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Elizabeth McGovern: 'War of the Worlds has so much resonance today'

Elizabeth McGovern in War of the Worlds
(Image credit: Joss Baratt)

Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern on starring in a modern-day take on HG Wells’ classic tale of The War of the Worlds

Elizabeth McGovern is a long way from Downton Abbey’s stiff-upper-lipped Lady Cora Crawley in FOX's War of the Worlds, which sees her battling aliens in an eight-part sci-fi thriller based on HG Wells’ 1898 novel.

Beginning with a double bill – followed by one episode a week – this modern-day retelling follows an ensemble cast of characters, including London-based divorcée Helen Brown (McGovern) and her neuroscientist ex-husband, Bill Ward (Gabriel Byrne).

When a group of meteor-like objects hurtle towards Earth and emit powerful electromagnetic pulses that kill anyone who hasn’t found shelter, most of humankind is wiped out, but Helen and Bill are among a small group of survivors.

However, as they set out to find their son, Dan, Helen is unaware that Bill is hiding a devastating secret.

We spoke to Elizabeth McGovern, 58, to find out more about this modern-day take on HG Wells’ War of the Worlds…

How does your character, Helen, fit into this War of the Worlds drama?

Elizabeth McGovern: "Helen’s marriage with Bill has completely fallen apart. They are living separately, and Helen has managed to move on with her life. But when they find themselves thrown together and needing to survive."

Elizabeth McGovern and Gabriel Byrne in War of the Worlds

Elizabeth McGovern as Helen Brown and Gabriel Byrne as Bill Ward in War of the Worlds

Does their need to survive bring them back together?

"Helen’s barriers start to disintegrate and it becomes unclear to her why she thought he was a bad husband. They have an opportunity to start again, but there’s a lie between them that begins to fester and it comes back to haunt them, which you’ll see as the series goes on."

How sci-fi is it? Do we see aliens?

"There’s very little time spent looking at a plastic creature, which is somebody’s imagination of an alien, coming towards you. We do a bit of that, but it’s more focused on the intricacies of human behaviour when faced with this trauma. It looks at how these characters survive, and what makes them want to survive. That’s much more interesting than the idea of whether aliens exist. It’s about the mystery of the way life works on this planet."

The series is the latest in a long line of adaptations, including BBC1’s recent period drama, but what is the relevance of War of the Worlds in 2020?

"I think the story has so much resonance today as we are in a world that is more divided than it ever has been. In America, walls are being built. In Britain, we’re pulling away from historical liaisons. The story postulates that when confronted by an outside enemy, in order to survive, these distinctions become completely irrelevant. Suddenly, we are just human beings on what is a very tiny planet in relation to the entirety of the universe."

This is very different from your Downton Abbey role, is that why you wanted to do it?

"Honestly, rolling around in the mud was so much fun for me. It was just liberating. Even though it’s a very dark story, my experience of making War of the Worlds was one of absolute joy."

War of the Worlds airs on FOX on Thursday 5 March at 9pm