LONDON – Filthy, dressed in rags and living in a battered old van, Maggie Smith’s latest character is a long way from “Downton Abbey” — and the actress couldn’t be happier.
Smith has shed her “Downton”-era corsets and hats to play an eccentric elderly vagrant in the film “The Lady in the Van.” So was it a relief to slide down the social scale?
“Oh, you bet!” laughed Smith with more energy than her character expended in five seasons of the country-house costume drama. “It was just great to not be that stuffy.”
For many viewers, Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham — she of the arched eyebrow and withering putdown — was the highlight of “Downton Abbey.”
The final series’ current run on PBS coincides with the U.S. release of “The Lady in the Van,” in which Smith plays Miss Shepherd, a real-life homeless woman who parked in the driveway of writer Alan Bennett’s London house, and stayed for 15 years.
Bennett told the story of the odd relationship he developed with his unexpected guest in a 1989 essay and a 1999 play, which also starred Smith.
Smith said she was keen to explore Miss Shepherd again with the more intense focus of film, and to work with filmmaker Nicholas Hytner, who also directed movie adaptations of Bennett’s plays “The Madness of King George” and “The History Boys.”
Smith has earned Golden Globe and British Academy Film Award nominations for her performance as the proud and prickly Miss Shepherd — a gifted pianist who had spent time in psychiatric care, once aspired to be a nun and sometimes saw saints on the streets of London.
“She’s a pretty complex person,” said Smith during an interview in a luxury London hotel suite more suited to Lady Grantham than Miss Shepherd — the same suite Kate Middleton stayed in the night before she married Prince William.
“I think she was a mystery to everybody,” added Smith, who in person is warmer and more chic than either of her recent characters. “I think she was a mystery to herself, really.”
Miss Shepherd and her contradictions were a burden for Bennett the homeowner, but a gift for Bennett the writer, a witty dissector of class-bound English foibles and anxieties.
“She’s ungrateful, ungracious, aggressive, rude, armour-plated, never gives an inch, smelly, stubborn,” Hytner said.
“But she’s kind of magnificent because she doesn’t compromise. She lives exactly the way she wants to live. … She turns all those smug middle-class English people upside-down.”
The film, which also stars Alex Jennings as Bennett, was shot in the street where the real events took place, a crescent of 19th-century villas — originally grand, then run-down, now gleaming again. Today the properties are worth millions but the area, Camden Town, still has its rough edges.
Hytner said the crew arrived early one Monday morning, “opened the back door of the van and found a couple — young, completely high — who’d spent the weekend in the van.”
“They didn’t tell me about it,” said Smith with mock outrage. “‘Don’t tell Maggie! Don’t let Maggie know!’ I can’t remember when you did tell me. We’d finished filming. Cowards!”
Millions of fans are preparing a sad goodbye to “Downton Abbey.” Not Smith, who says she’s relieved it’s over: “It’s freedom.”
“But that’s true of everyone in it, I think,” she said. “Everybody was exhausted by the end.”
She wonders what American “Downton” fans — used to seeing her “in corsets with a nice hat on” — will make of her latest role.
WATCH: Behind the scenes of Downton Abbey
Smith, 81, is British acting aristocracy, a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire — the female equivalent of a knight — who has won two Oscars, for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and “California Suite.” She has worked with Laurence Olivier and Ingmar Bergman and appeared in the “Harry Potter” films as Professor McGonagall.
But she says that “not until ‘Downton Abbey’ was I well-known or stopped in the street and asked for one of those terrible photographs.”
The show’s success took producers, cast and crew by surprise. Smith was in India, filming “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” with Penelope Wilton (her “Downton” sparring partner Isobel Crawley), when the first season aired in Britain in 2010.
The pair returned to London unaware that the show had become a TV phenomenon, and decided to pay a visit to the genteel Hampton Court Flower Show.
“It was dreadful,” Smith said with a dramatic shudder. “We were savaged. It was dreadful. We had no idea. And it was a nightmare.
“You would think you’d be safe with gardeners.”