Shirley MacLaine Goes Toe-to-Toe With Maggie Smith in 'Downton Abbey' Debut

Shirley MacLaine in Downton Abbey - H 2012

Shirley MacLaine in Downton Abbey - H 2012

With the premiere of PBS' popular period drama on Sunday, the screen legend talks about acting opposite Smith, comparing notes on old lovers and a possible return to the stage.

Shirley MacLaine may or may not have been Maggie Smith's lover in a previous life.

As the red-haired silver-screen icon makes her highly-anticipated debut on PBS's Downton Abbey this Sunday, MacLaine spoke about going toe-to-toe with Smith, reminiscing about old lovers and a possible return to the stage in a wide-ranging interview with the New York Times.

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When asked how she prepared to act alongside Smith, MacLaine explained, "I thought the best course of action in going toe-to-toe with Maggie would be a sense of American expressive feeling."

She continued describing the differences between their techniques while shooting a scene where her character, Martha Levinson, serenades Smith's Violet Crawley.

"I told her I was going to sing it, and first she said to me, [genteel Maggie Smith voice] 'You know, dear, when you do that, I’m going to fall off the chair.' I said, 'OK.' And then she said, 'No, I think not. I think I’ll fall asleep.' I said, 'OK, that’s good, too.' And then she said, 'No, I think I will cry.' I said, I don’t know what you’d do that for, but whatever. What she did instead was flirt back. [Laughs] I was so surprised."

MacLaine added that during the two actresses downtime, they would compare notes, including those on past lovers.

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"We sat and we reminisced about life and lovers and the business and directors. That was really interesting and so much fun," she said. "When we were doing a press conference here, someone asked me if I had known Maggie before. And I said, 'Oh, yes, we were lovers in another life.' [Laughs] I don’t know where that came from."

She added, "Maybe it’s true. I have no idea."

The actress also spoke about her love for the theater, but revealed she may not have the discipline to return to the stage.

"I do miss the stage. There’s nothing like it, nothing," she said. "Of course you can’t do anything else, and you can’t run quickly for a cab in the rain, and you can’t have a drunken love affair. You can’t do any of that. Because you’ve got to be perfectly healthy. And I guess I value enjoying my life a little bit more than the discipline these days."

Downton Abbey's third season premieres Sunday on PBS.

To read the entire interview, visit the New York Times.