Elizabeth McGovern

Elizabeth McGovern

Justin Bettman
March 29, 2023
In The Mix

Elizabeth McGovern's Role Play

A chance encounter with Ava Gardner's memoir led Elizabeth McGovern to write and star in a play about the Golden Age femme fatale.

The actress Elizabeth McGovern is now a writer. The Downton Abbey star has a play, Ava: The Secret Conversations, opening at Los Angeles's Geffen Playhouse on April 4. Her name is on the script, so by definition, she's a playwright. Yet she still calls writing a big experiment.

"I don't feel like this exercise has turned me into a writer," she says, speaking in London, where the play was first staged last year. "I think if I kept going and wrote a couple of other things I would say that, but I just had a real instinct for this story."

The Secret Conversations is a theatrical glimpse into the private life of one of Hollywood's great femmes fatales. In the play, Ava Gardner (played by McGovern) works with a ghost writer on what is to be her tell-all autobiography, which will discuss her high-profile marriages (Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra) and her relationship with Howard Hughes.

Some years ago, McGovern chanced upon the actual book the play is based on, Gardner and Peter Evans's work of the same name, which was published after Gardner's death.

"It occurred to me that it would be a great thing to adapt for the theater and I had a real feeling that I knew how it should be done. Once I got going I felt so much confidence because I could draw from my own life experience."

McGovern grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and had huge early success in movies like Ragtime, Once Upon a Time in America and Ordinary People. "I did experience being a very young woman in Hollywood and I felt confident writing about the impact that has on a personality," she says, adding that Gardner "was thrown into the machismo culture of Hollywood in a different era. The way she dealt with things was, for the most part, to take it on the chin — all kinds of things that women have now realized they don't have to accept."

McGovern's own career rebounded when she was cast in the smash British period drama Downton Abbey. She received an Emmy nomination in 2011 for her role as American heiress Cora Crawley, and even though the series ended in 2015 and McGovern moved on to other TV roles such as War of the Worlds for MGM+, the Crawley family lives on with two Downton Abbey films.

"The wonderful thing about Downton is it's become so comfortable and easy," she says. "But that's also the terrible thing about it — most people who have the personality that's going to take them into the profession I'm in like a bit of discomfort. Having done the Downton thing for so long, there's a part of me that always says, 'I've got to shake this up.'"

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #2, 2023, under the title, "Role Play."

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