Life has changed a lot for Lesley Manville since she was ‘discovered’ by Hollywood last year, despite being a multiple award-winning star of stage and screen in the UK. Being nominated for an Oscar for her supporting actress performance in Phantom Thread opposite Daniel Day-Lewis has seen her career take off Stateside and given her opportunities she wasn’t looking out for, but is delighted to take up.
“I was overwhelmed by the response to Phantom Thread,” she says. “I’d have been happy to have made it if nobody had ever seen it because I had 14 of the most glorious weeks of my life and career shooting it. I thought it was a stunning film – it’s the kind of film I love anyway.
“But it did such great things for me personally, which I would never have expected. At this stage of my career, I’m 63, I really do want for very little and have absolutely nothing to complain about. I’m playing interesting women who aren’t just the wife, the mother, supernumerary, but fascinating women who are at the forefront of the story, so I wasn’t looking for any other doors to be opened.
“But this door with America written on the front of it has opened and it’s just nice, because it’s giving me just more variety and more opportunities. I’m playing Americans now – I mean I’ve done that here on stage, with Long Day’s Journey into Night and Six Degrees of Separation – but I recently finished filming a film in America with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane called Let Him Go, playing someone from North Dakota.
Oscar nomination opens doors
“I know things like that would not have come my way had it not have been for the Oscar nomination. And the thing that was overwhelming for me was that people knew who I was, that Steven Spielberg came up and said ‘Hello Lesley’. I nearly died!” She laughs. “I was sitting next to Daniel Day-Lewis and he didn’t even have to introduce him to me. That’s my moment,” she says. “Yeah, it’s been an astonishing few years.”
Over this side of the pond, Manville was discovered decades ago and a 47-year career in theatre, film, and television has seen her win multiple awards, including the 2014 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress for her performance in Richard Eyre’s revival of Ibsen’s Ghosts, alongside Jack Lowden. “Not only an amazing actor, but a big, big friend for life,” she says.Brought up in Hove, Sussex in a working class home, her father a plumber, printer, cab driver, bookmaker, she went to the Italia Conti stage school in London at 17 and has been demonstrating her work ethic ever since.
When her first marriage, to the actor Gary Oldman broke up when their son, Alfie, was three months old she worked nights in the theatre so she could look after him during the day. Alfie, now 31, works in TV and film as a camera crew loader and became a member of a very small club of offspring with both parents nominated for an Oscar in the same year when his father Oldman carried off the Oscar for his performance as Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour. Making her film debut in Dance with a Stranger in 1985, she is well known for working with director Mike Leigh, with roles in 11 of his films, from Secrets & Lies in 1996, through Topsy-Turvy and All or Nothing in 2002 to Another Year in 2010.
Her extensive stage career includes parts in Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The Alchemist, Six Degrees of Separation and most recently Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, which went from the West End to New York. She played a morphine addict opposite Jeremy Irons on stage in the evening, while filming Harlots, an Anglo-American historical whore wars TV drama written by Alison Newman, in which she stars as brothel madam Lydia Quigley alongside Samantha Morton, during the day. She also found the time to film the third and final series of the Bafta-winning Mum, as Cathy, a widow reassessing the potential of life and love with Peter Mullan. And this month sees the release of her latest film, Ordinary Love, opposite Liam Neeson, another actor who knows all about being a hit in the US, with action movies such as the Taken series and Non-Stop.
Ordinary Love is a much quieter beast than those action films, and shows both actors’ ability to catch the detail and subtleties of an intimate relationship. When Joan is diagnosed with breast cancer, her long, happy marriage to Tom is put to the test but rather than fall apart, the couple continue with their banter and bickering, supermarket runs and morning power walks, her continuing to nag him about his lifestyle when ironically she’s the one with cancer. As they journey through chemotherapy, hair loss, sex (Manville and Neeson proving that bald really can be beautiful) and shopping, the film acknowledges and explores the quotidian nature of cancer, that everyone either has or knows someone affected.“It’s not just a film about cancer, it’s lots of things, it’s also a middle-aged love story,” she says.
Both Neeson and Manville are instinctive actors with experience of improvisation and building a back story without becoming slaves to the role off screen, and they make a convincing long-term couple on screen. “We just hit it off, got on, but neither Liam or I have reputations for being difficult or anything like that anyway. We still keep in touch, every few days I get some funny WhatsApp from him. But if we hadn’t got on, well, acting is acting isn’t it? So hopefully we’d have been able to carry it off. But we met and spent time together before we started shooting and on the first day of filming we were relaxing on the sofa watching telly – they didn’t start off on day one with a hot snogging scene.” That comes later….
“Yes,” continues Manville, “And a less brilliant writer (Owen McCafferty) and less brilliant directors (Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn) could easily have slipped into sentimentality and a softness, but it’s done with the most realism we could bring to it.”
