Versatile American actor Elizabeth McGovern has graced our screens in hit TV series such as Downton Abbey playing the Countess of Grantham and in movies including The Chaperone and Woman in Gold. She was also one of the reasons co-star Gabriel Byrne was eager to sign up to their new series, War of the Worlds.
McGovern spoke about her character and how she feels about this adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel, in which an alien attack wipes out most of the human population.
Can you tell us about your character? Who do you play?
I play Helen and she was previously married to the character of Bill, played by Gabriel Byrne, and when the attack happens, he is making some efforts toward reconciliation. The cataclysm happens right in the middle of this story where he’s trying to compensate for mistakes he made during their marriage and she has moved on in her life. The alien attack interrupts his efforts to reconcile, but it also helps him with his efforts to reconcile to his ex-wife in a way that you’ll have to see if you watch the show.
What is her journey throughout the series?
She starts off very antipathetic to Bill, and as this cataclysm throws them together, she finds herself warming more and more toward him and starts to let him back into her emotional spectrum as the story unfolds. They draw closer and closer together, because they’re in a situation where they’re having to survive.
What first appealed to you about War of the Worlds?
What I love so much about the story is that the writer (Howard Overman) is so interested in what happens to real specific people when they’re looking at a cataclysm that might end life as we know it. It puts into a clear delineation, what your priorities are, who you are and what your relationships mean to you when you have to redefine them and re-look at them in the context of this world possibly ending. That it’s for me. It is much more interesting than watching plastic-looking odd creatures from outer space on the attack. It’s because the writer is very interested in characters.
It’s not so much the aliens, but the presence of the aliens and what they do to these people and their lives that is very interesting to observe. It makes you think about what life is all about because you have to redefine it in these different circumstances. It is very interesting to watch all the characters and the way they all, individually, deal with this situation. The writing really embraces and explores that aspect of the story, which is what I find really interesting.
What has been the biggest challenge in playing this role?
Well, I suppose mostly it’s been 100% a pleasure because I’m working with people that I really love so much. I mean the opportunity for me to work with Gabriel Byrne or with the director, Gilles (Coulier) is amazing. I’ve worked long enough to know how rare that is, to work with people that you’re so inspired by. So, I’m most just really grateful and it’s been pretty easy.
I suppose the challenge is, these television shows have to be shot very quickly and there’s a lot of really major jumping back and forth in this story, just because of the pragmatics of the way we have to shoot. This is like leaping eight episodes, eight hours forward and then back in time, rather than a normal two-hour story. It’s challenging to keep all that straight.
Do you have a favourite location?
It’s hard to say, because none of the locations are where you’d want to go for a holiday! It’s all bunkers and things that evoke the end of the world in your imagination. So, there haven’t been, for my character, too many picturesque holiday spots, no.
Are you looking forward to seeing the finished series?
Yes, very much so. One of the pleasures of it is that there are so many storylines that I have known nothing about, that I’m not in, and they’re happening all over the world. That’s what I love about this interpretation of War of the Worlds. It is hitting the entire world, like an alien invasion would, as opposed to just hitting America. You literally see these people from all walks of life, all different countries, all with this common denominator that we’re being attacked by aliens and it’s a very equalising force.
You have a character who is a refugee (portrayed by Bayo Gbadamosi) and in order to survive, he’s bonding with this couple (Bill and Helen) who are intellectual elite academics. They are depending on him to help them survive. It’s equalised everything in life. We’re all in the same boat, we’re all struggling for the same food, all struggling against the same common enemy. That’s a very interesting situation, to see what would happen if we just shook up the world, and if the refugee is now of equal status to the prominent Oxford academic characters. That’s a fun, new twist on the story.
What do you think the message of War of the Worlds is?
There isn’t a message particularly as much as it forces us to look at ourselves, our society, us, as human beings, in a situation where we might only have a few more days to live. Because there are forces outside of ourselves that we don’t understand, that are now possibly bringing it all to an end.
I feel like it’s a very timely story. I feel with global warming and with all the things that are going on in the world where we’ve lost all confidence in leadership, that we are living with the anxiety of, ‘is our life coming to an end as we know it?’ What does that mean for us? What does that mean for who we are? What’s important and what isn’t? What’s it all about? It’s a way of taking that situation and creating a fantasy that makes us look at our own lives and what we’re experiencing today with perspective and clarity.
Do you believe in aliens and if so, do you think it’s better they’re aware of our existence or not?
I don’t have a personal feeling about aliens. I’ve read that very erudite people who know a lot about the universe and science say that there’s very little possibility – knowing what we know about the universe and how big it is and knowing what we know about the factors that create life – there’s very little possibility that there isn’t some form of life somewhere. I’ve never personally had an encounter with an alien, so I can’t really speak with any authority about it, one way or another, but I do think that’s an interesting thing to ponder.
Is your character someone you think you could survive the end of the world with?
My character is pretty tough. I’m liking that she’s a survivor and she takes a lot of knocks and she gets up and keeps on kicking, which is an aspect of the character that I enjoy playing.
How does War of the Worlds differ from other alien or sci-fi shows?
I think the aspect of it that makes it different for me is the fact that it focuses on the human beings, the characters, as they’re impacted by this force, rather than the force itself. We don’t spend a lot of time looking at, as I like to say, ‘little pieces of plastic’ that are the alien invasion. It’s more ‘how is this affecting all these people as they carry on their lives?’ which I think is an interesting take on the story.
How would you sell the show to convince people to tune in?
It’s heart-breaking, it’s a real story about real people. There’s a lot of suspense and edge-of-your-seat storytelling. The bottom line, what makes it a different story for me, is that you get involved in real, complex characters and real, complex relationships between people. There’s been a real effort made to have dimensional people with real problems, who just happen to be contending with aliens. That elevates their problems and it throws them into more of a glaring light.
War of the Worlds premieres with a double episode at 8.30pm on Thursday 9 July on SBS. The series will also stream at SBS On Demand from that date, including with Simplified Chinese and Arabic subtitles. Start watching at SBS On Demand now: