DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. "Downton Abbey," the feature film based on the Masterpiece series that ran on PBS for six seasons, opens today in theaters. Much of the cast returns in the movie for a plot set in motion by the visit of King George the V to Downton. In this scene, conflicts emerge as servants at Downton are talking about preparations from the royals with the king's page, who's part of the royals advance team.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOWNTOWN ABBEY")
PHYLLIS LOGAN: (As Mrs. Hughes) So my maids and I will not be involved in the preparations.
ROBERT JAMES-COLLIER: (As Thomas Barrow) You mean, during this day, you'll be the butler and...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Excuse me. I'm not a butler. I am the king's page of the back stairs.
JIM CARTER: (As Charles Carson) So our staff has nothing to do.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I'm sure they can be useful.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) But how can they eat and get dressed at Raby Castle if the chef and the valet and the maid are all here?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We have two of each. The principle valet and the principle dresser will arrive in advance of their majesties who bring an equity, a lady in waiting, two detectives and two chauffeurs. The other chef goes from Raby to Harwood. Four footmen go with him. And the other four come here. Do you all understand me?
DAVIES: Today we'll listen to an interview I recorded with Maggie Smith, who regularly stole scenes in the "Downton Abbey" series as the Dowager Countess and returns to the role in the movie. But first, we'll hear from Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter of the film and the creator of the series. Fellowes is an actor as well as a writer. And much of his writing has dealt with class distinctions and how they affect human relationships. He grew up the son of a diplomat with an aristocratic background. And he has a title himself; Lord Fellowes of West Stafford. His screenplay for the 2001 Robert Altman film "Gosford Park" won an Oscar. I spoke to Julian Fellowes in 2013.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: Julian Fellowes, Lord Fellowes, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JULIAN FELLOWES: Well, it's very nice to be here.
DAVIES: You know, a lot of your writing, both for television and film and your novel, involves distinctions of social class. Now, you grew up the son of a diplomat with an aristocratic heritage, I believe. Did you have servants growing up?
FELLOWES: No. I mean, I think my background was much more ordinary than the newspapers have made it. I mean, you know, we had people who came in and did some cleaning. But I mean, you know, who did - plenty of other people have that. I think, in a way, why I became quite aware of class as a kind of life-defining issue was because my parents came from different backgrounds. My father's was grander than my mother's, and so my mother had to sort of put up with the disapproval of my father's relations. And I suppose from that grew a kind of interest in, in a way, the unfairness of class the fact that it is so arbitrary in its selection and, you know, so nothing to do with merit. And yet it shapes a life and creates entitlement and all sorts of other factors that, you know, have a long-term effect on us.
DAVIES: One of the things that makes Downton great and "Gosford Park," which is a movie I really love, is the intimate look at the servants, the life downstairs. Where did you become so acquainted with their lives and customs and rules?
FELLOWES: (Laughter) You know, I was lucky in one way. I mean, I was - I'm now kind of 150 years old. And so...
FELLOWES: When I was young, I still had great aunts and that kind of thing who had lived, to a degree, that life before the First World War. I mean, my eldest great aunt, who is really the model for Violet Grantham, was born in 1880, you know? And she was presented in 1898 and married before the first war and all of that. And I knew her perfectly well. She only died when I was 21. So I was able to hear a lot of this stuff firsthand. Where I was tremendously lucky is I was interested when I was young. And one of the problems when - you know, when you don't get interested in things until you're much older is a lot of people are dead. And because I was interested as a teenager, there were still many members of the family who could talk about what life had been before the first and second wars. And, you know - and I was very glad to hear it.