Manville has personal experience of cancer in the family as her late eldest sister had it, although she did recover from that. “We felt it honoured those with cancer and also demystifies it in a good way. Liam and I play a couple that still have senses of humour, still like each other and find each other attractive, so when you bring this terrible thing into their lives, it makes for a more interesting film. And it’s no secret that it’s based on some elements of the story of Owen the writer and his wife Peggy, who came out the other side. “But at the same time, for Joan it is lonely, because as much as her husband says he’s with her every step of the way, you’re still facing the sweats and the vomiting and the personal dread, being on the doorstep of death, on your own.”
Working with Mike Leigh
Fortunately, given the nature of this film, despite its lightness of touch, Manville isn’t one to take her work home with her. This is something she partly puts down to her experience of working with Mike Leigh for so long. “With Mike you spend months creating characters and then do improvisations that become the backbone of the piece, so the characters are very, very full, but you develop the discipline to come out of them at the same time. So I can go to the darkest, darkest, saddest, loneliest places and depict all of that, then when I walk off stage or set, I’m done. I’m incredibly good at letting it go. I’m so glad I’m like that because I do play a lot of characters who are lonely and unhappy or troubled, ill, depressed in some way. So thank God I’ve got that gift to leave it behind.” Demonstrating exactly this facet of her personality she adds brightly, “I do comedy as well,” which takes us to Mum, another role that revels in the drama of domesticity, but this time it’s definitely a sitcom, much of the humour coming from the fact that 59-year-old Cathy’s family are oblivious to the fact their mother still has a pulse.
The third and final BBC series aired earlier this year with Manville playing Cathy, renegotiating her life and relationships with the help of old friend and infatuated neighbour Michael, played refreshingly against type by Peter Mullan.
“I know!” says Manville and laughs. “When we first started doing Mum, Peter said he was really quite worried about how he’d be able to do it. And the irony of it is that he is the nicest man. But he was quite frightened of playing Michael because every pore in Michael’s body oozes loveliness, and Peter is used to running around gouging people’s eyes out.” The action revolves around clearing out the garage, the front room, barbecues, visits from her in-laws, the humour and pathos in everyday life and family dynamics.
“I’m clearly adept at relaying a character’s inner thoughts and feelings,” she says. “I suppose because I’ve been doing it for many decades, and I’ve had quite a lot of practice.“But also, I’ve had a life, and our lives do inform us and our relationships with close people, family, children if you have them, and the maturity we gain through our lives will inform everything. So I’m just having my life like everyone else, but my job is to find a way to let the camera see that. Telling the quiet story, you know.”
Next film, with Kevin Costner, Let Him Go
Not such a quiet story is Let Him Go, the American film she has just been working on with Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. A suspense-thriller, based on the novel of the same name by Larry Watson, it has Manville playing a Bible-bashing, gun-toting matriarch in North Dakota.“It was fantastic, making that. She’s a really much broader character than, certainly Cathy in Mum and Joan in Ordinary Love. She’s a big, brassy peroxide blonde, a loud, outspoken, slightly dangerous momma with a gun.”
Loud, outspoken, gun-toting, she’s also in her sixties.
“Yeah,” says Manville. “I love the fact I’m playing women who are in their sixties, who are vital and sexy if they want to be, and naughty. Being over 60 is being redefined because of what 60-year-olds are like now.
“I’d like more roles like that for more of my peers. It’s always been OK for men to go grey, put on weight, have girlfriends 30 years their junior, but that wasn’t our story. Now things are changing. Look at Liam and me, both in our sixties and in fact this is the first time he’s done a film with a partner/wife/girlfriend that’s in the same decade as him. If you’re going to put Liam in one of his action films he’s not going to have a 60-year-old wife, it’s not going to be me. But if you’ve got a film that is the temperature of Ordinary Love, then of course you can do it, and I think things are changing. We’re changing them.”
The opportunities are coming thick and fast for Manville at home too. She is about to start rehearsing The Visit at the National Theatre, in an updated version of the darkly comic 1950s revenge play adapted by Tony (Angels in America) Kushner and directed by Jeremy Herrin (This House). She plays the improbably rich, beautiful and terrifying Claire Zachanassian, opposite The Matrix’s Hugo Weaving.
“It’s been relocated to upstate New York and it’s a huge piece of theatre about revenge, money and capitalism, it’s an epic. The Visit will take me through to next May, and then I do have a whole string of projects after that. They’re only 99.9 per cent in place, so I can’t mention them yet – but I’ve got a busy old time ahead,” she says.
With her diary as full as it is, there doesn’t seem to be any danger of Manville being allowed to retire any time soon. “I don’t want to retire,” she says. “I’m blessed with a job that primarily I love (apart from getting up at five in the winter to go filming, that’s quite nasty) and it never feels like hard work. Look at Dame Judi Dench who is almost 85 or whatever, and still going. Retire? Why would you?”
Ordinary Love is in cinemas from Friday, 6 December.The Visit or The Old Lady Comes To Call runs at the National Theatre from 31 January-13 May. For more details see www.nationaltheatre.org.uk