I’ve lived my life with all sorts of people. I’m an observer and an interpreter.
There are obviously a lot of industry politics involved when it comes to handing out the golden statues at the Oscars—two words: Sandra Bullock—but those truly deserving of cinema’s highest honor somehow end up making their way up onto the stage despite such silliness, more often than not. This year, Lesley Manville seems poised for a Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress nomination, pending Sony Pictures Classics’ smart marketing campaign this awards season.
In Mike Leigh’s Another Year—another career high for him after the Palme d’Or-winning Secrets and Lies—Manville plays Mary, an emotionally messy alcoholic who fails to conceal the unbearable loneliness behind her feigned glass-half-full personality. In true Leigh fashion, it’s low concept and slice-of-life, which also happens to be one of the very best films of 2010.
I had the great fortune of seeing this at both Cannes and the New York Film Festival.
You kind of need to see it twice, don’t you?
Absolutely! I’m a big fan of Mike Leigh, and this film touched me in particular because I’ve been around alcoholics my entire life.
As an actor, what sort of research goes into playing an alcoholic?
This will probably shock you, but… Well, I’ve been around a while. I’ve lived my life with all sorts of people. I’m an observer and an interpreter. This is probably a part that I couldn’t have played 20 years ago, and I probably couldn’t have played it in the way that I can play it now because I’ve got a lot of life experience. I’ve seen a lot of different things and spent time with a lot of different people. It sort of gets through to you by osmosis, doesn’t it? I didn’t go out and meet drunks. I certainly know people who drink too much. I know women who are lonely. I know women who are—not by choice—childless and on their own. We all have a whole diversity of people in our lives and on the periphery of our lives. I suppose anybody’s job is to, as an actor, use all of that and pull it in as it’s appropriately needed. I would’ve done research if I felt the need to. If I had spent my life shielded from people who drank too much or from people who were lonely, I would’ve had to research it. But it’s something that I sort of understood.
What’s so great about Mary is that she’s not a caricature of a drunk. She’s a fully formed three-dimensional character with both good and bad qualities.
That’s what we were always aiming to do. If you make a character into a caricature, it distances the audience from it and they’re suddenly thinking, “I’m observing that person, but I’m not affected by them because it’s not believable.” It’s tricky because, at times, she is a big character. It’s a hard line to tread sometimes. You don’t want people to think it’s a caricature, but she does behave in quite a big way. She talks too much sometimes and she can be a bit too full on. She dresses too young and her behavior is inappropriate at times, but that’s what she’s like. I’m glad that she comes across as somebody who you can observe in spite of all those reasons.
Have people come up to you after screenings wanting to talk about their alcoholism?
A little bit. People sometimes do say that they’re very close to somebody who has a drinking problem or that they have a drinking problem themselves. I’ve had two journalists—one in London and one at Cannes—who started the interviews crying. Maybe it’s because they’re affected by it in a very personal way… Who knows? The thing about Mary is that she’s a nice person at the core. It’s just that her life has been total chaos. It’s the loneliness, really. We all know that loneliness is a killer, and I think that’s why people relate to it so much.
The film is certainly not all about the doom and gloom. There are a lot of jovial moments scattered throughout.
Oh yeah. The film is not just about Mary’s pain. She’s a very funny character. It’s that classic thing where you’re laughing one moment and then crying the next. Let’s not say that the film is just about loneliness. There’s a lot of humor in the film. It deals very subtly and beautifully with life from all points of view. It’s about reaching that point in your life when, perhaps, you look inwards a little bit, unlike when you’re in your 20s and your 30s when you’re not doing so much of that. When you reach your 50s, you start to view your life in a different way and you do take stock of where you are, what you’ve achieved, what you haven’t achieved, and all the rest of it.
You’re known to be Mike Leigh’s most frequent collaborator.
Do you find that your collaborative process with Mike is very different from those of other directors?
It’s completely different from start to finish because we don’t start with a script. We start with nothing. It’s completely different.
Is there a lot of improvisation?
Not on camera. Once we’re shooting, it’s very structured and we know what we’re going to say. On this film, for example, we had 18 weeks before the cameras came. During that time, we were developing the characters’ lives and their history to create three-dimensional people. Down the line, we’d do some improvisations with other actors that our characters relate to. We do a lot of improvising, and out of that, Mike would eventually distill the story. Once we start filming, we’re kind of making it up as we go along, but once the dialogue is so precise because it has to be for cinematographic reasons. It’s an absolutely unique way of working.
Did you always want to become an actress?
I was going to become a singer, but then I kind of got interested in acting and that just sort of took off. I did a lot of strange stuff in the beginning and then I met Mike when I was in my 20s and we just gelled. It was really good for both of us and we really loved working together. When we first worked together on BBC’s “Grown-Ups,” it was like I was having a new career. I was very young and I had been acting for a while, but I was just doing anything and everything. When I met him, it became clear to me that I enjoyed the kind of acting that I wanted to do, which I hadn’t really thought about. And also, crucially, that I could play people that weren’t like me, which was a big turning point. After that, I went onto work with the Royal Court Theatre in London and did a bunch of fantastic plays there. Mike really diverted me onto a very healthy course.
