She's immediately, playfully provocative. “How are you?” I ask the 78-year-old Oscar-winning diva (“I’m not a diva. But you had better get things right!”) Shirley MacLaine, new star of Downton Abbey, which returns this month. There’s no pause before she responds. “That’s such a complicated question. Do you really want to hear the answer? Oh my God, what do you say if you’re not fine? How old are you, Andrew? Younger than me, so I can talk to you any way I like.”
Swathed in colourful silk, a voluminous bag packed with lucky charms and crystals of all sorts and colours by her side (“I never go anywhere without them”), she cackles frequently, is outrageous, discursive, full of joie de vivre, unpredictable. It’s difficult to know sometimes if she’s being serious or sending herself up. She’s been mocked so often for believing in reincarnation, UFOs and New Age philosophy, she refuses to stand on her dignity. “I’m used to people thinking I’m wacky, so I don’t take myself seriously. I’m prepared to be misunderstood.”
This morning, as always, she did an hour’s qigong - an exercise that cultivates the life force, allegedly - before determining her day’s strategy. “We get up, decide what part we’re going to play, what hairstyle, clothes, write our own dialogue and probably create the people who will walk into our lives. I wondered what this old-time English journalist would be like and created you as funny and an appreciator of humour.”
Imagine, though, that I’m a superior cynic who thinks Downton Abbey is an overhyped, pretentious soap opera pandering to nostalgic snobbery? “I wouldn’t have spoken to you,” she says. “That’s another thing I’m learning: you sort of know what’s going to happen. It’s a colourful learning experience I’m having all the time in various degrees.”
In Downton she plays Martha Levinson, the American mother of Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern). Martha visits what she sees as sclerotic Britain in spring 1920 for the wedding of her granddaughter, Lady Mary, to Matthew Crawley. Her gung ho American optimism is in marked contrast to the dyed-in-the-wool conservatism of the dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith). “I adore Maggie,” she says. “I’ve known her for years. I think we were lovers in another life. Possibly that’s a joke, but all kinds of humour are real.”
Famously, she believes she has lived before - as a Japanese geisha, a Moorish girl summoned to cure a fellow countryman of impotence, a suicide in Atlantis, a Toulouse-Lautrec model, the seducer of Charlemagne who was subsequently reborn as former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, with whom she really did have an affair (in this life, of course). When I met her 12 years ago at her Malibu home, she claimed a soothsayer had just told her she’d meet the love of her life in three years. She laughs. “I didn’t meet him, but time is relative. Maybe he confused it with my dog [a rat terrier], Terri.”
I remember him, I say. A nasty little thing who bit my ankles.
“She’s a little girl,” she chides.
Back to safer ground, with Downton. Is it possible she’s been hired to pander to an American audience that has loaded the show with 16 nominations for the Emmy awards on 23 September? “It’s not pandering. I’m a volleyball partner for Maggie. Who else would they get? Let me think: Anthony Hopkins in drag. I’m the same class as Maggie’s character because we’re both wealthy, but I confront her because I’m more involved with change. Britain was still addicted to tradition, which got you into the war.”
At least the class system is now breaking down, she thinks. “We’re all becoming the ‘broke’ class. You see so many friends having money trouble and it affects everything you - who are not having that trouble - do. I’m afraid it will get worse.” Not for her, though. She has a thriving online business (slogan: “life is a bowl of cherries… never mind the pits”) giving advice on numerology, UFOs, cooking, interviews, stories about angels, for a subscription of $99.90 a year. “You have to be a good businesswoman if you come from a middle-class family who lived through the Depression. We never had more than $300 in the bank. I’m very careful with money, to say nothing of the fact that I’m Scottish.”
She’s also writing her 14th book – “They tell me I’m a memoirist. I love it if I have the right pen, the ideas flow. If I don’t, I’m lost. I buy them at the pharmacy and they last three books. I write in longhand on… what’s it called?”
A yellow legal pad?
“No, I stopped doing that when I saw Richard Nixon used one. Now I have a regular notebook with three punch holes. It takes me about six weeks. I’m writing to find out who I am. That’s the reason for being alive, and it’s a never-ending task. The more you know, the longer you live.”