DAVIES: Well, let's talk about "Downton Abbey." And I wanted to play a clip from Season 1. This is a moment at a table in the kitchen downstairs, where the servants are all having tea. And we hear - one of them is O'Brien, who's played by Siobhan Finneran, disparaging Matthew Crawley. He's a cousin of the master of the house, who's arrived on the scene and may inherit Downton - the whole place. We'll hear a shuffling of furniture as the servants spring to their feet because Lady Grantham, who's played by Elizabeth McGovern, has suddenly showed up in the kitchen and has overheard Ms. O'Brien, her own lady's maid, talking down Matthew Crawley. She rebukes Ms. O'Brien. And this leads to an interesting exchange after that among the servants. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")
SIOBHAN FINNERAN: (As Sarah O'Brien) I'm sorry, but I have standards.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You're just saying something ever so often.
FINNERAN: (As Sarah O'Brien) And if anyone thinks I'm going to pull my full lock and curtsy to this Mr. nobody from nowhere...
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: (As Cora Crawley) O'Brien, were you discussing Mr. Crawley?
FINNERAN: (As Sarah O'Brien) Yes, my lady.
MCGOVERN: (As Cora Crawley) Is it your place to do so?
FINNERAN: (As Sarah O'Brien) I've got my opinions, my lady - same as anybody.
LOGAN: (As Mrs. Hughes) Can I help, your ladyship?
MCGOVERN: (As Cora Crawley) This is the button I'm missing from my new evening coat. I found it lying on the gravel. But I was shocked at the talk I heard as I came in. Mr. Crawley is his lordship's cousin and heir. You will, therefore, please accord him the respect he's entitled to.
FINNERAN: (As Sarah O'Brien) But you don't like him yourself, my lady. You never wanted him to...
MCGOVERN: (As Cora Crawley) You're sailing perilously close to the window, O'Brien. If we're to be friends, you will not speak in that way again about the Crawleys or any member of Lord Grantham's family. Now I'm going up to rest. Wake me at the dressing gong.
JAMES-COLLIER: (As Thomas Barrow) I don't think that's fair, not here in the servants hall.
FINNERAN: (As Sarah O'Brien) I agree. If she was a real lady, she wouldn't have come down here. She'd have run for me and given me the button. That's all.
JAMES-COLLIER: (As Thomas Barrow) This isn't her turf. We can say what we like down here.
LOGAN: (As Mrs. Hughes) Who says?
JAMES-COLLIER: (As Thomas Barrow) The law and Parliament - there is such a thing as free speech.
LOGAN: (As Mrs. Hughes) Not when I'm in charge - don't push your luck, Thomas.
DAVIES: And that's from the series "Downton Abbey," created and written by our guest Julian Fellowes. It's such a lovely scene. And what we hear here is the class lines are clear. The roles are clear. And yet they're changing. The series begins - what? - in 1912. This is a particular moment in class relations in Britain, isn't it?
FELLOWES: Well, I think it was attractive to us because it was a period of tremendous change in quite a short time. You know, between 1912 when they - we begin the first show and 1922, where we are at the end of Season 3, is only 10 years. And yet the changes in Britain were enormous between the sort of end of high, imperial confidence and so on and then through the war years and finally into the uncertainty of the '20s, when all sorts of things were being challenged. And, you know, these great revolutions of women's rights or workers' rights or whatever - they don't come out of nowhere. They are there earlier. And they are just below the surface. And then something like a war happens, and it makes everything come through. But, you know, you don't invent from nothing. It hasn't quite come yet. But it's sort of fizzing away somewhere. And that's what a scene like that will tell you, that they - they're nearly at the end of always being second banana. And, you know, they can express that.
DAVIES: Right. And then some among them say, not so fast; remember your place.
FELLOWES: Well, I mean, one of the interesting things about this kind of drama is that, you know, the family upstairs are, on the whole, all equal. They're certainly equal in terms of class and position. But, you know, they might record respect to the father or something like that. But they're not at all different socially. That's not true of the people below stairs who were working there. There is a vast social range between Carson the butler and Daisy the kitchen maid. And all of these ranks were sort of observed.
