Lesley Manville says she’s noticed a couple “shifts” in her career in recent years. Thanks to her Olivier Award-winning performance in Ibsen‘s Ghosts in London’s West End and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and then her Oscar-nominated turn opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread, her highly acclaimed film, TV, and stage career has gone up another notch. It helps, of course, that she’s also picked up BAFTA nominations for her role in the lovely, low-key British sitcom Mum.
She’s so in-demand that she’s promoting her new movie Ordinary Love during her week off from The Visit, an epic play she’s starring in at London’s National Theatre. She plays Claire Zachanassian, a serious villainess who’s a much more formidable figure than Joan, her sympathetic character from Ordinary Love. Co-starring Liam Neeson, this true-to-life and supremely moving romantic drama follows a loving and self-contained married couple as they process the news that Joan has breast cancer.
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It’s playing in theaters now – find out what attracted Manville to the role, as well as her thoughts on Twitter and her Phantom Thread character Cyril becoming a bit of a gay icon.
What attracted you to Ordinary Love?
Well, I knew it had Liam attached to it and thought, ‘Well, if he’s going to do a film like this, it must be because it’s great.’ But it’s the script, really. If the script is no good, I can’t really do my job very well. The script was written by Owen McCafferty who’s a very established Northern Irish playwright – this is his first film, and it deals with an episode that him and his wife Peggy went through themselves. She went through breast cancer and came out the other side, thankfully, so it had that real ring of authenticity. I could feel reading it that this man had some real first-hand experiences of this journey. And then the knowledge that Liam was involved only made me want to do it more.
A lot of the film deals with the little, intimate moments that make up everyday life – even when you’re dealing with a crisis, as Joan and Tom are. Are they especially difficult to kind of elevate for the screen?
I can see where you’re coming from with the question, but I think by the time you’re in it and doing those little scenes, they don’t feel that way. There’s a scene where Joan and Tom are waiting to get the “big news” as to whether she’s actually got breast cancer or not – they’re just waiting and then Tom has to go to the bathroom and Joan’s panicked because what if the doctor calls her in and he’s not back from the loo? Then she’s going to have to shoulder this news by herself. All of those little panics are etched across somebody’s face in that split second. So that’s my job to try and convey that and make it look real and believable. At the same time, Joan is trying to work out whether the doctor’s got good news written over her face or bad news. That is what those moments are like – your brain is working overtime and you almost turn yourself into somebody who thinks they can read people’s minds. You’re searching for clues all the way along because all you want to hear is that you’re not ill. So those detailed moments are vital. The film is, in part, a lot of those little moments.
Joan and Tom also have a tragedy in their past – a daughter who passed away. Did that inform the way you approached the character?
I think it was important to know they’ve been through that, although it isn’t a massive feature of the film. Their daughter is alluded to and I think it serves to show that since this experience, their lives have shut down to a degree. They’re much more insular – they’ve got each other and that’s kind of enough. They’re a great couple – they’re very loving and still find each other attractive; there’s a teasing, twinkly element to their relationship – but you don’t get the feeling that they have a big social life or do much that involves other people. Yes, it’s a film about a woman with breast cancer, but primarily it’s a love story, and it puts the microscope on this couple when they have to navigate this epic thing that has happened to them. It explores how that thing delicately and in small ways shifts the balance of a relationship. You see them have this argument which is really painful to watch because you know they don’t really want to argue and fundamentally they love the bones of each other. But this situation they’re in is so brutal that they almost need to have an argument, it’s inevitable.
Did playing an insular character appeal to you particularly because, an an actor, you kind of have to be more extroverted in your working life?
I can see the angle you’re coming from, but I don’t necessarily see it like that. I don’t look for characters that are either like me or not like me, or situations that I can recognize or not recognize. I do a varied palette of work and characters, and I’m incredibly grateful for that – that’s what keeps me going. I don’t have to recognize [character] traits or think, ‘That would be a good antidote to what my life’s like.’ To put it bluntly, I’m paid to to create a character and to come in and deliver them. I feel very equipped in my career, whether it’s on a [TV or movie] set or in a play, to be able to come in and acquit myself very warmly and professionally and tackle all the things that the character has to go through and absolutely deliver. But whether it’s an antidote to me and my own life isn’t one of the criteria for me in choosing a role.
To what extent has getting the Oscar nomination for Phantom Thread changed your career?
I think it’s just opened up America to me, really. The garden was always very rosy and continues to be rosy in the U.K. anyway, but it’s opened up a whole new area to me.
It feels as though you’re on the cusp – and this is a very British term — of becoming a “national treasure” or a “beloved British actress.” Do you like that?
Well, that’s nice. It’s not a horrible thing so I’ll take it! I don’t walk around saying that myself, but it is something that nice people I do interviews with sometimes say to me now. But you know, I still go to [U.K. grocery chain] Morrison’s. Listen, I think it’s partly because I’ve been doing this for such a long time and I’m still being given all these wonderful choices and such a variety of roles. When you look at Cathy in Mum and Claire Zachanassian The Visit, they’re so different that it sums up that variety really. That’s all I’ve ever wanted: a diversity of roles to show off my chameleon-like abilities, because that’s what I enjoy.
Your Phantom Thread character, Cyril, became a bit of an internet sensation when the film came out. She’s been called “an icon for everyone who would rather be alone” and a gay icon. Is it strange for you when a character kind of takes on a second life like this?
Well, I kind of had to get my head around all that stuff because I don’t do Twitter. I didn’t know what a meme was until recently and I’ve only just learned what a gif is. But I was told a while ago that Cyril had become a bit of a gay icon and listen, I’ll take the love from wherever it comes! If someone thinks I’m a gay icon, that’s fine. As long as I don’t have to tweet back because frankly there aren’t enough hours in the day at the moment to do all the things I have to do. You know, I don’t have a P.A. or anything like that and I have quite a busy schedule at the moment. I’m very happy to be here in New York doing press for Ordinary Love, but this is my week off [from my play] and I probably should be sitting on a beach somewhere reading a novel! But I had a lovely day with Liam yesterday – I hadn’t seen him since we finished filming and it was really lovely to see him again. So yes, I don’t have time to tweet back but I’ll definitely take the feedback.”
Has your agent ever tried to get you to join Twitter?
No! No! She wouldn’t do that. She would say, ‘Why do you need to self-publicize and self-promote?’ I find all that a bit vulgar anyway. I have friends who do it and it’s a bit, ‘Look at me here, look at me drinking this cup of tea.’ Oh, for God’s sake! Let the work speak for itself, that’s my motto. I know I’m here doing publicity for a film, but that’s part of the package and it’s a means to an end and it’s fine. But all the self-promotion that people do on Twitter and Instagram, you just think, ‘Oh no, stop it!’ Especially when it’s something ridiculous like ‘Look, I’m eating a prawn salad.’ God almighty, really? Go away, get a life, that’s not what acting is about.”
Do you enjoy acting as much now as when you started out in the ’70s?
That’s a good question, no one’s ever asked me that. I think I enjoy it more now. I’m really loving it at the moment. I love playing Claire in The Visit – look at her, she’s fantastically awful! And the clothes I get to wear are pretty good as well.
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