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Lesley Manville: ‘I often feel guilty about how good things are in my career’

Lesley Manville. Photo by Rachell Smith

The multi-award-winning and now Oscar-nominated star guiltily accepts that at 61 her career is soaring – unlike that of many other actresses her age. But, she tells Alex Clark, things are changing for the better as producers recognise that there’s a vast audience of women who want to see people like them on their stages and screens…

On the morning that Lesley Manville and I meet, in an anonymous room off an anonymous rehearsal room in a Bermondsey backstreet, there’s a hint of celebration in the air. The actor has just been nominated for a BAFTA for her role as Cyril Woodcock in Phantom Thread, the 1950s haute couture love story in which she plays martinet sister to Daniel Day-Lewis’ emotionally repressed – and then released – fashion designer.

She will not, sadly, be turning up in the stylish coat given as a keepsake from the set as it’s on display in Los Angeles in an exhibition about the film’s exquisite costumes. Not that she’s daunted about picking the right outfit for the red carpet – she is equally happy to turn up in a £50 dress from Zara, which she did recently, as borrowing an opulent frock.

But perhaps there’ll be another chance to don the coat, because this week Manville found herself nominated for an Oscar in the same role in the best supporting actress category.

She may not have been hotly tipped – at least compared with fellow nominees Laurie Metcalf and Octavia Spencer – but if audience response is anything to go by, she’s a shoo-in. A few hours later, Vogue ran a piece headlined, “Turns Out, the Internet Is Full of Cyril Stans”, a reference to the “intense fandom” that has greeted her self-contained, steely and uncompromising character.

In the immediate aftermath, Manville herself was, unsurprisingly, delighted at news of her first Academy Award nomination. “I am rather giddy with excitement at the wonderful news,” she told The Stage. “It is also quite a day for my son, Alfie Oldman – having both parents nominated in the same year,” she continues.

Alfie, whose own children, one nearly five and the other a newborn, are keeping Manville busy attending to her grandmotherly duties (“I’m going to cram in a few cuddles this weekend”), is the son Manville had with Gary Oldman, to whom she was married in the 1980s. He was nominated last week for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour.

Unless Manville has perfected the art of time travel, she won’t be present at the Oscars award ceremony on March 4; instead, she’ll be getting some well-earned rest after the Sunday matinee of Eugene O’Neill’s legendary play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which opened at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre last week and runs until April 7.

Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Long Day's Journey at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in Long Day’s Journey at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

‘I have done many plays in my life, but Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the greatest play I’ve ever done in terms of the writing’

From there, it will transfer first to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles in June. That last venue is in close proximity to Rodeo Drive, which tickles Manville: “So there’ll be Versace, Prada, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I mean, what Beverly Hills is going to make of the play…”

O’Neill’s masterpiece is the autobiographical story of the Tyrones: patriarch James, a celebrated actor with a penchant for drink; his wife Mary, a morphine addict; and their two grown-up sons, each with problems of their own.

Set in the Tyrones’ summer house in 1912, the play was first performed in 1956 and has been staged and filmed numerous times. Previous Marys include Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Lange, Katharine Hepburn, Liv Ullmann and – in a moment of serendipity – Laurie Metcalf, not only nominated in the same Oscar category as Manville, but fated, by dint of initials, to appear right next to her in alphabetical listings.

Mary – her life lived in her husband’s shadow, her tragedies unanswered, her desperate descent into addiction continuing – is an extraordinary character in what Manville thinks of as the greatest play she’s acted in.

“I have done so many plays in my life,” she explains, “and so many wonderful plays, from the early days when I was at the Royal Court, and I worked with Caryl Churchill, Edward Bond. I’ve done amazing new plays, and I’ve done fantastic classics – Chekhov and Strindberg and Ibsen. And they’re all rich and wonderful, but I honestly think this is the greatest play I’ve ever done in terms of the writing. It’s so intensely detailed and subtle; every one of these characters is in pain, their own unique pain.”

Just under two years ago, she and Jeremy Irons took the roles of Mary and James in Richard Eyre’s production to mark the 250th anniversary of the Bristol Old Vic. All three are reunited now, with new cast members in other roles. And Eyre, she says, has made it clear that this new version is a revisiting rather than a straight rerun.

Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden in Ghosts at Trafalgar Studios, London. The play is now available to watch at www.digitaltheatre.com
Lesley Manville and Jack Lowden in Ghosts at Trafalgar Studios, London. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Though Manville and Eyre knew each other socially, they hadn’t worked together until she took the Olivier-winning role of Helene Alving in Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at London’s Almeida in 2013. She is unstinting in her praise of him, from his way of putting actors at their ease and introducing a non-hierarchical structure to the company to even more substantial talents.

“I cannot undersell what a great mind he has,” she tells me. “He’s an intellect for sure. But that isn’t always handy when you’re directing plays that are so fundamentally about the human condition and the pain of some people’s lives – that kind of delicate understanding of how hard it can be to be a person, to exist, to absolutely battle with your demons, doesn’t need an intellectual mind.”

What does it need? “You have to be a person, a fully paid-up member of the human-condition-understanding-brigade. And he is that, with knobs on.”

What about her? “I think I am that, too,” she replies. “I’m not an intellectual. I’m bright and I’m on the button, but I understand, or I endeavour to understand, the human condition. And through various directors and writers and plays and films that I’ve been utterly, utterly privileged to be part of, I’ve grown as a performer, as somebody who can relay that.”

Lesley Manville on versatility

“Nobody’s been able to say, she does that kind of character. So I jump around, and obviously that makes for a varied career and you’re able to do more things. And the bottom line is, I would get very bored [otherwise]. There are amazing actors who kind of do a version of themselves – I mean, we’re all doing versions of ourselves in some ways – who are utterly, utterly brilliant, who I could watch for eternity. But it isn’t what gives me a buzz. I like jumping from a classic, upper-middle-class woman to somebody a bit more working class and contemporary, like Cathy in Mum.”

Her ambition, she continues, is to convey emotional pain so that audiences can witness it and, perhaps, feel less alone. “I felt that very strongly with Helene Alving in Ghosts – that play is more than 100 years old – but [it’s about] a woman talking about the painful marriage she endured. And sometimes I would say lines from that about the husband who is now dead and I would hear women in the audience [she gives a sharp intake of breath] – and you just think that poor woman’s going through it now, or has been through it, or understands it.”

She pauses, and then says, with a laugh: “Having said that, I love doing comedy as well. I don’t always want to rip out my soul.”

Funnily enough, one of her most recent roles has seen her combining the two. As the eponymous protagonist of Stefan Golaszewski’s BBC sitcom Mum, Manville plays a recently widowed suburban woman who is – just about – holding her family together.

It’s a delightfully tender and – at times – whimsical piece of humour that nonetheless packs an emotional punch. Next month, it returns for its second series, with a third already commissioned; and I got a sneak preview when Manville briefly slipps into character. She hardly says anything – “Oh, okay”, “Oh all right, love”, “You okay?” – but suddenly caring, compassionate, beleaguered Mum was in the room.

Versatility, as well as quality, is a useful skill to keep the offers rolling in, and Manville definitely has that – occasionally beyond the point some might describe as sensible. During the West End run of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, she will also be filming the second series of Harlots, the Hulu series that cast her as an 18th-century brothel-keeper alongside Samantha Morton and Jessica Brown Findlay.

What the critics said

Her Naked Skin, National Theatre, 2008
“Manville’s troubled brittleness, intense facial expression, twitching mouth and roaring rages add up  to a bravura performance.” – The Stage

The Mother, Royal Court Theatre, London, 2008
“Her performance is stunning in its progression from verbal and physical violence to wailing private emotion.” – The Guardian

Grief, National Theatre, 2011
“Manville is extraordinary as the widowed Dorothy, her mask-like poise and carefully applied brightness harrowingly collapsing into incurable anxiety and despair.” – The Telegraph

Ghosts, Almeida Theatre, London, 2013
“The superb Lesley Manville is a subtle and searching Mrs Alving.” – The Independent

Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bristol Old Vic, 2016
“Manville is outstanding as Mary. She mesmerisingly captures the violent mood-swings of the addict, switching in a second from girlish friskiness to mordant recrimination.” – The Guardian

She describes sitting in her dressing room on the set of Phantom Thread and her agent telling her that, with Manville optioned for a second series of Harlots and everyone’s diaries looking a nightmare, she might have to relinquish her plans to reprise her role as Mary.

“I said, ‘I’m not walking away from Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I’m just not’. So I sat there, and I thought – this is classic Manville – I thought, ‘I can do both’.”