You would have a special sitting room for visiting valets and a special sitting room for visiting ladies' maids and so on. On and on it went, the detail of this extraordinarily complicated structure. But, you know, that said, it was on the brink of starting to come down.
DAVIES: One of the things that I love about the series is that, as a viewer, I gradually become aware of the distinctions among the servants and others by the forms of address. I mean, the - you know, the aristocrats are referred to as lord and lady or your lordship or your ladyship.
The servants - even those of highest rank - are referred to by their last names only by the aristocrats, even when speaking affectionately. I mean, when - there's a moment when Lady Grantham is talking to Mrs. O'Brien. And she's - they're having a nice, intimate conversation, but she still calls her O'Brien...
DAVIES: And then among the servants, some are called Mr. and Mrs. - those of lower rank, like the kitchen maid Daisy, only by their first names. There were a clear set of rules and forms of address here, huh?
FELLOWES: Well, I mean, we live in an era where there are sort of no rules for anything anymore. But of course, the good thing about rules is you always know what you're doing. You always know what you should wear. You always know where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to get there, what you're supposed to do when you do get there.
You know, we've lost that kind of security. I think that that is one reason why, you know, the show appeals because it seems to show a more ordered and kind of ordained world. In fact, of course, that is largely a myth. It was a world where all sorts of - as I've said - things were bubbling just beneath the surface.
But nevertheless, in terms of your daily life - what you wore when you got up, what you called people, what you did next - I think it was sort of easier to follow the plot than in our own time.
DAVIES: "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes recorded in 2013. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUNN & THE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA OF LONDON'S "ESCAPADES 2")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to my 2013 interview with Julian Fellowes, who created "Downton Abbey," the Masterpiece series, and also wrote the screenplay for "Downton Abbey" the movie, which opens in theaters today.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: In Season 3, an American arrives on the scene - a real American here. I mean, Cora, Lady Grantham, is an American but who has spent a long time in England as the wife of Lord Grantham. But her mother, who's played by Shirley MacLaine, arrives. Tell us a little bit about her and the role that she plays.
FELLOWES: Well, what I really wanted the audience to be reminded of, really, by Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine, is that Cora is not some ancient American aristocrat. She's not a Winthrop, you know, or a Stuyvesant or one of those founding-father families. She is the product of new money - quite a lot of it, but she is - that's who she is.
But there were others, like Mary Leiter, who married Lord Curzon, who came from men who had made their own fortunes. And that is what Cora's come from. And the reason I want the audience to be sort of aware of that is Cora's story is really that she married into the system and swallowed it wholesale and got it all down. But now that the world is changing and things are being challenged, in a funny way, her original values are much more suited to the modern world than Robert's.
You know, she has the American work ethic. She is not obsessed by rank. She is kind of much more free about accepting the changes that are coming, as you will be seeing in the third series. The future doesn't frighten her. So, you know, you've got - I hope - an interesting clash there of beliefs and philosophies.
DAVIES: You know, I thought we would hear just a moment of their interaction. This is Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine, the two grandmothers, in a moment from Season 3.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")
SHIRLEY MACLAINE: (As Martha Levinson) Oh, dear. I'm afraid the war has made old women of us both.
MAGGIE SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) Oh, I wouldn't say that. But then, I always keep out of the sun. Yeah. How do you find Downton on your return?
MACLAINE: (As Martha Levinson) Much the same, really - probably too much the same. But then, I don't want to cast a pall over all that and this.
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) How could you ever do that?
MACLAINE: (As Martha Levinson) Tell me, what do you think of Young Lochinvar, who has so ably carried off our granddaughter and our money? Do you approve of him?
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) Not as much as you will when you get to know him.
MACLAINE: (As Martha Levinson) Has he gone home to change?
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) Oh, no. We won't see him again tonight. The groom never sees the bride the night before the wedding.
MACLAINE: (As Martha Levinson) Nothing ever alters for you people, does it? Revolutions erupt and monarchies crash to the ground and the groom still cannot see the bride before the wedding.
