Elizabeth McGovern Biography

Actress (1961–)
Elizabeth McGovern is an Academy Award-nominated actress known for playing Cora Crawley on the BBC series 'Downton Abbey.'


Elizabeth McGovern was born on July 18, 1961, in Evanston, Illinois. She began acting in films while attending the Juilliard School, co-starring with Timothy Hutton and Robert De Niro, and went on to build a successful stage career in New York and London. In 2010, she appeared as Cora Crawley on the British period ITV drama Downton Abbey, which has garnered transatlantic success.

Early Life

Actress Elizabeth McGovern was born in Evanston, Illinois, on July 18, 1961. Her mother was a high school teacher and her father was a law professor at Northwestern University at the time of her birth. McGovern came from a family of high achievement. Her paternal grandfather was adventurer William Montgomery McGovern and her great-grandfather, Ethelbert Watts, was a United States diplomat. Additionally, her younger sister, Cammie McGovern, is an accomplished novelist.

The family moved to Los Angeles, California, when William McGovern accepted a position at the University of California, Los Angeles. McGovern started acting while attending high school, attracting the attention of local talent scouts. She then studied at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco before enrolling at the Juilliard School in New York City.

Stage and Screen Career

In 1980, while still a student at Juilliard, McGovern was cast as the girlfriend of troubled Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) in the film Ordinary People. The following year, she began to appear in plays. She would go on to build an impressive resume of theater credits in both New York and London.

As her stage career developed, McGovern continued to work in film as well. In 1981, she earned an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Evelyn Nesbit in the film Ragtime. In 1984, she starred alongside Robert De Niro in Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon a Time in America. In 1989, she appeared as the rebellious Moira in the film adaptation of Margaret Atwood's acclaimed novel The Handmaid's Tale.

McGovern has also made frequent television appearances, primarily in Britain. In 1999, she played Marguerite St. Just on a BBC series based on the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel. In 2007, she played Ellen Doubleday on a television biography of Daphne du Maurier. She also appeared on the three-part comedy series Freezing, directed by her husband, Simon Curtis.

From 2010 to 2015, McGovern starred on the popular British series Downton Abbey, playing Cora, Countess of Grantham, an American woman married to a British Earl in the early 20th century. The show quickly became a transatlantic hit, bringing McGovern back into mainstream American popular culture for the first time in several years. Shirley MacLaine joined the cast of Downton Abbey in 2012, playing Cora's outspoken American mother. Both the show and its cast have received numerous awards. As of 2016, the Downton Abbey series remains one of the most watched television shows on both sides of the Atlantic.


In addition to her acting career, McGovern is an active singer and songwriter. In 2008, she began singing with the London-based band Sadie and the Hotheads. Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary Crawley on Downton Abbey, has performed with the band on occasion.

Personal Life

McGovern has been married to British director and producer Simon Curtis since 1992. The couple has two daughters, Matilda and Gracie, and lives in London. Prior to her marriage to Curtis, McGovern was briefly engaged to actor Sean Penn, whom she met on the set of the film Racing with the Moon.

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