t resist asking. ‘No,’ she admits. ‘Although I told Ben I would.’

But that’s another story.

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