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) You Americans never understand the importance of tradition.
MACLAINE: (As Martha Levinson) Yes, we do. We just don't give it power over us. History and tradition took Europe into a world war. Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand.
DAVIES: That's from Season 3 of "Downton Abbey," written and created by our guest, Julian Fellowes. Of course, one of the changes that comes to the Crawley family - the shocking development of one of the daughters, Lady Sybil, marrying the family's chauffeur, Tom Branson.
DAVIES: I don't know how likely this would have been to happen in 1912 or '14 or '15, but one of the things I love about the way it's portrayed here is that, of course, the aristocracy is shocked, and they have to come to terms with it. Some react differently. But then the chauffeur goes back to the house where he was a part of the service and has to interact with the other servants, who are so used to clear social distinctions. And he has changed.
FELLOWES: I mean, I always like to base these things on a real story. And when people say, oh, that would never have happened - of course, it did happen, just as love affairs between servants and members of the family happened. And they were very disapproved of, but they still happened.
And this particular story is based on the daughter of an earl who ran off with the groom, actually. It wasn't the chauffeur. It was the groom, but I don't think there's a great distinction in that. And they had to put up with it. I think it was very difficult. And, of course, they rather encourage the couple to live in Dublin because it's sort of easier if they're out of sight.
But, you know, families then, like families now, when your children marry someone you would not have chosen for them, there is a moment where you have to decide, am I going to quarrel with my son or my daughter and literally no longer have them in my life or am I going to find a way to get on with this person? And I think most of us hope for the second, and that's really what the Granthams have to do.
DAVIES: What kind of research did you do for "Downton Abbey"? I mean, you obviously had a lot from your - you know, from your own experience and discussions with your relatives. What kind of research did you do?
FELLOWES: You know, one just kind of reads a lot of books around it. I mean, the truth is, I've always been interested in the whole set up of the old world. You know, when I was young, it had only just, for many people, come to an end. You know, I mean, I was a little boy in the '50s, and that was when a lot of people were chucking in the towel and selling the house and - you know, so I would see empty servants' rooms and empty cupboards in the basement lined in green baize or whatever. I could remember all that quite well. So a certain extent, I just sort of imbibed it from the air. But I also have read quite a lot about it.
I mean, one of the great advantages of the Internet - if you want to use a piece of slang or you want to use a song or - you just type in, you know, the thing and you go into the etymology dictionary. And it gives you the year of first usage and so on - or first printed usage. But on the whole, I do sort of - I mean, sounds rather pretentious actually, but I do sort of know how this way of life worked, you know, at this point. And I take advantage of that, really.
DAVIES: You said you saw houses with empty servants' quarters because, essentially, that way of life had just disappeared.
FELLOWES: Yes. I mean, you know, you'd go into the stable, and there were no horses. And then you'd go into the old kitchens - huge, old kitchens - and there'd be sort of signs for the village fete and, you know, old perambulators and broken bicycles and things. And they would have created some horrible slot kitchen in some anteroom upstairs. And, you know, all of that was very fresh.
I mean, one of the great changes now, actually, is that these houses - the ones that have survived - have, essentially, been reinvented by their owners who are normally the children or grandchildren of the ones who threw in the towel. And they come to it differently. This generation doesn't, you know, long for the days of their youth, when there were footmen behind every chair because there weren't. Their youth was spent after all that had come to an end.
So they just look at it differently. And they have different ways of running it. And now help in the house comes in from the village instead of coming from upstairs. And everyone calls each other by their Christian names and everything else. And it's - it just runs on different wheels. And I like that. I like the fact that these houses have, in a sense, been reinvented. And, you know, I think it's very attractive.
DAVIES: You know, "Downton Abbey" begins in 1912, when there were all these social trends that are causing the old order to begin to unravel. Did your observation of kind of the disappearance of that way of life make you want to really explore the end of that period and the dissolution of the aristocracy?
