A Roundtable Chat with actress Lesley Manville (“Another Year”)

A classic case of an “overnight success” who’s been working successfully for decades, Lesley Manville was just starting to be able to bask in the glow of a job extremely well done during the junket for “Another Year” last month. A few weeks later, the already simmering Oscar speculation around her performance in the latest film from maverick English director Mike Leigh got an early boost: she won the Best Actress award from the influential National Board of Review alongside a number of nominations elsewhere.

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Lesley Manville began her career on the stage and British television, making her film debut with a minor role in Mike Newell’s 1985 melodrama, “Dance With a Stranger.” In 1988, she appeared in Mike Leigh’s worldwide breakthrough comedy, “High Hopes,” the first of six films so far with the director known for his uniquely collaborative approach. Notable roles in Leigh’s historically-based “Vera Drake” and “Topsy-Turvy” followed, along with numerous less well known films and television shows. It’s possible that she’s best known to the mass U.S. audience as Mrs. Cratchit from Robert Zemickis’ motion-capture “A Christmas Carol.”

In “Another Year,” Manville portrays Mary, a lonely and progressively more depressed alcoholic whose visits to the home of a contented therapist coworker (Ruth Sheen) and her husband (Jim Broadbent), become increasingly painful. It’s a powerful and all too real-seeming portrayal that has hit Manville’s career with enormous force.

Even without a huge number of awards, I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of Manville from now on. During the post roundtable chatter, I half jokingly suggested that she should work on her American accent, and she reminded me that she had just recently finished doing the very American play by John Guare, “Six Degrees of Separation.”

Things got a bit interesting late in this group interview, when one of the other writers present asked a question which Manville, perhaps stung by some past public discussion of her short-lived late 1980s marriage to Gary Oldman, deemed overly personal. With a little luck, Lesley Manville will have to deal with more prying from less from the press in years ahead.

The first question was framed as a very well deserved compliment for Ms. Manville, her character could easily have been played as a sort of caricature. How did she avoid that?

The answer was that, under Mike Leigh rubric, without Manville, there really would have been no character to overplay. “I’m sure you’re all a bit familiar with how Mike works,” Manville said. “We don’t have a script. We start from absolutely nothing, and so the first thing we do is work one to one and create the characters with him. We had 18 weeks to do that before we started filming. I think by the time you get to the point where you’re improvising and then you’re starting to structure the scenes, Mike’s starting to think about what narrative [the film] is going to have and what it’s going to go, you’re so solid in the character. Any situation he puts you in, you know how the character’s going to react. It takes care of itself, which is a strange, roundabout way of answering your question. I suppose what I’m saying in essence is that you’re not considering things like [overplaying or underplaying], you’re just kind of being the character. Any situation that they’re in, they behave how they behave.”

Her character can really talk a blue streak. Did she come up with all of that?

“I did come up with a lot. All of the dialogue, all of the words, actually come from the actors as well. Mike does reduce it and tailor it and make it economical because, obviously, you can’t have dialogue that goes on and on and on forever and scenes that ramble on with great pauses. He has to give it a dramatic shape, but the actual words that are said come from the actor.”

Does Mike Leigh even give his actors a rough idea of the character he’d like them to play?

“No, he doesn’t do that at all. I’ll start to talk about people, different people I know, maybe somebody that I’ve just fleetingly met that morning — aspects of different people. He’ll start to steer it in a direction that he knows he wants it to go. When we’ve got a very rough shape of a person, very rough, we’ll go back to the beginning of their life and fill the life in. He doesn’t ever come and say, ‘Right, this is the kind of person I want you to play.’ He doesn’t lay it out like that. It happens in a much more sort of organic way.”

The next writer started to compare the Mike Leigh technique to psychiatry, which Manville readily agreed with. Does she find it harder or easier than conventional acting?

