The Lady in the Van star says she felt more comfortable playing homeless Mary Shepherd than the corseted Lady Violet
Dame Maggie Smith has revealed she preferred playing Miss Mary Shepherd to Downton Abbey's Lady Violet Crawley, because the contemporary outfits were more comfortable.
The 80-year-old actress reprises the role of homeless Miss Shepherd for the third time in The Lady In The Van, who lived in a battered yellow van on the driveway of the writer Alan Bennett for 15 years.
Ahead of the film's premiere at the BFI London Film Festival tonight, Dame Maggie - best known for playing the Dowager Countess of Grantham on Julian Fellowes' ITV period drama - said: "I don't really tend to be close to either. I feel easier with The Lady In The Van than that lady with the hat on.
"It was much easier, as an actor, to be Miss Shepherd because she didn't mind about how she looked and it was such a relief. Lady Violet was forever in those corsets and things that Miss Shepherd would never dream of getting into. For comfort alone, it was better to be Miss Shepherd."
The film adaptation of Bennett's diaries, written by the playwright himself and directed by Nicholas Hytner, is their second collaboration since 2006's The History Boys. Alex Jennings portrays the screenwriter.
Dame Maggie previously played the character in Bennett's original 1999 theatrical production, where she received a best actress nomination at the 2000 Olivier Awards, and in a 2009 Radio 4 adaptation.
She said: "Revisiting the part this time is very different - on stage it's much broader. The film was much more concentrated, it was a whole different thing. The stage is more demanding, but it was a long time ago."
The star said spending days in the van were troublesome.
She said: "The van wasn't the most comfortable of places but it was where I spent most of the time. It was not very easy being constricted in a van. There is no way you could live in a van, surely not for that length of time. The rest of the cast were in luxury in a real house."
Dame Maggie also said getting into the van was a struggle at times: "It was fine when it was dry, but it was wet most of the time because of the rain."
Director Hytner revealed how they had to give the van a deep cleanse after they found two revellers inside after a weekend, to which the actress said: "They didn't tell me until later!"
The Lady In The Van opens in UK cinemas on November 13.