FELLOWES: I just remember one time when I was quite young, I was - I forget now - 17; something like that - and I was staying in a house. And I got lost, and I went through the wrong door. And I was standing at the top of the staircase that led down into the kitchens and everything. And there was a tremendous row going on between - sounded like four or five, six people shouting and yelling and this, that and the other. And I suddenly had such a powerful sense of the lives that were being lived by the people who worked there. Not, you know, only the family who lived there but the people who worked there were also, you know, enjoying life or hating each other or loving each other or whatever.
And I suppose you could say that in that moment, "Gosford Park" and "Downton Abbey" were at least conceived, whether or not they had yet been born and that at some point, I would explore that fairly simple, emotional recognition that everyone's life is of 100% importance to them, no matter who they are. And, you know, I've been sort of, in a sense, exploring it ever since.
DAVIES: Julian Fellowes created "Downton Abbey," the Masterpiece series, and also wrote the screenplay for "Downton Abbey" the movie, which opens in theaters today.
After a break, we'll hear more from Fellowes and from Maggie Smith, known for her hilarious one-liners as the Dowager Countess of "Downton Abbey." Also, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Ad Astra," starring Brad Pitt. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. "Downton Abbey," the movie, opens in theaters today with much of the cast of the Masterpiece series that ran for six seasons. Soon, we'll hear some of my 2016 interview with Maggie Smith, who plays the Dowager Countess in the series and the movie. But first, let's listen to what Julian Fellowes, the creator of the series and screenwriter of the film, had to say about that role. I spoke with Fellowes in 2016.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: The Maggie Smith character in "Downton Abbey" is just such a delight. Tell us who she is, how she fits into the family.
FELLOWES: Well, she really - as I said, she is really based on my eldest great aunt, who was quite a tough character. But she was no tougher on anyone else than she was on herself. In fact, in real life, she had quite a tragic life. Her husband died of wounds at the end of the First World War. And her only child drowned on active service in the second, so she had a lot to bear, poor thing. But she was tough and funny. And some of the phrases that Maggie - you know, what's a weekend? - and stuff like that come from her. I'm remembering "Gosford Park." One question Maggie asked me - she said, I don't understand about the marmalade. I said, oh, well, that was this particular aunt because Lady of Trentham in "Gosford" is also sort of based on it. And I said, this particular aunt always thought that if a house ran out of its own jams and jellies, then it was not being well run, that it was a sign of its weakness. Oh, she said, I've got it. I've got it. And she does that line so wonderfully when she looks into the jam pot and says, ooh, bought marmalade - I call that very feeble.
And what I love about Maggie is that she has this extraordinary skill to bring many different aspects of a character into her delineation, but they never seem contradictory. She never turns into a different person. A lesser actor would, you know, find it difficult to be kind and cruel simultaneously or superficial here but quite deep here. But she manages to synthesize all these elements into a believable woman.
DAVIES: Well, we should hear one of these moments. And this is from the first season, where she and Lady Grantham, played again by Elizabeth McGovern, are sitting and discussing the difficult matter of finding a suitable husband for Lady Mary, the oldest of the Crawley daughters.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")
SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) How about some house parties?
MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) She's been asked to one next month by Lady Anne McNair.
SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) That's a terrible idea. She doesn't know anyone under 100.
MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) I might send her over to visit my aunt. She could get to know New York.
SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) Oh, I don't think things are quite that desperate. Poor Mary, she's been terribly down in the mouth lately.
MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) She was very upset by the death of poor Mr. Pamuk.
SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) Why? She didn't know him. One can't go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We'd all be in a state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper.
DAVIES: Can't get enough of Maggie Smith...
DAVIES: That's her (laughter) and Elizabeth McGovern in "Downton Abbey," created and written by our guest Julian Fellowes.
