Lesley Manville has the experience to know a good role when she is offered one, and the ability to avoid being tied down to just one, finds Caroline Bishop.
For an actress who has worked in film, television and on stage for more than three decades, Lesley Manville has done a very good job at not being famous. She does not inspire the instant recognition gained from playing a seminal role on primetime television, like her near-contemporary Helen Mirren, nor does she have the Hollywood profile of her ex-husband Gary Oldman. But, though you might not know it, you would have seen her.
“People are always saying ‘what have I seen you in?’ I always say, well, look, I’m not in one of the big things that you’d know. I’m in the three-parter that was on last year, I’m in Cranford this year, I’m in that one-off film for television,” she says, perched on a sofa at the National Theatre, where we meet during rehearsals for her latest play. “But it’s too kind of vague for them. But that’s what I want, I don’t want it any other way really.”
If you have followed the work of British director Mike Leigh, purveyor of gritty, realistic film drama, you would certainly know her. A long-time collaborator and friend of the director, Manville has appeared in five of his films, including Vera Drake, Secrets And Lies and All Or Nothing, the latter winning her a Best Actress Critics’ Circle Award in 2003.
Likewise, you may have spotted her in those one-offs and three-parters over the years, most recently as Mrs Rose in the aforementioned BBC serial of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford and in Zinnie Harris’s television drama Richard Is My Boyfriend.
It is in the theatre where 52-year-old Manville has really earned the respect of her peers, while still, given the nature of the beast, missing out on widespread public recognition. She learned her craft at the Royal Court and Royal Shakespeare Company during the 1970s and 80s, appearing in, among other things, the premiere production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, Christopher Hampton’s award-winning Les Liaisons Dangereuses and a revival of Edward Bond’s controversial Saved. In recent years you may have caught her as the elegant, cold-blooded child catcher Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials at the National Theatre, returning there to play a high class whore in The Alchemist and Lona in Ibsen’s Pillars Of The Community. Or, last year, you may have seen her at the Old Vic as Manuela, the grief-stricken mother sent on a journey into her past in the stage adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother.
"The rehearsals are thrilling, and I don’t use that word lightly, they really are"
If not, then there is another chance to put a face to the name this summer as Manville is back at the National in the premiere of a period piece by actress-turned-playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Her Naked Skin.
Set in 1913 during the women’s Suffrage movement, Her Naked Skin centres on the relationship between Manville’s character, Lady Celia Cain, and a young working class seamstress she meets in prison. “It is about the big issue of the Suffrage movement, but what’s good about it is it’s also a personal battle of one woman who falls in love with a younger woman of a different class – she risks everything therefore, because she’s upper class – and simultaneously the failure of her marriage,” says Manville. Consequently, the play combines big, epic scenes of militancy in Hyde Park with intimate two-handers set inside the prison where the women’s relationship develops.
Appropriately, given the subject matter, the production is to be the first new play by a woman on the stage of the National’s largest auditorium, the Olivier. Yet this fact holds less significance than it implies – it is rare for new work by any playwright of whatever gender to find itself premiered in the 1,150-seat Olivier – rather, it is the epic nature of some of the scenes in Lenkiewicz’s play that necessitates the space. Manville, for one, has full confidence in the play’s ability to fill the theatre, saying: “I think it’s a good space for it and I do think that it really tells the story of that movement of women, and it’s a beautifully written play.” She adds: “I’m certainly saying get every young woman in to see it, you know; [it’s] an important play for them to see how in less than 100 years the women’s movement has progressed and what we’ve had to fight for.”
Manville’s enthusiasm for the play and its subject matter, which she has clearly found fascinating to research, leaves me in no doubt that she is right. Though petite, Manville has an air of authority and a somewhat unnerving directness – delivered through extremely vivid blue eyes – that suggests that if she says you should see this play, then you should see it.
With experience such as hers, Manville should know. Her compliments about Lenkiewicz’s writing – “her stuff is so speakable and real” – seem all the more genuine that she has previously, on occasion, had lines to say “that are just unspeakable”. Her praise of “fantastic” director Howard Davies, whom she last worked with 20 years ago on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and her enjoyment of rehearsals must be all the more cherished that it is not always the case: “The rehearsals are thrilling, and I don’t use that word lightly, they really are. It gets to 17:30/18:30 and I think oh do we have to stop now? I just want it to go on. You don’t always feel like that!”
"I want to chew the fat and work it out with all these other fantastic minds that are around"
She is also looking forward to working in repertoire, a comparatively easy schedule after last year’s All About My Mother, when she had the difficult task of summoning the anguish of a mother who loses her teenage son in a road accident eight shows a week for 13 weeks, a task which can’t have been easy to deal with given she is a mother herself – she has a 19-year-old son, Alfie, from her first marriage to Oldman, which ended when Alfie was a baby. “All About My Mother started with the son being killed so it was like, whoosh, right in there. It was certainly hard to do; coming into it cold almost – act one, scene one, whoosh, emotion. You had to just find it from somewhere, but that’s the job of acting. And some days you can’t always just rely on feeling it, you do have to know how you are going to technically act it to provide the same result.” Though she says leading the cast at the Old Vic was an amazing experience and she loved doing it, “It was like, at the end, right, enough; that’s enough.”
