The new season of PBS's "Downton Abbey" on PBS's "Masterpiece" (9 p.m. EST Sunday and continuing Sunday nights through Feb. 17; check local listings) introduces several new characters, but the highest-profile actor joining the cast, if only for the first two hours, is undoubtedly Shirley MacLaine.
She plays Martha Levinson, mother of Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), countess of Grantham.
For newcomers, "Downton Abbey" follows the trials and triumphs of members of the Crawley family (upstairs) and their servants (downstairs) in a sprawling British estate. Years earlier, Cora saved Downton Abbey with her American wealth when she married Robert (Hugh Bonneville), earl of Grantham. Now a taste of America is coming to England as Martha butts heads with her equal, Robert's mother, the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith.
At a rollicking press conference for the PBS hit last summer during the Television Critics Association summer press tour, MacLaine confessed she hadn't remembered meeting Smith previously, but Smith reminded her.
"She told me that we had met 40 years ago backstage at the Oscars next to the catering table," MacLaine said. "And I was up for something, and there was this big chocolate cake on the catering table. And whatever I was up for, I lost, and somebody else won. And Maggie said, 'You know what you did, dear? You tucked right into that chocolate cake and said, "(Screw) it. I don't care if I'm thin ever again." ' She remembered more than me, but then she's younger than me. She's one year younger."
MacLaine said filming "Downton Abbey" was an extraordinary experience for her in stamina and in work ethic.
"We were shooting outside in the rain and in the wind with our formal gear on and nobody seemed to notice. So I quickly just stepped right in there and acted like I didn't notice either," she said.
The veteran actress had not seen the series before being approached about a guest role on the program, but she overheard her "hairdresser lady in Malibu" talking about the show.
"When it was announced I was going to do Martha Levinson, I didn't know anything about her. I don't even know if you do," she said, nodding to series writer/creator Julian Fellowes. "But my hairdresser does. All the ladies in my hairdressing place said, 'Oh, she's Jewish and she's from Long Island and she has a lot of money and she's looking for a tight, old man.' I thought that might be worthwhile investigating. Along with the great acting and fantastic show, that's basically why I did it, to see if my hairdresser lady is right. Who is she? Where did she come from, Julian?"
"She's just so like Shirley MacLaine," Fellowes replied, prompting a gale of guffaws from the entire cast.
Fellowes said it was important to introduce the Martha Levinson character because she reinforces the idea of whose money has sustained Downton in recent years and how Cora's background differs from that of her husband, Robert Crawley.
"As things start to change and the plates are shifting and we are reminded what Cora's come from, Cora is less afraid of the future than Robert is. She's much less afraid of change," Fellowes said. If anyone understands the world that's coming, it's Cora. And in a way the bringing in of Martha ushers in that new era by reminding us you come from a different past."
McGovern said she didn't completely understand her character until she met MacLaine.
"Suddenly it all came clear, and I realized that for two years I was in a bit of a fog," she said. "(Cora is) a kind of icon that has gone out of fashion in the decade of the '90s because we started to fall in love with women who were towers of strength in a very muscular sort of way. And she's a more old-fashioned idea of women's strength, which is somebody who is extremely flexible and resilient and can roll with the punches and is strong in a quieter, more self-effacing way. It's nice to resurrect that idea of female strength, because that has churned the wheels of history for many centuries, that quiet, strong woman that just connects all the dots in the family."
Family takes a front seat in the new season, set in the spring of 1920, as the denizens of "Downton" shake off the weariness of World War I, which cast a pall over season two.
"This season, in a way, is about the recovery from the war," Fellowes said. "There were those few years when people were trying to decide was the world going to be the same as it was before, had it changed completely, was the future going to be completely different? And that's really the kind of theme of the series. There are chills and spills involved in that for all the characters, some laughs and some tears."
That mix has established "Downton" as a huge hit for PBS, helping the public broadcaster shake off a musty image while earning accolades (nine Emmys total for the first two seasons and a Golden Globe for best miniseries) and an obsessive following. Fellowes attributes the show's success to what he sees as similarities to some past American TV shows.
"The decision to make it more like the modern American television series of 'West Wing' and 'ER' and all those with lots of plots going on -- big plots, little plots, funny plots, sad plots -- so it's all sort of plotted up together, that seems to be right for the energy of now," he said. "It seems to meet what the audience wants. And with 'Downton,' the fun is that it sort of looks like a classical period drama from the '70s and everyone's in bustles and ringing for lunch, but the energy is much more modern. And I think that has worked for us."
Already, "Downton Abbey" has been renewed for a fourth season that begins production in March and will return to PBS next January. The show is likely to remain in the 1920s for the foreseeable future because it's a period Fellowes said has been less explored in drama than the 1930s.
"Once you get into the '30s, then it's the Nazi-dominated, 'Europe prepares for the war' period that I think we've all seen pretty often," he said. "But the '20 are a much more nebulous time."
He promised that the new season will include the impact of "the Irish troubles," an area American viewers may have less knowledge about.
"There is this sort of vague sprinkling of events and references that, if you check them out (online), will work and are true," Fellowes said. "It seems to me rather good fun to be doing that in a much lesser-known period. For all those reasons, I think we will be moving pretty slowly through the 1920s."
Then he joked about how the series might end.
"We could go to the Wall Street Crash and then end with Robert playing a ukulele," Fellowes said, drawing laughs. "That would be our big finish."