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

  • Charlie Sheen gets sued by 2nd ex for exposure to HIV

    Entertainment Toronto Sun
    Actor Charlie Sheen has reportedly been sued by a second ex-girlfriend for exposing her to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The ex-Two and a Half Men star’s former fiancee Scottine Ross filed suit against him in December, 2015, accusing Sheen of exposing her to the virus, while alleging he had abused her physically and emotionally throughout their relationship. Source
  • 'She turns me on'; 50 Cent smitten with Helen Mirren

    Entertainment Toronto Sun
    50 Cent has fallen for the charms of Dame Helen Mirren, insisting he finds it hard not to just stare at her whenever he’s in her company. The 69-year-old Oscar winner and the rapper, who is almost 30 years younger, met up on the red carpet at the 57th Monte Carlo TV Festival on Tuesday in Monaco, and he is happy to admit he now has a major new crush. Source
  • Queens of the ring: Netflix's Glow puts spotlight on women's wrestling, then and now

    Entertainment CBC News
    In the first episode of Netflix's Glow, Ruth Wilder, an aspiring, down-on-her-luck actor (played by Alison Brie), is training inside a wrestling ring. She's one of a dozen or so prospects for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a women's wrestling show headed by Sam Silvia (Marc Maron), an ornery director whose B-movie credits include titles such as Blood Disco. Source
  • Former 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' star Nicholas Brendon strangled woman, slit wrists with glass: Police report

    Entertainment Toronto Sun
    Buffy The Vampire Slayer star Nicholas Brendon just can’t stop getting himself into trouble, and this may be his worst incident yet. Brendon, 46, was arrested for domestic abuse on October 18, 2016, his fifth arrest in three years, in a shocking police report exclusively obtained by Radaronline.com. Source
  • Wonder Woman weds Deadpool at comics convention

    Entertainment Toronto Sun
    Imagine a wedding between Wonder Woman and Deadpool, attended by Mary Poppins, Superman, Dr. Who, Kylo Ren and the Little Mermaid. More than 100 costume-clad nerds, cosplayers, gamers and fantasists gathered June 17 to celebrate the real-life union of Megan Mattingly and Adam Merica, dressed as Wonder Woman and Deadpool, at Awesome Con, an annual Washington comic book and pop-culture convention that drew approximately 71,000 visitors last weekend. Source
  • Slip of tongue fuels speculation on Banksy identity

    Entertainment CTV News
    An unguarded moment in an interview has renewed speculation over one of contemporary art's great mysteries -- could elusive graffiti activist Banksy be Robert Del Naja of band Massive Attack? Goldie, a well-known DJ who was a friend and competitor of Del Naja as the two sprayed Bristol in southwest England with graffiti in the 1980s, made an apparent slip of the tongue in an interview this week. Source
  • More than meets the why? The cinematic slurry that is Transformers: The Last Knight

    Entertainment CBC News
    In the world of modern day blockbusters there is a phrase you hear a lot. "Trailer Moments." Every action film has to have a few. A trailer moment is something larger-than-life. The hero escaping just as the explosion blooms behind her. Source
  • 'The Fault in Our Stars' author announces next novel

    Entertainment CTV News
    John Green, author of the much-loved book "The Fault in Our Stars," has revealed that his next novel will come out on October 10 with the title "Turtles All the Way Down." According to the plot summary, the forthcoming novel focuses on Aza Holmes, a young woman "navigating daily existence within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts. Source
  • Ron Howard hopes to honour 'great work' done on Han Solo film

    Entertainment CBC News
    Ron Howard says he hopes to honour the great work that's already been done on the Han Solo film and help to deliver on its promise. The Oscar-winner has only been in the pilot's seat on the Star Wars spinoff film for a day but is not wasting any time making his passion for the franchise known. Source
  • 'Transformers: The Last Knight,' Johnny Depp and the Bey-bies and other winners and losers in Hollywood this week

    Entertainment Toronto Sun
    You know the song: Some gotta win, some gotta lose Good time Charlie's got the blues. Never mind about that Charlie dude though — let’s just get to the winning and losing this week: WINNERS 1) It was announced earlier this week that Jay-Z and Beyonce have new infant twins, a boy and a girl, although an exact birth date has not yet been confirmed. Source