Lesley Manville: ‘I was always quite savvy’

She’s a bad, bad momma. The matriarch of this bad family. A controlling, violent, violent woman…” says Lesley Manville, who has turned out to be spectacularly good at playing bad. She’s talking about her latest film, Let Him Go, in which she plays Blanche Weboy, a heroically evil, gun-toting mama with an immaculate blow-dry and a gift for one-liners. It is one of those grand Hollywood films, a western-slash-thriller, the kind of movie that meant Manville was offered a stunt double. After spending an hour in her company, it isn’t a surprise to discover she opted to do the stunts herself, surrounded, she says delightedly, by four Canadian firemen, who hid just off-camera.

“I’d never picked up a gun in my life,” she says, with a hint of fabulous theatre. “And of course Kevin [Costner, her co-star] is brilliant with all of that, fights and stunts. Kevin was very funny, because he was showing me how to use the gun and I played up the girly bit, because it was just too delicious not to.” She chuckles. “And then when I was pointing the gun at him and being all Blanche, he looked at me and he said…” Here she puts on a deep, movie-star, American drawl: “Well, you sure don’t look like you’ve never held a gun before to me, lady.”

At 64, Manville seems to be having the time of her life. Her career has been long and chameleonic – she really has done the lot, from panto to soaps, from British independent films to harrowing theatre and beloved television series, all the way to an Oscar nomination. She is a hard worker and a consummate pro, and the fact that she is enjoying herself so much makes her a hoot to talk to. When our time is up, I am genuinely disappointed that we have to end it.

Manville assures me that she is only wearing a full face of makeup today, because she’s just been doing an online panel. “Top half’s all done,” she laughs. “The bottom half is PJs, I promise you.” We speak on Zoom. She is in Budapest, where she is shooting a new film, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris. (The Hungarian capital is standing in for 1950s Paris, partly for quarantine reasons.) She is playing Mrs Harris herself, a cleaning woman from London who becomes obsessed with buying a Dior dress. “It’s feelgood,” she says. “Like a musical, without the music. It’s going to look gorgeous and it’s going to be a real bit of escapism.”

This will be her second recent film about high fashion, after the phenomenal success of 2017’s Phantom Thread, in which she played Cyril, the sister of Daniel Day-Lewis’s dressmaker, Reynolds. Her performance earned her a best supporting actress nomination at the Oscars.

I ask if Manville is a fashion person, PJs aside. “Oh yeah,” she says. “I love clothes. But I don’t recklessly throw money around on them. I’m very careful. I really do mix Topshop with a bit of Armani.” She attributes this, in part, to her upbringing, which is another fabulous story. She was born in Brighton in 1956, the youngest of three daughters, to a working-class family. “My dad was all sorts of things. He was a bookmaker, he was a taxi driver, he was a plumber. He was a bit of a gambler, but a happy gambler, you know? Never gambled all the money so the electricity bill couldn’t be paid.” At times, she says, he was actually pretty good at it. “There was a period in our lives when we had a pony. And we weren’t middle-class girls at all.” She grew up to the rhythm of money coming in and going out. “So there’s that feeling, I suppose, that you can have it, but then easily not have it.” Her mother liked clothes, too. “My mum and dad were part of that Brighton gin-and-tonic set, and my mum loved a cocktail dress. My dad was not so bothered, but he was a good-looking guy and he looked great when you put him in a suit. So I think it’s come from all of that. But no, I don’t throw money around on clothes. I’m quite frugal.”

She started earning her own money when she was very young. Growing up, she was a good singer and trained as a soprano. “The thought was that I would go into classical music,” she says, “but it didn’t really appeal to me.” At 15 she left secondary school to go to the Italia Conti drama school in London, and she started working almost immediately. By the mid-1970s she had joined Emmerdale, when it was still called Emmerdale Farm, but left the soap after a few months. “I was quite savvy. I just thought, ‘I don’t want to be in this all my life.’ My dad couldn’t work out why. I was earning more money than he’d ever earned in his life and I was on telly twice a week. I thought, ‘Well, there are a few other things I want to do…’” Still, her parents were thrilled at her choice of career. Her father died in 1995, and her mother 10 years ago. “So she saw a good deal of it. But they’ve missed what people like to call my late-flowering career.”

She says this with a knowing look. Manville has rarely, if ever, been out of work, so she prefers to say that her career has always been flowering. “Well, it has!” What does she make then, of the idea that she is suddenly coming into her prime? “Listen, I’d be silly if I was denying that there’s been a shift in the past five years or so. There just has.”

In 2016, the director Paul Thomas Anderson called Manville to ask her if she would be interested in playing Cyril in Phantom Thread. “He said, ‘Have a look at the script, if you’ve got a minute.’” She laughs. “If I’ve got a minute!” She had a minute, called him back, “and that was it, in the bag.” Anderson came to London to meet her, bringing Daniel Day-Lewis with him. “We had a great night out. There was a little honesty bar up in the lounge of the hotel they were staying in. So we went out for dinner, came back and we raided the gins in the honesty bar. I mean, it was such a good night. I just thought, oh my God, in one fell swoop, I’ve got two incredible men in my life, who I just adored.”

Phantom Thread and Mum, the much-missed BBC sitcom about a newly widowed suburban woman, in particular, have opened up new audiences to her work, and new opportunities as a result. “So it kind of all happened at once, but I’m very aware of the fact that, given my age – not that I am bothered about my age at all, I love it, I celebrate it, I’m glad I’m the age I am, I wouldn’t want particularly to go back – typically, there’s been less work for women of my age.” Really, she still doesn’t think there is enough work for women of her age. “But I think it’s getting better. I think it’s suddenly dawning on people that the story of the middle-aged woman is an interesting story to tell.”

