From 'Downton Abbey' To 'The Chaperone': A Conversation With Julian Fellowes And Elizabeth McGovern

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"The Chaperone" reunites actress Elizabeth McGovern and writer Julian Fellowes (right). (Joan Carter/SPR)
"The Chaperone" reunites actress Elizabeth McGovern and writer Julian Fellowes (right). (Joan Carter/SPR)

Julian Fellowes and actress Elizabeth McGovern have been reunited.

Fellowes, the author of the hit series ‘Downton Abbey,’ and McGovern, the American actress who starred as the Countess of Grantham, have come together for the screen adaption of Laura Moriarty’s best seller, “The Chaperone.”

The story follows Louise Brooks, the 1920s it girl, with her bobbed dark hair, heavy eyeliner and reckless ways. But before she was famous, she was 15 and needed a chaperone. McGovern plays Norma, a sedate woman from Wichita, Kansas, who watches over Louise, played by Haley Lu Richardson.

As the duo makes their first trip from Kansas City to New York, Norma's husband is less than enthusiastic about her travels. It’s ultimately Norma’s sons who urge her to embark on the journey across country.

And that trip will change the lives of both Norma and Louise.

“These two women [are] at very contrasting periods of their life,” Julian Fellowes tells Here & Now’s Robin Young.

Louise is a young icon, who embodies the epitome of the changing culture in America. And Norma is an older woman who has “constructed this house of cards on which she's based her life, which is this moral code that she's inherited,” McGovern says.

But she says Norma “discovers herself” during their adventure in New York.

“I loved the idea that it was a story about a woman who is changing alongside a changing country, making discoveries about herself in late middle age, which is not a story that is told very much at the time,” McGovern says.

Interview Highlights

On what Norma’s character meant to McGovern

Elizabeth McGovern: “I thought it was a really charming, entertaining conceit that she is empowered into this life's revelation by her interaction with the young girl who's meant to be her charge who then becomes the poster child, icon, symbol of this changing time, which was 1920s America. Louise Brooks became emblematic of this, the liberation of women, in the form of the flapper, which represented the looser clothes and looser morality. … And in the course of this journey she takes with Louise Brooks, she discovers herself and learns how to own her own sexual life.”

On the film

Julian Fellowes: “My chaperone is Laura Moriarty's chaperone who wrote the novel, the chaperone Alice Mills. Apart from Louise’s rather disparaging reference to, it is unknown to us. And what Laura did is take that structure and then invent a story for the chaperone that tells us about the time these women are living in. And so that her story becomes a commentary on the period that America was going through relieved against the true story of Louise Brooks, who is a commentary in a different way. I've found all that cleverly done. These two women at very contrasting periods of their life. And in one way, Louise has everything except complete confidence in herself and that is what Norma gives her. And Norma thinks she knows everything, but Louise gives her the strength to challenge the way she's been living her life and to retake control. She encourages Norma to find the strength to be happy.”

On the real Louise Brooks

Fellowes: “You know, at that time in the in the middle ‘20s, if you walked past a group of office girls or secretaries or shop assistants or whatever, some of them would have Louise Brooks' hairstyle and some of them would be dressed and made up like her because she was such an influence. She was saying to them, ‘I know what freedom is. Follow me and you will too.’ ”

Circa 1925: Louise Brooks, a Paramount player, shows off her new house. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Circa 1925: Louise Brooks, a Paramount player, shows off her new house. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On using film to look back on American history

McGovern: “Yes it's true that Britain especially in television and movies has seemed to have a corner on period drama that Americans only can sit back and look on in awe. And I don't know why that should be. I suppose it's just been a part of their cultural heritage. They've done them for so long. They do them incredibly well.”

Fellowes: I think it's a cultural difference though really, that America is a very forward looking society. It's what's coming [and] what's next that inspires everyone. Of course they are interested in their history, and they say, ‘Oh, this is where George Washington lived’ or something. But it's not in them in the same way. England, really if anything, its fault is the other direction, that it's too much in its own past and everyone is dwelling on the past all the time. Both have reasons to recommend them. But America has led the way in screen acting, in moviemaking, in all of this stuff because it has this forward-looking dynamic. So you know, if the price you pay is that you make less period drama, I don’t think it’s so high.”

McGovern: “Although America notoriously absolutely loves those English historical dramas. So I don't know why we don't make them for ourselves.”

On the new “Downton Abbey” film coming out in September

Fellowes: “What I will reveal is that it's really good.

“I don't think we've gone into competition with ourselves, but I hope we've taken on the tradition of Downton and that and our aim was very much that people who enjoyed the show for six years will enjoy the film, and I think they will. For me, the challenge was that when you're writing a series, every character has a reasonably decent story probably twice in the series and the rest of the time, they're in other people's stories. In a movie, everyone who appears, their story within the movie has to be resolved within the movie. So that was quite testing, but I think we brought it off.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on March 28, 2019.


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