It was Lesley Manville’s idea to have Liam Neeson sprawl on the floor. They were about to film the most intimate scene in a deeply intimate movie, Ordinary Love. She was playing Joan, who has breast cancer, and he was Tom, her husband of many years, and many ups and downs. Joan will undergo a double mastectomy the next day, and they’ve checked into a hotel room with a bittersweet plan: To have sex for the last time before her body is changed. Until now, the couple have been pros at keeping it light, keeping their sadness at bay. Tonight, they’re going to let themselves feel it.
But physically enacting this required finesse. “To put it bluntly, if he’s lying on the bed and I’m on top of him, there’s a lot of distance between us,” Manville said in an interview during last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. “Or else I’d be all scrunched up.”
Manville, 63, is one of Britain’s most popular and formidable actresses. (As she puts it, “In England, I’ve got the most brilliant career.”) For more than 40 years, she’s shone on television, film and stage, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the BBC and a who’s-who of directors including Sam Mendes, Stephen Frears and especially Mike Leigh, with whom she’s made a fistful of films, and who is famously collaborative with his casts. She’s been nominated multiple times for multiple awards, and has won a shelf-full. Why shouldn’t she offer suggestions?
“I like to think people employ me because of what I’ve got to offer,” she says briskly. “Actors aren’t robots. We can bring stuff to the day.”
We’re drinking little pots of tea in a corner booth at a hotel restaurant. Manville is wearing something chic and black; she has a delicate-featured, characterful face and a musical voice. (She trained as a singer as well as an actress.) Although she’s very pleasant company, she’s not superengaged by the interview process. She regards me steadily and answers readily, but it feels as if she’s floating above it, that it’s not really her concern.
Born in Brighton, she bossed around her two older sisters, but was “no anarchic rebel – I was a good girl. Still am.” She married and divorced two actors, Gary Oldman and Joe Dixon, and has a son, Alfie, who’s 30. She lives in London, where she still takes the tube. “I need to be in the world,” she says.
She certainly knew what she was in for with Ordinary Love. Written by the acclaimed playwright Owen McCafferty, and directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn – a married couple – the film is powered by its precise observations, of both marital contentment and the ravages of cancer treatment. “Listen, there’s no point coming to this project thinking, ‘Oh, do I have to take my clothes off? Do I have to look rough?’ ” Manville says. “I wasn’t going to try to not look rough. Some of the shots are really brutal. But that’s what this is. We always planned to go all the way with this film, and I love that we did. It doesn’t shy away.”
Because the hotel-room scene is all about Joan’s breasts, Manville knew Neeson had to be close to them. So she suggested that he lie on the floor – his back propped up against the bed’s footboard, his long legs stretched out – and that she straddle him. (She’s five-foot-two, and he’s a full foot taller; the film uses their size difference to touching affect.)
It was Neeson’s idea that Tom should slowly unwrap Joan’s turban to reveal her bald head. “It’s very powerful,” Manville says. “A, to see a love scene between two people who are over 60” – Neeson is 67 – “and B, it’s saying, ‘I love you and desire you even without your hair.’ Scar across her breast. But it still manages to be sexy.”
As mentioned, in England, Manville cherry-picks the projects she likes – doing Ibsen and Chekhov on stage, playing Margaret Thatcher on TV, starring in films such as Another Year (2010), which earned her the London Film Critics Circle award for best British actress. But she experienced “unquestionably, a shift” when she played Daniel Day-Lewis’s uncompromising sister in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 drama Phantom Thread. “Suddenly, I was in a film directed by one of America’s greatest directors. With Daniel,” she says. “So everyone is going to see it.”
Her subsequent Oscar nomination for best supporting actress opened up Hollywood in a way she would not have pursued on her own. “I would never, at age 60-plus, go sit in America and wait for them to give me a job,” she says, laughing. “So I’m enjoying it all immensely,” including roles in two Maleficent films and the coming Let Him Go, opposite Kevin Costner.
But wherever she works, Manville won’t play “just somebody’s wife or mother,” she says. “It has to be very woman-centric for me to want to do it. My thing is to be a chameleon, different parts, characters of different classes.” She doesn’t overrehearse; she likes to “make room in the moment, to see what comes.” But she puts in the hours. “I do my homework, I turn up on time,” she says. “And I get very irritated when people don’t.”
Cautiously, Manville ventures that the film and TV industry are becoming more receptive to characters her age. “Film companies, producers, are slowly realizing there’s a massive market for women over 40 and 50, to go to films where they are properly reflected and observed,” she says. But she doesn’t have a dream project – “just more of the same, please.” Her smile is serene.
So she doesn’t fantasize about landing a blockbuster franchise, playing the head of a galaxy? “And get the big paycheque?” she coos. “I could do that, yeah. Can you sort that out for me?”
We both laugh at that. The amount of sorting out that Manville needs from anyone else is zero.
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