Lesley Manville is surprised when I tell her that her character in Phantom Thread, Cyril, became a queer Internet icon this year, the subject of fan fiction in which she runs off with Daniel Day-Lewis’s love interest, Alma. “Listen, I’ll take it. But no, I don’t follow anything like that. So there’s this whole other world going on that I know not of.”Yes, Manville speaks in such poetic turns of phrase, and it even makes some sense, given that she eschews, as she says, both the Internet and social media. When I apologize for being tired after working my first Met Gala during our conversation last week, she says that when she sees the pictures every year, “I can’t help but think of all the money that it costs that those people have spent on those clothes.” Later, she jokes, “I’ll never get an invite now, will I?
”You wouldn’t guess that we’re supposed to be talking about, on the surface, one of her most anodyne roles, as Cathy in the BAFTA-winning British sitcom Mum, about a very typical English middle-class woman turning 60, and confronting a new phase of life after the death of her husband. But Manville, as in all of her roles, including Cyril, and as the muse of U.K. director Mike Leigh (in whose 2010 film Another Year she stunned as drunk divorcée Mary), has a history of subverting the “good mum” stereotype. Even while clad in her best Marks & Spencer florals, Manville brings a wryness to Cathy, a role in which she says, “In its ordinariness there is a subversiveness . . . You may look at somebody who outwardly seems quite level, and plain, and straightforward . . . But you see that twinkle in her.”
Cathy is caught in a will-they-or-won’t-they tangle with friend Michael, played by Peter Mullan (of Westworld and Ozark); the romance is what Manville says made season two of Mum so popular in the U.K. (It has just been made available in the U.S. on Mother’s Day on Britbox, ITV, and the BBC’s American streaming service.) And Manville’s real-life former marriage to actor Gary Oldman, with whom she was up for an Academy Award at the Oscars this year, proved to be gossip fodder in the press, as well as more fuel for Manville/Cyril fans, who see the actor and the character as champions for single ladies everywhere (Manville is currently unmarried).
During our conversation, Manville gave very demure, very British answers to questions on her relationship with her famous ex, the #MeToo movement, and whether or not Cyril would have attended fashion’s night out (answer: as a stylist), and talked bringing a bit of badness to Mum. An excerpt from that conversation, below:
There is a rash of shows and books at the moment about mothers as antiheroes, you know, mothers who smoke and drink, mothers who have sex lives. Mum feels almost subversive because it’s not trying to do that. It’s very traditional.
Making Cathy a real, whole person is my job. I have to make her believable. It’s interesting that in its ordinariness there is a subversiveness; there is a subversive feeling about it. I think that’s because if you met her in the supermarket, you’d just think, Oh, she’s this very ordinary woman, but of course, nobody’s ordinary. We’re all exceptional. And you may look at somebody who outwardly seems quite level, and plain, and straightforward, but of course, she’s got the most gorgeous sense of humor herself, which is why she is able to absorb all of the stuff around her and kind of just keep it to herself. And she’s not judging anybody. She’s not making them feel bad about themselves, she’s being supportive, but you see that twinkle in her
And what’s great is that the only person that she can sometimes share that twinkle with is Peter Mullan’s character, Michael. The audience thinks, Oh, come on, you two. You’ve got to get together because you’d have such a great time. You’d laugh so much. All of my friends have been going, “Oh, I can’t bear it. I can’t wait to see what happens.” It just gets so good. Peter Mullan, just, oh my goodness. You keep watching it because he will tear you apart. That’s why, even though season one was successful in England, season two has just gone through the roof, and it’s been the most enormous and surprising hit, and narratives about this middle-aged couple falling in love, but it’s so human and touching [ . . . ]