“I find it easier because I like working in this way. I often find it hard when you have a script and you’re desperately looking to find stuff in it that you can make something of, trying to work out where moments can happen. Also, a lot of the time you get the script in pieces. You might not get much help with it. You have to turn up and get your performance together and it’ll be a bit of a DIY job. I like working with Mike because I know it’s going to ask a lot of me. I know it’s going to be very collaborative and I’m going to have to come up with a lot of stuff. I find it incredibly liberating. I like improvising. I hasten to add that when we shoot we’re not improvising. Once we’re filming it, the dialogue is absolutely set…I just enjoy [the Leigh process], I really like it. You have to give yourself up to it, though. Leave your ego at home and not worry about ‘How big is my part going to be? Is she going to look good?’ You can’t have any of that stuff going on.”

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Does the process get easier every time?

“I know that he’s going to take me somewhere different. That’s the great thing about it. He’s never got me to play the same character twice. That’s part of the deal. You go in and you’re going to play someone A, absolutely different to you and, B, different to anything else you’ve done with him before. So, it’s not going to be repetitive in that way…It’s a fantastic journey to go on, if you’re up for it. Not every actor would like him, I suspect. You really do have to give yourself up to it. Some considerations that might be important to actors like ‘How big is my part?’ and “Am I going to be playing a character who the audience is going to like?’ You have to put all of those things aside. I think those are lesser issues in England, anyway.”

What about the costumes, which play an interesting role in the development of the character of Mary? Did Manville discuss them a great deal with Leigh?

“Yes, with Mike, but also the costume designers and the set designers and make-up and hair. They’re all on board very early on. They’re working with us, helping to formulate the whole thing. They’re not just brought in at the end. So, the costume designer [Jacqueline Durran] came in with lots of clothes. She talked to me a lot. She talked to Mike. Then she came in and we just started trying things on and seeing what works. Mary is somebody who is trying to look young all the time. She’s dressing in bright colors and wanting to look sexy and all of that. She’s really trying hard. So, it was important that the costumes reflected that.”

Manville went on to describe the contrast between that straining-to-be-young look and how Mary appears in the final scene, which reflects the heartrending crisis she is going through. “All of that kind of glamorous side of her has been stripped away. We had a look for that last scene and it wasn’t quite right. It looked too nice, still. We really wanted her to look nothing like how you’d seen her in the rest of the film. So it got worse and worse,” Manville said with a laugh.

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Some of the writers, myself slightly included, were having a bit of a hard time grasping just how little in terms of anything concrete the actors are given to work with at the very beginning of a Mike Leigh project. Though it should have been clear by this point in the interview, someone asked whether was there was a story at the beginning.

“No. I mean I think Mike has notions and themes. He has to cast it so he’s probably thinking, ‘I’ll have a couple’ but what kind of couple they’re going to be, until he starts working with Jim and Ruth on the characters [is not established]. I know it’s staggering for a lot of people to come to terms with, especially when you see the detail in the piece in the end. We started with nothing. I think in a way that’s why it is so rich, because the time has been taken up creating the characters. At the end of the day that’s what drives a film. That’s what captures an audience. That’s what you become interested in it. It isn’t a film with a kind of narrative that’s about cops and robbers. It’s not like that — which is why I think it travels so well — it’s a film about hearts and minds and heads and souls. The stuff of life. It means something to everybody the world over because all of those things touch all of our lives wherever you live. We all need love, crave love…”

Speaking of Mary’s need to appear young, did they set the age of the character?

“We did, but you never find out Mary’s age in the film. I think that was probably deliberate on Mike’s part. You see that she’s not as old as [Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent’s characters] Gerri and Tom. It’s kind of left vague. I suppose the important thing is that you see this woman hanging on to some kind of youth and not embracing what she’s becoming. She’s scared of the future. Mostly because she sees this dark hole of loneliness.”

What of the somewhat unlikely nature of the friendship between the very stable and mostly quite content, and definitely more intelligent, Gerri and the flighty and emotionally driven Mary?

Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen in “Their relationship was formed through work…I think that it’s that Gerri is a woman who embraces many aspects in her world. She’s not just one of those women who goes straight home to her husband. She nurtures a life for herself outside of home…When [Mike] struck on the idea of making it over year, he was very happy because one of the problems was how did he get Mary ’round to the house often enough because, sort of in answer to your question, clearly, Mary isn’t there every week, or every month even. It’s kind of stretching it that she was there four times in a year.”

Finally getting a word in to the conversation, I couldn’t help taking a slightly political tack. Manville was very interested to hear that there had been some back in forth among writers at the UK’s The Guardian newspaper about Mary, and whether or not there was a misogynist aspect to her character as a sort of walking nightmare for middle-aged and single woman. To me it seemed obvious that the reason the character was generating some pretty hearty reaction was that she’s frighteningly true to life, but not so much in a way tied to gender or age. I wondered if people had come up to Manville and say they knew somebody just like that.

“Oh God, yes. That’s the thing people say to me the most. People will say, ‘Well, everyone knows a Mary.’ Some people come up and say ‘I know somebody that’s a bit like Mary.’ I have had people, journalists as well, come up to me and say, ‘I’ve been a bit like Mary in my life.’ Mary’s a bad case of it. She’s had a series of terrible relationships. Her loneliness is profound. I know a lot of women who are in their forties and fifties and their on their own and childless, and their very happy with that. They’ve done it out of choice. Conversely, there are a lot of women — and men, like Ken [a seriously slovenly old school friend of Tom’s played by Peter Wight] — who are on their own and lonely and don’t want to be.”

“They are looking for something seemingly simple. It’s not a lot to ask to have some companionship in your life. She wants what Geri and Tom have, which is not complicated what they have, but it just eludes her. She’s not a bad person then, either. She does behave badly at times. She’s misguided and some of her behavior is slightly inappropriate, but she’s not bad, and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t have found love. For me, that’s one of the things the film says — how random that can be. Kind of to do with luck, a lot of it. You can be one of those people, like Gerri and Tom, who have found a soul mate, found somebody to go through life with, or you can be like the Marys and the Kens who just don’t.”

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Was Mary based on any specific person to any degree?

“Not any one person, no. But it is a sort of cocktail of quite a lot of people. By the time you’ve created it, it becomes it’s own thing. ‘Person X’ until you give her a name. It’s a cocktail of all sorts of things. I remembered seeing somebody drunk one day and certain things that they did. I remembered that when I was playing Mary. So that went into the mix of what became what Mary was.”

With all the detailed effort that went into creating Mary, was she hard to cast off at the end of a day’s work?

“I don’t have any problem with that, but I think people do sometimes have problems with that. I think people think that, with a Mike Leigh film, [there must be more some difficulty] since you are working so extensively, and certainly with this film it does go to some considerable depth, particularly for Mary. But, no, I’m not that kind of person, really. I brush it all off at the end of the day and don’t take it home with me. In the case of Mary that’s a good thing because, boy, you wouldn’t want to be stuck with that,” Manville said with a chuckle. “I think it’s also part of the discipline of Mike that you go in and out of character and you get used to that.”

Like a lot of good directors, Mike Leigh has a group of actors he works with repeatedly. How does Manville feel about returning to work with the same actors?

“It’s the same people a lot of the time, but not all of the time. David Bradley, who plays Ron, the brother of Jim [Broadbent’s] character, he never worked with Mike before, so that was new, though I had worked with him on stage. There’s a shorthand, obviously. I think when you’re working very specifically like this, it’s quite good to have that shorthand. You know that you all know the score, you know the territory and you understand it. Mike always does work with people he’s never worked with before, but maybe with this he was influenced by the fact that, A, he had his lowest budget for many decades, which is terrible considering the attention that his films get. B, he was making a film, unlike “Happy-Go-Lucky,” dealt with people getting older. So, there was quite a big pool of his people to call on. Maybe he felt that, because of the size of the budget and the speed with which he needed [to make the film] — I know it sounds a long time, 18 weeks rehearsal, but, when you start with nothing, it’s not as long as it seems — we needed to be getting on with it.”

