Shirley MacLaine Interview on Downton Abbey

Shirley MacLaine Interview on Downton Abbey

By Cindy Pearlman—

Shirley MacLaine and I are having a spiritual moment.

“Tell me when you were born.  I know exactly what you should do on your next birthday,” says the woman who made new age cool when it was really new.

MacLaine was out on a limb before others were even out on a branch.  The great news is that at age 80, the Oscar winner and newcomer on the upcoming season of “Downton Abbey” hasn’t changed one bit.

“Do you remember the time you were born?  In what time zone?” asks the screen legend.  “At that exact time, do your projections for the next year.  What do you want for your mind, body and spirit?  Write it down.  Say it out loud.  You must do this every single year on your birthday.  Don’t tempt fate.  Do it!” she insists.  “Hear what this tells you.”

It’s not hard to hear or see MacLaine.


“I’m filling up my year and just having a wonderful time with creativity,” says MacLaine who does this phone interview from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico where she has spent a pleasant morning digging around her vegetable garden.

She’s not exactly puttering around the house all the time.  She is now part of the “Downton Abbey” family as Martha Levinson, mother of Cora, Countess of Grantham.  MacLaine signed on for one simple reason.

“It’s a brilliant show!  I’ve been asking myself why is this show so obsessively addictive.  Even I can’t figure it out,” she says.  “I don’t think it’s about the upper class versus the lower class.  I think there is something more sophisticated going on and it’s hidden.”


“Of course, a lot of it is good writing and a good environment for the show,” she continues.  “The series is full of truth and authentic touches.  It’s full of class flashes, but still there is something else going on here.  I’m not sure even I have my finger on it.”

She can put her finger on those elaborate “Downton” costumes.

“Oh, I hate them,” she says of putting on all those layers for her scenes.  “For one scene, I had to have two costume people button me up.  Those dresses have those teeny tiny little buttons.  It’s no wonder those people had to have servants.  That was the only way they could get dressed.  I don’t have the patience for that in real life, so that was hard on me,” she says.


She isn’t slowing down for a minute despite a few costume challenges.

“I still love acting.  I love it,” MacLaine says.  “I can’t be without creativity.  If I don’t have creativity in my life, then I’m a dead person.  That’s what is really driving me,” she says. “It’s my muse.”

“I do agree with Einstein who said nothing is more important than imagination.”

It was a given that she would become an actress.  “I picked the right profession or it picked me,” MacLaine says.  She was born in Richmond, Virginia where her father Ira was a professor of psychology, public school administrator and real estate agent.  Her mother Kathlyn was a drama teacher who taught both Shirley and her brother, future film superstar Warren Beatty.

“I grew up in a rather repressed middle class home where you weren’t supposed to do what the neighbors didn’t like,” she says.  “I think what happened is it taught me to jump over that fence.”

A physical limitation jump-started her show biz career.  “I was born with weak ankles, so my mother took me to acting and dancing classes.  I fell in love with music and dancing.  When I eventually wanted to get out of the house, the dancing led to a career in music and then acting and writing.”


Always a maverick, she refused to listen during her early days in Hollywood.  “I remember going to the makeup department at one of the big studios.  They wanted to curl my hair and extend my lips, plus put a lot of mascara on me.”

“I said, ‘Please no,’” she recalls.  “They said, ‘That’s what you’ll have to do to make it in Hollywood, Miss MacLaine.’ And I said, ‘Then I’ll risk not making it.’”
“I don’t know what it is about me.  I just always know what I want and I don’t want,” she says.  “My belief system is so entrenched.  I need to feel centered about it.”

MacLaine has done roles in films including Hitchcock’s “The Trouble with Harry” (1955), “The Apartment” (1960) and then won an Academy Award in 1983 for her role in “Terms of Endearment.”  She was equally as famous for being the one female who was allowed to hang out with the Rat Pack.  What does she remember of those days of hanging out with Frank, Sammy, Dean, etc?

“Oh, the Rat Pack. I’ll never forget all the fun we had,” she says.  “They used to drag me up on the stage, but there wasn’t any dragging. I loved it. We’d make jokes and the crowd ate it up.  They taught me so many things about comedy and live entertaining,” she recalls.  “I took my own show to Vegas and I loved playing there, except when I heard the tinkling of the ice in the glasses.  That’s when you know you’re losing the audience.”

Why was she the lone female who became “one of the guys?”

“Why was I the one girl who was allowed to hang with the Rat Pack?” she poses. “I’d clean up their crackers and their jelly beans. They also tell me how they trusted me because I never divulged any of their secrets.  I was like one of the boys.”

“Maybe the real reason I got to hang out with the Rat Pack was I wasn’t sexually attractive to them,” she reflects.  “Honestly, I can’t tell you why they allowed me around them, but I can tell you that whatever the reason, those guys protected me from other men.  I couldn’t have a wing ding whirl of a time if I wanted to in their presence!”

They did appreciate how Shirley didn’t take any guff—from anyone.  “I told some mob bosses off in front of them.  I told a major mob boss to ‘go f-himself’ and the entire Rat Pack fell down laughing.”

One wonders:  Who will ever play MacLaine if they turn her life story into a movie?  “I’d like Renee Zellweger to play me,” she says.  “A bitchier Renee.  She’s lovely though.”

As far as her spiritual side, MacLaine was a maverick.  Now, all the new age theories she touted years ago are mainstream.  “I was ahead of my time,” she says.  “I have that talent curse.  I can pretty well look down the road a little bit and feel what’s going on.  I just put all the pieces together.  Now, it is mainstream, but I didn’t say or write those things for any reason other than I believed it myself.”

“I can’t do anything unless I believe in it,” she says.

As for age, she says it’s just a number.   “I do have some wisdom now, but I can’t do the full Jane Fonda workout, which is crazy anyways,” she says of the plusses and minuses of aging.  “I do love the fact that people are always opening doors for me and asking me if I need anything.  That has nothing to do with age.  I’m just an elitist and I like a lot of attention,” she muses.

This elitist says her life has worked out perfectly well although it has mostly been unplanned.  “I haven’t planned a damn thing ever in my life,” she says.  “Guess what?  It worked out great.”

maclaine_quote_01“I wouldn’t know how to plan.  I wouldn’t have a clue.  I know that you can basically live in the moment, which is what I do.  It’s fine to live a life unfiltered.  I don’t think about the consequences, but that’s just me.”

MacLaine makes her home in Santa Fe where she lives a non-movie star life.  “I was just talking with a shaman here in Santa Fe.  He says Mother Nature is like a mother dog and she’s shaking off her fleas,” she says of the state of the world.  “We should all be prepared to have our gardens and get back to nature,” she advises.

“I enjoyed living in Los Angeles,” she says.  “But I love living in New Mexico because I wanted to get back to nature. I wanted to live a natural life.”

“Hollywood is a great teacher,” she says.  “If you’re paying attention, you can learn in Hollywood what matters and what doesn’t while getting your priorities straight.  I don’t need a red carpet.  I do need my garden and dirt under my nails.”

When you agree that this sounds lovely, MacLaine sounds pleased.  She  even offers a gift.  “Thank you for listening,” she says.  “I’ll send you light.”



CINDY PEARLMAN CHATS WITH THE STARS ABOUT LOOKING, THINKING AND FEELING GREAT AFTER 50.   She is a nationally syndicated entertainment and beauty writer and co-author of The Black Book of Hollywood Beauty Secrets and The Black Book of Hollywood Diet Secrets.    Send your beauty questions to

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