Behind Lady Cora's demure exterior there's a songbird wielding a guitar
Ask Elizabeth McGovern why she'll be dashing out of Downton Abbey shoots to spend her evenings singing and strumming her guitar on stage with Sadie and the Hotheads, and she doesn't offer any fancy reasons.
The plain truth is that she wants to... and she can.
The 51-year-old actress is best known for her portrayal of the sweet and elegant Lady Cora in everyone's favourite ITV period drama. But if acting is her profession, playing her songs, accompanied by her highly accomplished bandmates, is what she is most passionate about right now.
"It has shocked the hell out of me, and I still can't really believe I'm doing it," admits Elizabeth, who practises guitar in her trailer on set. "There is just something in me that is so driven."
Having established a strong rapport with audiences in a residency at London's Troubadour Club before Christmas, Elizabeth's mission now is to travel far and wide to share the songs from the band's acclaimed new album How Not To Lose Things. It's a pleasing, Americana country-rock and blues-flavoured collection with a mature but playful feel, full of observations of life and love.
Next month, just as preparations begin for filming a new series of Downton, Sadie and the Hotheads are heading out on a British tour, which is stopping off for one night only in the North Devon town of Barnstaple. If that means an exhausting schedule for Elizabeth, then she is quite ready for it.
"I'll have to be quite tough, I guess. I'm going to be ripping off my corset and jumping straight into a splitter van," she laughs.
So where did her musical adventure start? Elizabeth grew up in Los Angeles alongside a brother whose skills as a concert pianist intimidated any musical ambition of her own. "It's taken me all this time to play and sing in front of anyone – even my family," she admits.
Home was a classically orientated environment where Bach, Beethoven and Mozart was the only music she heard as a child.
"In my family we didn't go to concerts, we went to the theatre. But like most teenagers, I found the music I liked; that's when it gets into your pores," says Elizabeth, who fell under the spell of singer songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, later, Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, and started learning guitar quietly in her bedroom.
She won her first major film role in 1980 while still at college, starring in Ordinary People, as the girlfriend of troubled teenager Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton). She quickly established herself as a Hollywood actress, working with A-listers like Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, and Brad Pitt.
Then, in the early 1990s she married English director Simon Curtis and started a new life in London.
She has been here 20 years now, raising her daughters, now aged 19 and 15, and taking acting jobs here and there. Domesticity gave her the chance to pick up her guitar again, about ten years ago.
In an effort to improve her technique she took lessons with Simon Nelson – the man who now plays guitar and sings backing vocals in the Hotheads – who saw potential in her songwriting and encouraged her to perform. She chose the name Sadie as a way to bolster her confidence and a persona to play – "someone a bit wild and naughty".
"It has taken a long time and it's been blood, sweat and tears for me, but there is something about it all that feels right for me psychologically," says Elizabeth. "For me, acting is about trying to embody somebody else's vision and voice as best as I can. In music I'm trying to express my own voice. As an actress I feel I have less on my shoulders."
Elizabeth got some valuable experience on tour supporting Big Country last year. Now she can't wait to get out on the road with the band to play a full set.
"It's a show about the magic of the day-to-day humdrum. I hope that we have found a lot of drama and pathos and humour in that," she says. "I don't think many people are writing and playing songs with that sort of context right now."
Support at the Barnstaple show comes from Rachael Sage, and local artist Hoinville.
Sadie and the Hotheads play The Factory, Petroc Brannams Campus, at Roundswell just off the A39 at Barnstaple on Thursday, February 7. Tickets are available from the North Devon Theatres box office on 01271 324242.