Downton Abbey star, Shirley MaclaineWe reveal all you need to know about the lady playing Cora’s mother, Martha, in Downton Abbey

1) Shirley MacLaine was discovered by accident, as an understudy thrust into the limelight when the lead actress broke her ankle. Alfred Hitchcock was in the audience that night and cast her in her first film role in The Trouble With Harry.

2) Shirley believes in reincarnation and UFOs and is very spiritual. ‘We encounter people from the past that we didn’t finish the learning experience with,’ she says.

3) She starred in her own short-lived sitcom, Shirley’s World in the 1970s. It ran for just 17 episodes.

4) She had an open relationship with her ex-husband of 28 years, Steve Parker. ’There are three sets of people where sex is concerned,’ she says. ‘The promiscuous, which I was not; the total monogamist, which I was not; and the serial monogamist, who has very deep but intense relationships while you are in them. I learned what I needed to learn from them and I usually fixed it so they would move on – not me. I didn’t like the guilt of moving away from them.’

5) Shirley and younger brother Warren Beatty are the only brother and sister act to have won both Oscars and American Film Institute Life Achievement Awards.

6) Marlene Dietrich taught Shirley an anti-ageing trick of using a delicate chain and two hairgrips to give herself a temporary facelift. She’s since had a surgical facelift.

7) She calls her dog Terry ‘the love of my life’ and insists she travels with her everywhere – she even gets her own seat next to Shirley on airplanes!

8) She was close friends with Elizabeth Taylor and reportedly introduced her to her third husband Mike Todd, who tragically died in a plane crash at the age of 48.

9) Shirley completed the gruelling Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage across Spain in 1994. She wrote about her experiences along the way in The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit.

10) Shirley believes 2012 is a year of change. ‘We’re coming to an alignment,’ she explains. ‘It’s the first time in 26,000 years that this has occurred, that the solar system has been in line with the centre of the galaxy. You can’t prove it, but I have a feeling that we could be on the threshold of a new beginning.’