Dinners are really something at the Crawleys'. Lord Grantham dresses, basically, like an orchestra conductor.
DAVIES: Was this done every night? I mean, didn't they ever want to just dress down and eat leftover turkey sandwiches?
FELLOWES: It was pretty well done every night. I mean, I - there's a wonderful quote when Duff-Cooper asked his brother-in-law, the Duke of Rutland - he said - when black tie was just beginning to come in in the '20s - but still, white tie was normal in the sort of great houses - and he said to the duke, don't you ever wear black tie? And the duke thought for a moment and said, when I'm dining alone with the duchess in her bedroom. And...
FELLOWES: You know, that was his idea of letting it all hang out. But no. I mean, they were a formal people. Those were the correct clothes for eating dinner. And one of the difficulties, when we wear those costumes, is that most of us are dressing on our own. So we're in a wrestling match with studs and pins of this and that and links and so on, whereas there, you were always being helped with it, as you would be in a film or television. And that makes it different. I mean, in the '50s, Dior very much revived the sort corseted, almost crinoline dress and so on. But it didn't last very long because it wasn't suited for getting into on your own.
DAVIES: Julian Fellowes, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
FELLOWES: No, I'm delighted. It was nice of you to ask me.
DAVIES: Julian Fellowes created the series "Downton Abbey" and wrote the screenplay for the movie, which opens today. I spoke to him in 2013.
Now let's hear from Maggie Smith, who played the Dowager Countess in the series "Downton Abbey" and returns to the role in the film. Maggie Smith has appeared in more than 50 films. She's among only 17 performers to win best actress awards at the Oscars, Tonys and Emmys and among only a handful to win best actress and best supporting actress at the Academy Awards. I spoke to her in 2016, as "Downton Abbey," the series, was wrapping up its sixth and final season.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: Maggie Smith, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you.
SMITH: Thank you.
DAVIES: We interviewed Julian Fellowes a while back, and he said that he based your character on an aunt of his, I believe.
DAVIES: Yeah, yeah. And he said, what was terrific about Maggie Smith was that she was able to combine the contradictions in the role, someone who could at time be so cutting and then be so kind and sort of integrated them. And he said that only an actress of your talent and stature could pull it off.
SMITH: Oh, that's very nice.
DAVIES: Any particular - I don't know - inspiration for you finding this character?
SMITH: No. It was - mainly the way it was written by Julian, which was terrific, you know, and the wonderful lines to say. And it was written so elegantly. She was always very in sympathy with the girls, I think; the very young. She was very helpful to all of them. And I think she knew that they felt restricted.
DAVIES: Right. She understood the constraints of those roles...
DAVIES: ...Better than anyone.
SMITH: Yes, I think...
DAVIES: Right, right.
SMITH: Yes, completely because she'd been through it even stricter. But I think she was very aware of it.
DAVIES: You know, Julian Fellowes writes about this life partly with some personal knowledge. I mean, he actually holds a title, which I don't remember. But...
SMITH: Oh, he's frightfully grand. He's a lord.
DAVIES: Right. And so he had a connection...
SMITH: We do a lot of curtsying.
DAVIES: He had a personal connection to that world. What was your sense of the English aristocracy?
SMITH: Oh, goodness, it's so way beyond me. I'm far, far, far from that. But of course, that's one of the joys of acting is that you can move up in the world, even if - you know, in the characters that you're playing, even if you don't. So it was - it's always very nice to be somebody rather grand. Now I seem to be stuck with it, which is a bit of a strain.
DAVIES: Stuck with the role, you mean.
SMITH: I think I'm just - well, with old, old mad women, if you know what I mean.
SMITH: They seem to be, well, the one thing I can do now. You know, it's funny to be pigeonholed so late in life, but there we are.
DAVIES: You can go on YouTube and find montages of your lines in "Downton," one after the other after the other after the other. Do you have a favorite one yourself?