Do you prefer working in theatre as opposed to film?
Not really. I mean, they’re so different! It’s all acting at the end of the day, but it’s very different. Working with Mike isn’t like working on any other film because your collaboration is needed and your input is so crucial. It’s much more empowering and creative. The nice thing about working on stage is that nobody’s going to stop you. I do think that stage is the ultimate test, in the end, of an actor because you can edit around a bad performance in film and you can’t do that on stage. And I like to see theatre as a whole arc of an evening and it’s your responsibility to entertain. It seems very pure whereas film is more tempered with, as it were, from many departments. I really do love both. Earlier this year, I was in Six Degrees of Separation at the Old Vic in London and I had just finished doing Another Year with Mike. You just cherry pick the stuff that you want to do.
I guess it’s more about satisfying different desires in you as an actor.
Yeah! That’s exactly right, that’s exactly what it does. I might end up getting a lot of offers after this to play alcoholics, which you don’t really care for. You have to make sure that you don’t make mistakes. Six Degrees of Separation was great because I got to play this affluent New York Upper East Side art dealer wife, you know? It was great to play that after having played Mary. It’s so exciting to be afforded that kind of career. I’m very grateful to be afforded the opportunity to play such diverse characters.
You obviously don’t want to repeat yourself as an actress, but do you secretly look for anything specific when you’re browsing screenplays?
I think, initially, a good script is the most important thing because that’s what you’re starting with. Then other things like where its taking place, the director, and the other cast members come into play. You try to weigh the pros and the cons to see what you could work on to make some aspects of it better. It certainly always starts with a good script, except with Mike where there is no script. [Laughs]
When you say, “where it’s taking place,” does that have much to do with being close to your son, Alfie?
I’m sorry I wasn’t very clear. I was talking about which theatre a play would be taking place in. My son is now 21, so I can go wherever I want! [Laughs] Certainly, when he was young and I was filming in Scotland for 6 weeks while he was at school in England, it was complicated and I couldn’t do it. My priority was for him and I had no question of turning that down in my mind. But now I can do what I like! He can cook his own dinner. [Laughs]
I can’t wrap my head around what it’d be like to have Lesley Manville and Gary Oldman as parents. Has he expressed any interest in getting into the film industry?
He’s already working in the industry, actually. I think you call it a set PA here, but we call it a runner in England. He’s been a runner for the past year on the last Harry Potter film. He loved it and he described it as a great experience. He’s hungry for more. But he definitely doesn’t want to act, despite his parentage.
Are you supportive of his decision to work in film?
I’m very lucky because I had an amazing career, but I do know that a lot of actors struggle in the industry and it’s very difficult. It’s a big struggle in their lives and it makes for a lot of unhappiness. He thought about being an actor at one time and attended a few auditions in drama school and then absolutely independently said, “You know what? This isn’t for me.” I secretly had an inward sigh of relief then, but he’s now working on the outside of the camera and that’s wonderful. I think film is a wonderful industry to work in. I think he’ll be fine.
You’re obviously very busy promoting Another Year right now, but you also reunited with Peter Wight for Womb, which recently screened at Toronto. How did you get involved with that project?
Benedek Fliegauf knew my work and had seen my films with Mike and literally offered the role to me. I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment. It was a nice part. Benedek seemed like a nice man and it seemed like a very nice art house film shot on some amazing locations on very remote islands on the coast of Germany. I got to go to Berlin, which, even though I live in Europe, I’d never been to before. It was a very nice job and I’m looking forward to seeing it at the London Film Festival along with Another Year.
I don’t know if “controversial” is the right word to describe it, but it has a very interesting story that sort of reminded me of the twisted concept behind Jonathan Glazer’s Birth.
Yeah. It’s about cloning. The main character is bearing a child who’s a clone of her boyfriend. [Laughs] It’s weird. I’m playing the mother of the young man who’s now gotten very famous in London. That’s all good!
Are you reading some good screenplays at the moment?
No! I’d like some, please. [Laughs] I can’t get enough!
Are you sort of champing at the bit to start working on another film?
I’m leaving space to this whole promotion thing, for sure, and Sony Pictures Classics is very behind the film. It would seem very childish to not go along with that because it’s such a lovely film and a fantastic role. It could definitely make some changes for me. I’m going to ride the wave for the time being. I’ll eventually have to stop flying around the world and do another job. So, any offers will be seriously looked into.
It does seem like Sony is giving you a heavy push for the upcoming Oscar race, which isn’t that surprising. You totally deserve it this year.
Thank you! Well, you know, I’ll have a go at it.