Ever since her Oscar nomination for Phantom Thread, work has been flooding in for Lesley Manville, finally letting US audiences see the talent evident on stage, screen and TV here for decades. The actor talks to @JanetChristie2 about new film Ordinary Love with Liam Neeson, and taking the opportunities that come her way
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….