SMITH: I don't remember any of them, to speak truth.
DAVIES: The one that people...
SMITH: Honestly, there were so many, I don't remember.
DAVIES: The line people most mention to me is when Matthew Crawley is talking about how he would manage his time, and he said there's always the weekend.
DAVIES: And you said...
SMITH: What is a weekend? Yes, but truthfully - I mean, it's funny. But I - it's weird that it sticks in people's memories so much, isn't it? I mean, what is so funny about saying, what is a weekend?
DAVIES: Well, it's the fact that this woman has grown to her age and hasn't distinguished the weekend days from any other. And...
SMITH: No, they've all been lazy, idle times....
SMITH: ...But even so, it seems odd, doesn't it?
DAVIES: It's the way she says it, I think.
SMITH: Yeah. Maybe it's the way - the way you say it. The thing I remember a lot is the swivel chair.
SMITH: I remember, like, I like that bit in the chair.
DAVIES: Your character sits in a swivel chair. And - (laughter).
SMITH: Yes. And she's very surprised and indignant that it moves. She hasn't come across those.
DAVIES: Yeah, electric lights - no use for electric lights, yeah.
SMITH: No. That was a terrible shock to her when they had electric light in the house. It must have been to many people, actually, if you think about it. And they're all in that sort of - the gloom of oil lamps and candles and things.
DAVIES: Sure. The other thing we must mention is your foil in so many of the episodes, Isobel Crawley, played by Penelope Wilton.
SMITH: Oh, my lovely friend Penelope Wilton.
SMITH: Isn't she terrific?
DAVIES: You're both terrific in it.
SMITH: She's stunning.
DAVIES: You want to tell us anything about how you do those scenes, the two of you?
SMITH: Well, we do it with a great deal of laughter. We used to laugh a lot. It was quite funny - one day we were doing a scene. And I had a stick all the time in the series, which is just as well because I needed to have a new hip by the end of it. But it was quite funny because I got up in this scene to say something to Penelope. And I had my stick, and I was sort of doing that awful teetering and crouching about. And I said to Penelope, why? Why am I acting old? I've gotten there. I don't...
SMITH: ...This is the one thing I don't need to act. And we got quite hysterical. I thought, why indeed am I doing that awful acting when you've got a stick and you do a sort of crouch over. And I said, I don't need to do this.
SMITH: Sort of what you do in drama school when asked to play something way out of your reach. Anyway, we used to laugh a lot about that. I used to say, I'm not going to act old, Penelope. I'll just be myself (laughter).
DAVIES: Maggie Smith recorded in 2016. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUNN & THE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA OF LONDON'S "THE HUNT")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're listening to my 2016 interview with actress Maggie Smith, who played the Dowager Countess in the Masterpiece series "Downton Abbey" and returns to the role for the new film, which opens today.
You didn't grow up in a theatrical family. Your dad was a pathologist, I believe, right? Tell us a bit about...
SMITH: And he worked in a pathology lab.
DAVIES: Yeah. Tell us a bit about how you grew up, what you were like as a kid.
SMITH: Well, I knew there was - nobody in the family had ever done anything like that before. My brothers - I had two brothers - they were twins, and they both became architects. And they were both six years older. But they could do these fantastic drawings. And so that was a mystery, I think, to my parents, too, because they had no idea that that was around in the family anywhere. Maybe it never was. But - so they wrote the way for me, if you know what I mean. I've no idea where I got the idea from, to do what I do. But I think they - Ian and Alistair, my brothers - kind of opened a lot of doors for me onto the world, you know, made it seem to be a very, very interesting place.
DAVIES: Were you an entertaining kid to your friends? Did you make them laugh?
SMITH: I don't remember doing that, particularly. I went to a school where they were - well, they did plays and things. I was never in those roles, really. But I had a very good English teacher who said to me that she thought I ought to do it. She - I don't know. She saw something, thank goodness, because I think if it hadn't been encouraged by somebody that serious, I'm not sure what would have happened to me.
