‘At my age a lot of actresses struggle to get work ... so I’m happy to be a late bloomer’
Lesley Manville, best known for her work in the theatre, tells Julia Molony about continuing to find great roles in later life and how she became friends with Daniel Day-Lewis in her latest film, Phantom Thread.
On a grey, mid-winter day in London, Lesley Manville is dressed in cosy knits and tucked away on a couch in a hotel suite in Soho. Still delicately beautiful at 61, her blue eyes are bright, and her rich-beige hair is loose around her face.
It’s a strikingly different look to the one she sports in her latest film, the much-feted Phantom Thread, in which she plays the manager of a couture house in 1950s London. As Cyril Woodcock, she is all figure-sculpting suits, bright red lips and an icy gaze that could freeze at 40 paces — a kind of proto-Anna Wintour, with a touch of femme fatale thrown in for good measure.
She is, in the film, a kind of exotic bird existing in a rarefied world. Most of her scenes take place inside The House of Woodcock, where she reigns supreme. Though it is her brother, Reynolds Woodcock, a creative genius with a controlling streak, who is the design talent, it is Cyril who rules the roost.
Cyril is a central figure in a film that deals, in many ways, with female power — both soft and not so soft. And her special kind of influence is evident in the control and restraint with which she plays the part.
She doesn’t need to raise her voice. All it takes is a sharp look, the slightest lift of an eyebrow or a short, sharp reproach for her to remind her brother, as Manville says, that “I’m the boss”.
“They know each other so well, they can sit there and have breakfast in total silence, in a state of complete comfort and understanding,” she says.
Singularly dedicated to his work, Woodcock takes up mistress-cum-muses according to his whim, before casually discarding them when their emotionality begins to encroach on his need to rigidly calibrate his environment.
This all changes when he meets Alma, an Eastern European waitress, whose force of will matches his own.
With its nuanced, complex treatment of “complicated relationships”, it is, Manville says, “the sort of film that I like... I’m really proud of it. I’d like it even if I wasn’t in it”.
Manville knows something of complicated relationships herself, one presumes. In the 1980s she was married to actor Gary Oldman for a number of years, until they split in 1989 when their son Alfie was three months old. She has always kept her counsel on the break-up, and in any case, Alfie is now an adult with a successful career as a cameraman.
She’s relieved that he didn’t end up following his parents into an acting career. “He was a runner for a long time and worked his way up,” she says. He had flirted with the idea of acting but, “he wasn’t very good,” she says candidly. “I’ve said that to him since. You’d think, given his pedigree that he’d be better, but he’s not.”
She was attracted to the character of Cyril because of how finely drawn she is. And the fact that, though her Cyril is unmarried, and has dedicated her life to the service of her brother’s talent, she is nonetheless fulfilled.
Not only that, her influence doesn’t come at the expense of her sexuality. “It’s reflected in the way that she dresses,” she says, but also in the way she behaves.
“You see her out at restaurants, laughing... She’s very happy where she is.”
As the alpha-woman of the piece, Manville more than holds her own against Day-Lewis, for whom Phantom Thread is something of a swansong — the last and final project he worked on before announcing his retirement last year.
Phantom Thread is another successful collaboration between Day-Lewis and the film’s writer/director, the celebrated auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. Both Day-Lewis and Thomas Anderson share a sensibility in common — an incredibly detailed approach to their craft, and together they contributed to a working environment in which Manville thrived. Anderson, she says, is “very collaborative”.
An Anderson film takes significant preparation. “I had the script six months before,” Manville says. One important step in the process was that “Daniel and I became friends”, she says. They needed to establish a connection that was genuine in order to convey a sibling bond on screen.
“In a way, their relationship is like a marriage — except obviously without the romantic or sexual aspect to it,” Manville says.
Anderson has drawn Woodcock as a character whose entire existence is taken up with the pursuit of excellence in his work. And the director is similarly exigent himself. But unlike the difficult, bullying Woodcock, he is, Manville declares, “a dream of a man” to work with. “He is exacting, but he’s less overtly narcissistic,” she says with a laugh.
Manville is herself something of a grande dame in her field. She’s been acting since she was a teenager. The daughter of a taxi driver, she grew up on a council estate in Hove and left school at 15. And yet, just a few years after getting her first break with a role on Emmerdale Farm, she’d worked her way into the heart of the literary establishment, on stage and on film.
She was in her early 20s when she joined the RSC, and it was there that Mike Leigh spotted her. Soon she’d become a kind of muse to Leigh — the pair have worked together on 11 films. Meanwhile, she was also busily building a sizeable body of theatre work, appearing in many of the seminal plays of the 1980s and 1990s to appear on London stage, including Top Girls and Serious Money.
Despite her long career, she’s recently become a poster girl for later life success, having appeared in some of the best television, theatre and film around.
This is a particular source of joy, given that, she says: “I’m at an age where a lot of actresses are struggling to get work... I’m very happy to have been a late bloomer in that sense.
“I suppose because I’ve become successful in the way that people measure it (of late), but I’ve been working solidly since I was 16; with Mike Leigh, the Royal Shakespeare Company so I feel very lucky to have had those years.”
She’s only once, she says, taken a job for financial, rather than creative reasons. “I was going around the world to do the press junket for a Mike Leigh film,” she explains, “for which the actors are not paid, and I needed the money. I needed to pay the mortgage. I did it, and it was fine.”
Luckily, with the choice of projects now available to her, she’s never had to make that compromise again.
Phantom Thread is released on February 2