But how will she? Well, she says, thanks to the “gorgeous women” behind Harlots, she managed to negotiate three weeks off for play rehearsals, and a 4.30pm finish every day that she has to film. Some days, she says, she won’t be needed on the TV set; others, she’ll have to be up at 5am and going strong until her final curtain call.

No matter: “I do have the constitution of an ox, and I am a tough old boot, and I will just go home and go to bed, and be very disciplined about it.”

‘It’s hard for some actresses of my age – but for the moment, it isn’t for me. It could be next year, who knows?’

As for the mental switch, she brushes it away; no different from being at the Royal Shakespeare Company in her 20s and doing three plays at a time. Much of her early work with Mike Leigh taught her to be prepared for anything. “A lot of people on the street say to me, ‘Don’t you get your lines mixed up?’ That’s just never going to happen. It just isn’t.”

In Harlots, I probe, she’s in full Georgian make-up and elaborate wig; in the O’Neill, she’s a very different looking woman in a small fat suit. Isn’t the physical transformation somewhat time-consuming?

“I’ve got all that worked out too,” she insists. “I shall run into the trailer, they’ll take my wig off, I’ll leave the pin curls in because I’m in a wig in Long Day’s Journey, I will put a hat on, and then I will take all my cleaning-off kit in the car that drives me to the theatre, and I’ll clean off in the car. I’ll arrive a blank canvas at Wyndham’s to start again.”

Lesley Manville in Miss Julie at Greenwich Theatre in 1990

Energy, then, is not a problem and, indeed, Manville has a fear of seeming blasé, or even ungrateful. “Listen, I mean, really, there’ll be some actresses reading this thinking, ‘Fucking Lesley Manville, she’s doing this and she’s doing that, please don’t complain’, and I’m really not complaining. I’m guilty enough as it is about how good things are.”

Why should she feel guilty? “Because it’s hard for some actresses of my age – and for the moment, it isn’t for me. It could be next year, who knows? That’s the life we live.”

‘I get annoyed with older women in my industry who are having a lot of work done on their faces’

She does believe that times are changing for older actresses, and that producers have realised that there’s a vast audience of women who want to see people like them on their stages and screens. She points to the success of Mamma Mia!, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and, more recently, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool with Annette Bening, as evidence.

“Decades ago, if you were over 50, it was quite rare to see a woman being sexual, or even thinking about being sexual, or wanting to be sexual, or wanting to be taken seriously sexually. And that’s shifting. I don’t think because I’m 61 that nobody should think of me sexually. To me, that would be ludicrous and laughable and dreadful. Fundamentally dreadful.”

And, in the same vein, she has some choice words for those of her colleagues who are not prepared to let nature take its course. She understands, she says, that she works in an industry that is focused on looks and on making sure that its stars look their best.

But, she argues, that’s not particularly helpful if you’re an ordinary woman who looks in the mirror, notices the encroaching marks of age and thinks that life’s possibilities are shrinking. And if you don’t see people on stage or screen who look like you, that’s accentuated and perpetuated.

“I do get annoyed with a lot of women in my industry who are having a lot of work done on their faces, because you just think, Oh, come on. Come on. You’re meant to be – [she claps her hands] and I’m not going to name any names – but you know, they’re quite politically active… and yet you look at their face and it’s stretched beyond belief, and you think well, that’s a huge political statement that you’re making by doing that.”

Bening doesn’t do it, she points out. Nor does Frances McDormand. “Two strikingly brilliant actresses, and wonderful, wonderful faces that you can see life in. I don’t want to see a forehead that doesn’t move, when you know that actress is over 50. I kind of lose interest in them. However good they are, I really can’t watch it.”

It’s hard to imagine the lively, animated Manville with a forehead that doesn’t move. Does she ever relax? Well, she says, clearly searching, she likes pottering around at home in west London. She quite enjoys picking up a bit of shopping, doing the laundry, getting into a bed with ironed pillowcases. “It’s the small things,” she cries, before she rushes off to give herself over to O’Neill’s Stygian night.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night runs at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until April 7, 2018

CV Lesley Manville

Born: 1956, Brighton
Training: Italia Conti
Landmark productions:
• Top Girls, Royal Court Theatre, London (1982)

• Ghosts, Almeida Theatre, London (2014)
• Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bristol Old Vic (2017)
• Olivier for best actress, for Ghosts (2014)

• Critics’ Circle award for best actress, for Ghosts (2014)
Agent: ARG Talent

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