DAVIES: Do you watch your films and your television performances?
SMITH: Because I can't do anything about them. That's part of the pressure.
DAVIES: Yeah. So you're never quite satisfied?
SMITH: Well, no. And then you watch them and you think, why in the name of God did I do that?
SMITH: I'm sitting here cringing, listening to - back to those things. You think, oh, no, I'd do it all differently now.
DAVIES: Huh. We're all enjoying it, and you're cringing.
SMITH: But I'd do everything different now - no, I wouldn't. You can't go back and do that.
DAVIES: When I told people I was going to interview Maggie Smith, I just can't tell you the number of people who said, oh, my heavens, you're so lucky. I just love her. And I think, you know, you've particularly had an expanded audience with "Downton Abbey" and the "Harry Potter" films. But, you know, you have such a terrific career, and you've achieved so much. And so many people just love you. And I'm wondering what that kind of mass adoration feels like to you. Is it gratifying? Is it scary? Is it - can you even comprehend it?
SMITH: Well, it's only happened to me since "Downton Abbey," so I blame the whole thing on television.
SMITH: It's odd. And I've said this before, but I find it very difficult to do anything on my own now because people recognize me. This has never happened to me before because I haven't really done television before. But I suppose if you're in people's rooms all the time - I don't know. I was thinking that the other night, with people like DiCaprio and even - the big stars and Cate Blanchetts, and you just think, how do they exist? It's so difficult, and I think now it's very intrusive because of these cellphones, you know, with cameras.
SMITH: Wherever you go, people want to take a picture of you or take a picture of them with you. And it's - I don't know.
DAVIES: So how do you...
SMITH: So it's very hard. It's hard to do anything on your own.
DAVIES: How do you react when someone - you know, John Cleese told me he just tells people, I don't do pictures. I'm sorry.
SMITH: You know, I do say that. It depends. Obviously, it depends who it is. If it's a very young person, you know, a child, of course you would. But it is incredibly intrusive. I usually say, do you like having your picture taken? (Laughter) Maybe they do. I don't know.
DAVIES: And if it's not too intrusive - you live in a 15th century farmhouse, is that right?
SMITH: It's - at the moment, it looks as though it's never been at all because it's being - I'm having to really have a go at rewiring it and a few things because it is indeed very old.
DAVIES: Electric lights, huh (laughter).
SMITH: Well, yes. I think you'd turn every light on with rubber shoes on (laughter), if you've got any sense.
DAVIES: Do you want to take one question about "Harry Potter" or would you rather be released? (Laughter).
SMITH: I would rather be released. I think you've been adorable, though.
DAVIES: OK. Well, no - I don't know about that.
SMITH: What do you want to know about "Harry Potter?"
DAVIES: Just what was it like to play that role, to act in those films?
SMITH: Well, I'll tell you - I just adored Daniel, Daniel Radcliffe, who I had worked with before "Harry Potter" and spent a long time telling all the producers they had to see him because I thought he was so terrific. And it's been sad thinking about it because of Alan Rickman, who was...
DAVIES: Oh, who died recently. Yeah.
SMITH: Yes. He was such a terrific actor, and that was such a terrific character that he played. And it was a joy to be with him. We used to laugh together because we ran out of reaction shots. They were always - when everything had been done and the children were finished, they would turn the camera around and we'd have to various (laughter) reaction shots of amazement or sadness and things. And we used to say - we got to about number 200-and-something, we'd run out of knowing what to do when the camera came around on us. But he was a joy.
DAVIES: Maggie Smith, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
SMITH: Thank you.
DAVIES: Maggie Smith - recorded in 2016. She plays the Dowager Countess in "Downton Abbey" the movie, which opens in theaters today. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Ad Astra" starring Brad Pitt. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE MCKENNA'S "SWINGING ON A STAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.