Shirley MacLaine (Martha Levinson)
It seems that the road to Shirley MacLaine accepting the role of Cora’s American mother began, oddly enough, at the hairdressers:
“I happened to mention it to somebody, as you do in a hairdressing place and suddenly all the women there had these theories about what Elzabeth McGovern’s mother would be like. I thought, ‘My God, the whole world’s obsessed with this show and this family’. And that’s how it started.”
As it happens, Martha Levinson’s arrival at Downton does indeed cause a stir, especially where Violet, the Dowager Countess is concerned:
“She is extremely outspoken. Martha’s basic role in these episodes is to plead with the Dowager Countess to wrest herself, if possible, away from tradition. Because that’s what caused the war in the first place. And to become more flexible in relating to change.”
And what of her scenes with Dame Maggie Smith? Should we be expecting fireworks?
“The gunfight at he OK Corral does not happen between Maggie and me. We do a little sparring, we have our moments, but it’s more sophisticated than that. Martha is not just a crass, cranky American coming in there to call a spade a spade. She’s very smart and, to a large extent, sensitive about what’s going on with all her daughter’s children. And Maggie’s character is so well established, but you have to look beyond what is her expected reaction to Martha.
“The Dowager Countess is a human being who has complications and a past of some pain that Martha understands – and to some extent addresses herself to.”