MULTI-TALENTED: Elizabeth McGovern in the movie The Chaperone.
MULTI-TALENTED: Elizabeth McGovern in the movie The Chaperone. Barry Wetcher

Downton Abbey star's passion project

SOMETIMES you can read a book and, by the end, say to yourself "that would make a great movie".

Such was the case for Elizabeth McGovern, who found herself in a position to put her heart and soul into turning the best-seller The Chaperone into a movie as an actress and a producer.

Best known as the Countess of Grantham in TV's Downton Abbey, McGovern was recording the audio-book version, and realised it had to go to the big screen.

The Chaperone is the story of Norma: a woman in 1920s America whose life is changed forever when she chaperones a young, and soon to be world-famous, Louise Brookes (Haley Lu Richardson) to New York.

Haley Lu Richardson and Elizabeth McGovern in a scene from The Chaperone.
Haley Lu Richardson and Elizabeth McGovern in a scene from The Chaperone. Barry Wetcher

McGovern knew exactly who she wanted on writing duties: Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes.

"I was a fan of the book and I was hired to do the audio book, and while I'm reading it, I'm thinking 'This has to be a movie'. So that was the light-bulb moment," she says.

"I was working with Julian at the time and he agreed with me. He wanted to tackle the screenplay. So that's how it all got going.

"We hadn't planned to work together. Our association went on for so long on Downton because the show went for so long.

"He wrote, I acted and that was it, but there was mutual respect there.

"I had to get the courage up to alter our dynamic to get him to work on The Chaperone. When I would get drafts, I'd give him feedback as a producer, which is something I wasn't used to, but he was so open and receptive that I loved that whole experience."

Set in 1922, this was an era when most women didn't have a voice.

"It's a really interesting time, particularly in America. It was such a time of liberation for women, and a time of massive change, plus the clothes looked great," McGovern says.

"What drew me to The Chaperone was the story. I love the fact that these women were changing and exploring things about being women against the backdrop of times of massive upheaval. But aside from that, I don't yearn to do any more period stuff per se, as I've done quite a bit.

Elizabeth McGovern stars in and produces the movie The Chaperone.
Elizabeth McGovern stars in and produces the movie The Chaperone. Hudson Lane

"Maybe this is my period swansong. I'm not sure. At the end of the day, I want to do work with great stories and characters."

McGovern enjoyed the experience as a producer but found that you must have a passion for the material.

"I would produce a movie again, but I would need that light-bulb feeling as it's a lot of hard work," she says.

"I'd never do it just for the heck of it. I have to have the feeling that I believe in it, and it will mean something to people.

"I had so much help from other people who were much more up with the day-to-day job of producing and were sensitive to the fact that I needed to concentrate on my acting scenes. They really stepped up to the plate.

"My role as a producer had mostly to do with finding the materials, bring it to the writer and finding the financing. But I also felt as a producer that it was my job to do something that I understand, which was to bring everyone's best to get the most from everyone's potential. I just thought this was going to be a movie for adults looking for something refreshing when cinemas are full of cartoon movies.

"There aren't many options for grown-ups now, looking for a movie that's not angry or bitter. We'll see if I'm right and see if the audiences agree with me.

"I feel they will."

The Chaperone opens in cinemas tomorrow.