She feels happier now that she is older, more secure in her life and in her work: “I feel very confident when I walk on stage and when I walk on a film set. Not in a grand or showy-off-y way. It’s just I feel very certain of what I’m doing. I don’t think I’m going to balls it up.”

She says she wouldn’t want to be starting out as an actor now, particularly when her younger friends tell her about the stresses they face: “There are so many pressures on young people to be famous. When they’re up for a job they’re genuinely asked how many Instagram followers they’ve got. I mean, it’s horrendous. Horrendous!” She grows reflective, if only for a moment. “I wouldn’t mind being in the place I’m in now and going back 10 or 15 years, as I suppose my only worry is I’m having such a good time I don’t want it to stop.” But then she adds: “I just like where I am now. I’d quite like to freeze this moment in time.”

Even during the first lockdown, Manville, ever the trooper, kept working. Her old friend Nicholas Hytner asked her if she’d be up for doing Bed Among the Lentils, part of the BBC’s revival of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologue series, which she then performed, live, to a limited audience at the Bridge Theatre in London. The only thing that bothered her about lockdown was not seeing her son, Alfie, for 12 weeks. Otherwise, she’s fine in her own company. “I’ve lived on my own for quite some years, so I don’t have that kind of panic about it at all. I’ve not met anybody, in terms of a partner, recently, that’s made me think I would break that pattern of life that I have. I’ve got loads of girlfriends and boyfriends in relationships that are very long-standing and they don’t fare nearly so well on their own. I’m pretty good.”

In 2017, Alfie accompanied her to the Oscars. His father, Gary Oldman, was also nominated that year. (Oldman and Manville split up shortly after Alfie was born, in 1988). “It was a very nice event for him, because he’s one of the few people in history that’s had both parents nominated in the same year,” she says. At the time, she was performing in the Eugene O’Neill tragedy Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in the West End. It was a demanding part in a very long play. She only had Sundays and Mondays off, and Manville had to squash in her Oscars experience around it. The only direct flight that would get her from London to LA in time for the ceremony was due to land 90 minutes before it started; she and Alfie ended up going via Amsterdam, on two hours’ sleep. “I knew I had to arrive in LA with clean hair, because there wouldn’t be time to wash it,” she laughs. She landed in the States to a maelstrom of stylists and makeup artists. “It was surreal.”

The ceremony itself sounds much less frantic. “What you don’t see on telly is that there are commercial breaks every 10 minutes, so everybody gets up and starts chatting and wandering around and going to the bar.” When she needed the loo, she made sure she left plenty of time before her category was announced. (Allison Janney eventually won it, for I, Tonya.) “Helen Mirren was at the bar and she was saying, come on have a drink. I said, ‘Helen, you’ve no idea how fractious my journey has been. I am not going to miss my category by being at the bar having a vodka with you,’” she says, laughing.

Manville thought about going to the parties after the ceremony, but Paul Thomas Anderson put her off. “I said to Paul, ‘What’s it going to be like at the Vanity Fair party?’ He said, ‘It’s going to be like this, only it’s going to be full of models.’ I said, ‘Oh, come on, let’s not go’.” Instead, she went for dinner with Anderson, his partner Maya Rudolph, Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, who had composed the film’s score, her sister Diana, and Alfie. “We sat in this lounge and had cocktails and omelettes. It was just lovely. It was perfect.” She flew back to Britain, landed on Tuesday morning, and was in the theatre that night.

Someone asked recently what her favourite films had been. “It’s impossible to answer, but I said, ‘Look, there’s a few up there. One would be Mike Leigh’s Another Year. The other would be Phantom Thread. Ordinary Love, most definitely. And Let Him Go.” If Phantom Thread was fertiliser for her already-flowering career, then Let Him Go is such an all-American film that I wonder if Manville is now blooming into her Hollywood phase. “Well, who knows?” she replies. “Certainly some Hollywood stuff has come my way since Phantom Thread. I’m not going to start judging the projects differently because it’s America. My same criteria of judgment will apply. It’s all about the script and how good the part is, how interesting and what the director is like.” She is thrilled, she says, that she can front a film. “I’m in this amazing position. I’m Mrs Harris in Mrs Harris Goes to Paris!” She says her agent, whom she’s known for 20 years, was just watching her in Let Him Go. “And she said, ‘I didn’t realise it was you!’” Manville laughs, a proper gutsy laugh. “That’s when I think, Yes! Result.”

Besides, she doesn’t seem the sort to be singular about it. While doing Mum, which she loved, she was also playing the villainous Lydia Quigley in Harlots, and is delighted that it has finally been shown on British television. “I just loved doing Harlots,” she says. “I’ve got some utterly delicious lines to say. And she’s so cutting and she can be so foul and she can be so acerbically funny. I had a great time.” Manville has also been announced as the final Princess Margaret in The Crown, picking up from Helena Bonham Carter, at the same time the mantle shifts from Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth to Imelda Staunton’s. “It’s quite a way off yet,” she says. They won’t start work until next year. “But I couldn’t be happier to be doing it. Again, what a great character to get my head round. And in those last decades of her life, that were lonely and difficult, and marred latterly by ill health. Fantastic character. And, of course, Imelda is a great friend, so I know it’s going to be really good.” She seems so excited, thrilled by it all, everything that’s going on. I ask her if she’s enjoying herself as much as she seems to be and she beams. “I’m absolutely loving it.”

Let Him Go will be in cinemas from 18 December

Hair by Raphael Salley at Saint Luke using Oribe Haircare. Makeup by Amanda Grossman at The Only Agency using RMS makeup and Twelve Beauty Skincare. Fashion assistant Peter Bevan