After less than 24 hours in New Zealand, Elizabeth McGovern is impressed. It's her last stop on the extensive Southern Hemisphere press tour for her new film, The Chaperone, and the actress says she's had "more interesting conversations with people in this country" than her other destinations.
"I've been on the road for three weeks with this film, and you guys make such good films – there's something about the water here that makes you really interesting storytellers," she says.
The Chaperone marks an interesting step in the Oscar-nominated actress's own storytelling career. It's the first film McGovern has produced, and she teamed up with her fellow Downton Abbey alumni to make it – creator Julian Fellowes penned the script while director Michael Engler stepped into the same role for this film.
The Chaperone follows Norma Carlisle (McGovern), a Kansas mother and housewife, who goes on a life-changing journey when she accompanies a young, pre-fame Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson) on a trip to a dance school in New York City. McGovern was interested in the connection between Norma's own repression – by society, by her corset, and by her own self-imposed moral codes – and the unleashed expression found in Louise's dance.
"It's no accident that this woman who's repressed herself physically feels this weird connection to a person who's dancing in such a spontaneous, original way, just using her body," she says.
"A lot of the film is about what art does for us. Louise is a genuine artist, and Norma is a very ordinary person, and it's through Louise, through the expression of this artist that she finds a revelation that she can then take back into her personal life."
But the key to Norma's nuance as a character is that she doesn't miraculously become a new person overnight. She has the will and determination to begin with, but lacks the tools to apply them to her own happiness.
"Norma's actually quite a together person; she's more healthy than she knows. She just has no confidence," says McGovern. "When push comes to shove, her natural instincts are really great. She just doesn't trust them."
As a first-time producer, McGovern was thankful for the dynamic she had with her fellow former Downton colleagues. "We trusted each other. Julian trusted me, I trusted Julian, and Michael as well," she says. "Because we know each other so well, we could disagree, we could have fights, and we were very confident in the knowledge that it was all very safe."
McGovern felt there was an "angel" guiding them through the entire filmmaking process; the story, which addresses issues of sexual harassment, was written before the #metoo movement kicked off – and while it was in development, an infamous producer initially expressed interest.
"One of the guys that wanted to do it was Harvey [Weinstein], and thank god we didn't go that route," says McGovern. "For me as a young woman in Hollywood, there were so many instances where you think, 'Well that's just the way things are.' It would be really amazing to think that as a result of all these conversations we're having, my daughters will feel that they don't have to put up with the kind of things that people in my generation thought they had to."
McGovern was eager to sink her teeth into the role of Norma for the fact that she's a full-bodied, three-dimensional older woman – the kind of character that is still painstakingly rare in Hollywood. "It's just crazy," she says. "They're either the mother and the wife, wringing their hands about someone else having an incredible adventure somewhere, or they're embittered, neurotic, puffing on a cigarette, throwing a drink back, because they're not doing that. It's either one or the other.
"There are a lot of people out there who are older, and we feel bad about it, like we did something wrong," she says. "That's not right, it's not sane; we didn't do anything wrong, we just hung in. And actually, older people are more interesting – we've got experiences, we've figured some things out, and yet we're eradicated."
Who: Elizabeth McGovern
What: The Chaperone
When: In cinemas May 3