Luckily, she says she finds it easy to switch off from the job afterwards, which must be a help in her work with BAFTA-winning director Leigh, known for his lengthy working processes. The pair has been working together since 1978 when Manville, not long out of Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, was on a job with the RSC. Though the actress has often been quoted as saying her drama school-style acting didn’t exactly impress Leigh, their working relationship soon flourished when Manville found she took easily to the director’s improvisational style of creating work. “Mike works in a very specific way, and you have to remember with his work you start with nothing, there’s no script, there’s nothing at all, so he absolutely has to work incredibly closely with you, and you create a character over many, many months and slowly you start to improvise. It’s slow… a film with him you’ll be working for six months before the cameras come in.”
I wonder, after working so frequently with Leigh, if she finds it difficult to stick to the rigidity of a ready-prepared script on other jobs, but she says it aids, rather than hinders. “Creating a character in that way does help you when you’re working on a script because you can think about how you might want to play that person, what history you’re going to give them, what back-story they’re going to have,” she says. “You can employ all those methods but you kind of have to do it a bit more privately because this rehearsal is about working with a script.”
Perhaps because of her work with Leigh, Manville always looks for jobs where the process will be as collaborative as possible. “I like to do jobs where people want me for what I’ve got to bring to it, not just because I can learn it at home and come in with a fait accompli. I want to chew the fat and work it out with all these other fantastic minds that are around.”
She says she wouldn’t mind having a go at directing herself. Leigh has told her she should, because he thinks she is bossy, she says with a laugh. “He knows that I’m bossy and that I don’t leave a stone unturned. I’m very thorough, very, very thorough. That’s why I get on with Mike so well and this long slow process with him just appeals to me.”
But she doesn’t hanker too much after the new challenge of directing, and it is no wonder, given the array of interesting acting jobs she is offered. Due, she says, to her early work with Leigh, Manville has never been subjected to the perils of typecasting that seem to befall other actors. She has played a huge variety of characters from all classes and backgrounds. Directly before taking on Lady Celia she played a working class woman in Mark Ravenhill’s short The Mother at the Royal Court. Though she actively looks for variety, she is lucky enough to be able to say: “In a way that comes to me, that just comes, and people don’t pin me down and typecast me.”
"He knows that I’m bossy and that I don’t leave a stone unturned. I’m very thorough, very, very thorough"
She also, again luckily, feels there are enough good roles out there to sustain her. “I think over the last 15 years or so people have started to realise that women in their 40s and 50s are actually quite interesting,” she says, crediting Mirren’s appearance on TV’s Prime Suspect as changing the tide. “And of course, a big audience in the evenings is women of that age…They want to watch drama and they like watching programmes that deal with them. They don’t want skinny young 20-somethings prancing around… they want proper real stuff that’s about them. And I think the same’s true with films and plays.”
The ‘proper real stuff’ seems to be what Manville is all about. Though, like anyone, she likes a little escapism in her life – “I was only thinking the other day, Christ, I’d quite like to play somebody glamorous again for once, get some fantastic clothes!” – what really sparks Manville’s interest is interesting, flawed, real characters. “I like to do drama that reflects the society that we’re living in. So that does mean having no make up and dirty hair sometimes, unfortunately.”
She has been tempted by jobs that would raise her public profile, but Manville is currently in the happy position of having so much variety winging her way that she doesn’t want to be tied down to any one job. She recently turned down a year’s contract on hospital drama Holby City. “It’s not about a snobbish thing, it’s just thinking, well I don’t want to go and do a year in Holby when I know that I can do a play here, a play at the Old Vic, Cranford; I’ve been in Hollywood earlier on this year making a movie with Robert Zemeckis and Jim Carrey, A Christmas Carol. I’m not saying that Holby is an inferior job to accept, but it’s not where my career is. At the moment I am fortunate enough to have a whole spectrum of work available to me, so that’s obviously what I want to chase.”
It may be that Manville will never be recognised in the street for a specific role. Instead, she has a career that must be the envy of any actor subject to the restraints of pigeonholing. If you are going to catch her face at the National, you had better be quick, as Her Naked Skin is only scheduled until September. Then, no doubt, Manville will be on to the next interesting role in her vivid career. “Before you know it, it will be over,” she says, and there is a twinkle in her blue eyes as she slips into tongue-in-cheek marketing mode: “So they really must book early to avoid disappointment!”
Her Naked Skin is part of the Travelex £10 season