So, is the current economic malaise and the end of lottery-supported English Film Council causing a lot of bad effects on anyone trying to make films in England?

“There is a bit. Mostly, people feel that the film council axing is bad news. We’re just not making that many films there. We make some remarkable films with some extremely talented directors, but Christ knows where the money is going to keep coming from. If Mike, who’s had Oscar attention since ‘Secrets & Lies’ is finding it hard to get a budget, then you worry about the other people that don’t have his credentials.”

What about some of the better known English directors who’ve left England for Hollywood? Does Manville lament the departure of such genre-loving luminaries as Christopher Nolan and Edgar Wright for the vastly bigger budgets of Hollywood.

“The kind of films Chris wants to make, he could probably only make here. I think that’s a fair comment. So, I can understand him wanting to come here. But Mike doesn’t want to make blockbustery-type films. He wants to make films that deal with the human condition. There’s no way he would come here and make films.”

It really does seem, the questioner went on, that it’s getting more difficult for individualist directors like Mike Leigh to get their films made unless the have a strong desire to “blow shit up.”

“Yeah. Well, Mike is making the films that he wants to make. He’s just often making them in slightly restricted circumstances. For example, ‘Topsy-Turvy,’ which is a period film. I don’t know if you ever really noticed it, you probably wouldn’t, but there are no exteriors in it. There just wasn’t the money. As soon as you go outside and it’s the 19th century, it costs a shed-load of money…I don’t think it’s that you miss them. I don’t think you say, ‘Well, “Topsy-Turvy” had no exteriors.’ He made the film so beautifully and it told the story and all of that. But there are always corners being cut in these films because there isn’t the money. I got the same money on this film that I got on ‘All or Nothing’ in 2002. I had no pay rise from 2002 to 2010.”

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The quality doesn’t suffer, anyhow.

“I gave a cheap performance,” Manville joked to some chuckling. “I though there’s no way this man is going to get my diamond-cut performance until he pays me a bit more.”

The next question went to a writer who tends to ask the same general question at every interview, which is how a given role might reflect on the actor’s personal life in some way. This time around, it was asking whether Manville was a more sort of independent person or requiring companionship. Other actors might have chosen to deflect a question like that with a general answer or a joke, but it’s clear that Manville has more of a zero-tolerance policy towards overtly personal questions, even non-specific ones. Her firm but calm response prompted a bit of nervous laughter, though, really, Manville’s point is fair enough.

“I think it’s an irrelevant question. What I am is neither here nor there and I’m certainly not going to discuss my private life.”

Was there any sort of comparison between her and Mary, though?

“There isn’t a comparison because that’s not relevant. I don’t need to be lonely and an alcoholic to play Mary, who is lonely and alcoholic. That’s the great thing about Mike. I didn’t need to be like Kitty Gilbert in ‘Topsy-Turvy’ to play her. The great thing about him is that he doesn’t care what you are. All he’s interested in is what you can be in the performance. So, with respect, what I am is irrelevant.”

So, without getting too personal, with all the Oscar buzz that was going around about the film even as this interview was being conducted, what would a nomination or a win mean to Lesley Manville?

“It would be very exciting. I’ve lived and worked in England all my life and we don’t have that kind of buzz about things the way you do here. So, it obviously makes you excited because that is out of the ordinary. I don’t really sit at home thinking about it too much, but it would be jolly nice. It would give me a bit more power — which is a horrible word, I don’t really like to use it — but it would give me a bit more status and therefore open up some doors that would be nice to opened because I’d love to work in America. You’ve got some amazing directors here; why wouldn’t I? My career is about as good as it can in England. I do amazing theater work; I’ve worked with all the best directors including Mike Leigh. So, if America opened up, well, I’ve got a grown-up son. He doesn’t need me to cook his dinner every night. He’s 21, he can take care of himself and I can come here and make films.”

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