Maggie Smith leaves 'Downton' behind for 'Lady in the Van'

LONDON -- Filthy, dressed in rags and living in a battered old van, Maggie Smith's latest character is a long way from "Downton Abbey" -- and the actress couldn't be happier.

See Full Article

Smith has shed her "Downton"-era corsets and hats to play an eccentric elderly vagrant in the film "The Lady in the Van." So was it a relief to slide down the social scale?

"Oh, you bet!" laughed Smith with more energy than her character expended in five seasons of the country-house costume drama. "It was just great to not be that stuffy."

For many viewers, Smith's Dowager Countess of Grantham -- she of the arched eyebrow and withering putdown -- was the highlight of "Downton Abbey."

The final series' current run on PBS coincides with the U.S. release of "The Lady in the Van," in which Smith plays Miss Shepherd, a real-life homeless woman who parked in the driveway of writer Alan Bennett's London house, and stayed for 15 years.

Bennett told the story of the odd relationship he developed with his unexpected guest in a 1989 essay and a 1999 play, which also starred Smith.

Smith said she was keen to explore Miss Shepherd again with the more intense focus of film, and to work with filmmaker Nicholas Hytner, who also directed movie adaptations of Bennett's plays "The Madness of King George" and "The History Boys."

Smith has earned Golden Globe and British Academy Film Award nominations for her performance as the proud and prickly Miss Shepherd -- a gifted pianist who had spent time in psychiatric care, once aspired to be a nun and sometimes saw saints on the streets of London.

"She's a pretty complex person," said Smith during an interview in a luxury London hotel suite more suited to Lady Grantham than Miss Shepherd -- the same suite Kate Middleton stayed in the night before she married Prince William.

"I think she was a mystery to everybody," added Smith, who in person is warmer and more chic than either of her recent characters. "I think she was a mystery to herself, really."

Miss Shepherd and her contradictions were a burden for Bennett the homeowner, but a gift for Bennett the writer, a witty dissector of class-bound English foibles and anxieties.

"She's ungrateful, ungracious, aggressive, rude, armour-plated, never gives an inch, smelly, stubborn," Hytner said. "But she's kind of magnificent because she doesn't compromise. She lives exactly the way she wants to live. ... She turns all those smug middle-class English people upside-down."

The film, which also stars Alex Jennings as Bennett, was shot in the street where the real events took place, a crescent of 19th-century villas -- originally grand, then run-down, now gleaming again. Today the properties are worth millions but the area, Camden Town, still has its rough edges.

Hytner said the crew arrived early one Monday morning, "opened the back door of the van and found a couple -- young, completely high -- who'd spent the weekend in the van."

"They didn't tell me about it," said Smith with mock outrage. "'Don't tell Maggie! Don't let Maggie know!' I can't remember when you did tell me. We'd finished filming. Cowards!"

Millions of fans are preparing a sad goodbye to "Downton Abbey." Not Smith, who says she's relieved it's over: "It's freedom."

"But that's true of everyone in it, I think," she said. "Everybody was exhausted by the end."

She wonders what American "Downton" fans -- used to seeing her "in corsets with a nice hat on" -- will make of her latest role.

Smith, 81, is British acting aristocracy, a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire -- the female equivalent of a knight -- who has won two Oscars, for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and "California Suite." She has worked with Laurence Olivier and Ingmar Bergman and appeared in the "Harry Potter" films as Professor McGonagall.

But she says that "not until 'Downton Abbey' was I well-known or stopped in the street and asked for one of those terrible photographs."

The show's success took producers, cast and crew by surprise. Smith was in India, filming "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" with Penelope Wilton (her "Downton" sparring partner Isobel Crawley), when the first season aired in Britain in 2010.

The pair returned to London unaware that the show had become a TV phenomenon, and decided to pay a visit to the genteel Hampton Court Flower Show.

"It was dreadful," Smith said with a dramatic shudder. "We were savaged. It was dreadful. We had no idea. And it was a nightmare.

"You would think you'd be safe with gardeners."



Advertisements

Latest Entertainment News

  • Fake Tragically Hip merchandise claiming to raise funds for cancer research dupes fans online

    Entertainment CBC News
    Tragically Hip guitarist Rob Baker is urging fans to be vigilant when buying merchandise that claims to be linked to Gord Downie's charity. The musician tweeted Tuesday that some online shoppers are being duped into buying T-shirts, hoodies and other items that purport to donate $10 of the proceeds to the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research. Source
  • Oops! Serena Williams made pregnancy public by accident

    Entertainment CTV News
    VANCOUVER -- Serena Williams says she was taking a personal photo of her progressing pregnancy on Snapchat when she accidentally pressed the wrong button and made the post public. The photo of the tennis superstar in a one piece bathing suit was captioned "20 weeks. Source
  • Lorde, Iggy Azalea, Imagine Dragons to perform at MMVAs

    Entertainment Toronto Sun
    TORONTO — Lorde is headed to this year’s IHeartRadio Much Music Video Awards — but whether her lamp will make an encore performance remains to be seen. The New Zealand-raised musician is among the first round of artists announced for the televised street party in Toronto on June 18. Source
  • Jeff Goldblum to return for 'Jurassic World 2'

    Entertainment CTV News
    Twenty years after his last appearance in the franchise, Jeff Goldblum will refamiliarize himself with the world of dinosaurs -- and the character of Dr. Ian Malcolm -- for the 2018 sequel to "Jurassic World. Source
  • Lorde, Iggy Azalea slated to perform at MMVAs

    Entertainment CTV News
    TORONTO - Lorde is headed to this year's IHeartRadio Much Music Video Awards -- but whether her lamp will make an encore performance remains to be seen. The New Zealand-raised musician is among the first round of artists announced for the televised street party in Toronto on June 18. Source
  • The Handmaid's Tale and its alarming relevance in the Trump era

    Entertainment CBC News
    As women march for equality, reproductive rights are being challenged in the U.S. and targeting "other-ness" is helping politicians divide and conquer, The Handmaid's Tale is sitting on bookshelves giving the "I told you so" nod. Source
  • University of Michigan gets unpublished Orson Welles scripts

    Entertainment CTV News
    ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Orson Welles' daughter has given the University of Michigan dozens of the renowned filmmaker's scripts, including many unpublished works from the 1950s and 1960s. The more than 70 TV, film and stage scripts have been added to the University of Michigan Library's Screen Arts Mavericks & Makers collection, an archive highlighting visionaries in the independent film genre. Source
  • 'Bee Nation' director aims to break down stereotypes about First Nations

    Entertainment CTV News
    TORONTO -- How do you spell "empowering?" It's a word Lana Slezic uses often as she describes her new documentary "Bee Nation," which is the opening-night film for the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, kicking off Thursday. Source
  • AP Explains: What will a Hollywood writers' strike mean?

    Entertainment CTV News
    LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood is facing a cliffhanger after members of the Writers Guild of America voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike that could begin as soon as next week. Negotiations resumed Tuesday as the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers grapple over issues including compensation and health care. Source
  • Aretha blasts Dionne Warwick but she declines to fire back

    Entertainment CTV News
    NEW YORK -- The Queen of Soul is coming out swinging against fellow legend Dionne Warwick, accusing her of making up a story that she was Whitney Houston's godmother, even though the alleged offence happened five years ago at Houston's funeral. Source