She grew up in Virginia with parents who were both frustrated in their careers. Father Ira was a professor of psychology and a teacher who wanted to be a philosopher or violinist; mother Kathlyn was a drama teacher and actor manqué. Shirley and her younger brother Warren Beatty (“We get on well. I spoke to him last night”) pushed themselves towards success. Her mother told her, just before she died, that she’d been jealous of MacLaine all her life. “It’s wonderful she came clean and admitted it. I told her, ‘I’m a success because I was trying to fulfil your dream.’ Sometimes it’s good to have a negative role model: you know that’s not what you want to be.”
As a 20-year-old dancer she was elevated from the chorus line of Pajama Game when the leading lady broke her ankle. Film producer Hal B Wallis was in the audience and cast her in Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry. “It was so easy. There was an angel on my shoulder.” At 24 she became an honorary member of the “Rat Pack” with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, with whom she fell in unconsummated love. In a career filled with success and fun she won an Oscar in 1983 for Terms of Endearment and was nominated for a further six Academy Awards.
She’s been married and divorced once, to film producer Steve Parker, and they have a daughter, Sachi. “I don’t have strict values of family. She lives her own life as she wants, and needed to be a conventional mother to her two children, like she never had. I didn’t interfere. I don’t know if that’s good. But it’s a useless task to try to remember what you regret.”
When first asked to play Martha, she’d never heard of Downton Abbey. “I got so interested I dropped out of sight for a couple of weeks watching every show. It’s so brilliant. Julian Fellowes has somehow hit on a formula of giving the right amount of characters the right amount of screen time in an internet age where there is just too much information.
“Of course it’s brilliantly acted, wardrobed and made-up, which adds to the authenticity. It fits into what we’re all capable of being entertained by, at this time in history. I loved the cast and the director, Brian Percival. It was a good lesson for me in work ethic.”
Fellowes has been reported as saying she had some problems with the lines.
“The dialogue is out of the 1920s and that’s a lifetime I’ve forgotten, even though I might have been there. The pace was fabulous. I was surprised by the perfection of the lighting, the sets, the stamina of the crew. Filming out in the rain and wind wasn’t easy, but no one seemed to notice. That’s the British way, I suppose. Also they wouldn’t let us look at the monitors. They were probably right. Actors watch themselves and say, ‘Can we do it again?’ I always think I could’ve done better.”
She entertained the cast with stories and songs. “It’s funny being me in a business like this because people want to hear you sing, and suddenly you’re ‘on’. I don’t like that at all. I’m more real than you can imagine. But they were so cute because they were interested in people I’ve worked with, and when they mentioned Sinatra I went on from there.
“I told them I fell in love with someone on every picture I made for the first 30 years. People say the biggest part of my talent is curiosity. They wondered who it would be this time.”
Perhaps frisky Hugh Bonneville? There’s a pause, longer than I’ve known with her, followed by a laugh and, “I’m not talking.”
Maybe she’s given up on men now?
“You must never give up on half the human race. What you really want to know is am I f ****** anyone. When Oliver Stone asked me that I threw a glass of wine in his face. My answer is” - a pause – “No answer. I take the Fifth on the grounds that any answer might incriminate me. I’ve always been attracted to difficult men. They provide you with things to figure out. I suspect nice people: they can’t be real, don’t you agree? Newscasters! Acting so chirpy, wondering how they’re being perceived. Oh my God!”
Reflecting a little, she declares, “I’ve calmed down a bit, maybe, but am having the time of my life. I’ve reached a point where I’m in sync with an audience of senior citizens, and am making four pictures for them this year. They have no movies made for them. How many times can you see Batman? Things are done according to money these days. It used to be vision which mattered more. Money becomes addictive. People have a hole in their heart and think they can fill it with material possessions. In the end, though, you have to fill that hole with spiritual understanding.
“I sometimes wonder how long it will go on, but I’ve learnt not to pay too much attention to time. I agree with Einstein that time is an illusion, and it’s all happening at once anyway. I don’t fear dying. I want to see if I’m proved right. Am I basically correct? Or wacky.”
She cackles and leaves, clutching her clattering crystals, a grande dame in all the right ways. Let’s hope it’s a treat watching her foil with our own grande dame.
Shirley MacLaine is on David Frost: Hollywood Great’s tonight and tomorrow 10.00pm Radio 2
Downton Abbey returns for series three later this month. Series one and two are currently showing again at 5.25pm weekdays on ITV3.