‘Downton Abbey’ Star Elizabeth McGovern Says Her Ava Gardner Play Examines the Screen Legend Through Social Media Lens

“Her image is taken and then used for purposes that she doesn’t have anything to do with,” McGovern told TheWrap

Elizabeth McGovern as Ava Gardner
Elizabeth McGovern as Ava Gardner

Gorgeous, infamous and woefully misrepresented, Ava Gardner is one of numerous Old Hollywood actresses who is being reevaluated by audiences today. She’s also seeing her story told onstage in “Ava: The Secret Conversations,” playing at the Geffen Playhouse through May 14.

Actress Elizabeth McGovern, of “Downton Abbey” fame, and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel adapt Peter Evans’ book of the same name for the production, which charts the last years of Gardner’s life.

McGovern pulls double duty as leading lady and writer of the play’s script. She came to Gardner’s work through Evans’ book, primarily. “The starting point was the seduction of this idea of a biographer attempting to get a life story out of a recalcitrant or ambivalent subject and all the things that brings up about the nature of biography, about the nature of how we look at our own lives and what they add up to at the very end,” McGovern told TheWrap.

From there the actress looked at the connections within her own life. “As an actress who was quite young in Hollywood, that’s where it started. I just had, right from the start, this idea that a two-hander with these two characters being completely pulled together. It was a perfect metaphor for a journey to intimacy because they are trying to take away the layers and get to the inner person,” she said.

McGovern and director von Stuelpnagel went on to discuss mounting a production like this and how today’s social media outlook influences celebrity.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow of conversation.

Ava is, like many Old Hollywood actresses, someone who has had a lot written about her from a very one-sided perspective. How did you want to portray her?

Elizabeth McGovern: The thing that I could relate to is this idea that her image is taken and then used for purposes that are not anything she has anything to do with or that she’s necessarily even attached to, in terms of her authentic self. When you multiply that in those days, the impact that one person can have was so different to today — I don’t know if it was more but a bigger impact.

I wanted to explore the repercussions that has on a person’s psyche and the damage it does, and also pay tribute to how beautiful and romantic and a gift to the public these images and these myths were. I hope the play gives the audience nostalgia for it all because it is dying, cinema in that way, in that old-fashioned way that was more full of mystery and untouchable glamour. It has more or less gone.

Now there’s almost too much intimacy with the stars. You know what they’re having for breakfast. You know everything about them and it kills it for me. I find it very confusing, all the lines getting blurred. You have personal connections on these social media channels and suddenly, it’s like, “Oh, they’re friends.” What does that mean? It’s all gone into an area that’s quite complicated.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel: There is something, naturally, in the relationship between a biographer and their subject that is inherently inextricable from that point of view. By which I mean, as Elizabeth so smartly says, this idea that her image is both the thing to capitalize on from the male gaze, which is something we’re trying to investigate and understand more, versus whether that is inherently exploitative, or both. That is part of the mythology we built at a certain time that has influenced the society we live in now, and that, for me, feels like a dynamic and tense conversation. [It] feels inherently dramatic. That is what drew me to it. But I also think Elizabeth’s sense of theatricality, as somebody who comes from a performative background, who has so much experience on the stage and in storytelling, I was really excited to help serve this idea.

McGovern: I have worked on this as an idea for eight years and Moritz was the first person that got what I found fascinating about it. I sent it to so many people and it was an interesting experience for me, because I hadn’t written for the theater before. So I went through this process with so many dramaturgs and people that want to give you advice. I was always really confused by their advice; eight years of saying, “We can’t tell this story through the male point-of-view, period.”

von Stuelpnagel: [There] is a level of discomfort and, fair enough, that should create a kind of dissonance or questioning of why is it being told. But if you go to that place of discomfort, of why does Peter get to dictate her story — Peter Evans, the biographer — in that you bring up a question of, what is he seeing? So that lets us have a conversation about the thing that’s uncomfortable, is that we see the celebrities, especially female celebrities, with a certain lens.

We’ve seen so many Old Hollywood biopics. Did you want to use certain Ava characteristics in your performance?

McGovern: There’s a lot of mimicry, the play calls for it. My feeling on that is that I try to capture the spirit of something. It’s very important to me that it be alive and that’s more important than absolute perfect mimicry. When we were looking for our Peter, that always took priority. We didn’t need somebody to come in and do perfect impersonations. We needed somebody who was a great actor who could understand the dynamic that was important in the relationship with each of the characters, so that the relationship and understanding and embracing [of her] was prioritized more. It’s fun to be inspired by what I could find of [Evans’ actual] tapes and her performances.

One of the things that was challenging is that, most of the time, what’s on record is not necessarily Ava’s authentic self. She was always putting on a phony voice. I wanted to do what I thought would be close to her authentic self when she’s more relaxed, at home. So that was, in a way, a bit of guesswork.

Find out more about “Ava: The Secret Conversations” at the Geffen Playhouse.