Lesley Manville: ‘Your needs and wants and sexual desires don’t stop at 35’

Alexandra Pollard

Read any of the articles written about Lesley Manville lately and they’ll tell you the actor is having a moment. “What they’ve been saying is that I’m having a ‘late-flowering career’,” shrugs the 63-year-old, picking at a fruit salad. “Their words, not mine. I felt that it was always flowering.”

Understandably so. Manville has been working since she was 16, first establishing a career onstage with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court, before a theatrical collaboration with the director Mike Leigh turned into a cinematic one. After their first film together, 1988’s sibling drama High Hopes, six more followed – including 2010’s Another Year, for which Manville was nominated for a Bafta. In other words, things were going swimmingly. “And then, quite literally out of nowhere, Paul Thomas Anderson rings me, and says, ‘Do you wanna be in my film?’ Simple as that.”

We’re in the echoey corner of a London hotel to discuss Manville’s brilliant BBC2 comedy Mum, which is partway through its third and final series. But today, dressed in a pressed white trouser suit and gold necklace, Manville more closely resembles Cyril Woodcock, the high-end couturier she plays in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 film Phantom Thread. An unsettling yet funny psycho-sexual drama set in 1950s London and starring a fastidious Daniel Day-Lewis as Cyril’s brother Reynolds, it earned Manville her first Oscar nomination. She was 61.

“It was just wonderful,” she beams. “I loved every minute of it.” Working with Paul Thomas Anderson was a joy, she says. “If you say anything in this interview about Paul, you just must say, from me, that he is the most glorious man to spend a day with on set. He’s the most lovely, funny, witty, glorious energy. You could easily think that he’s very cerebral and earnest, and that those days on set are heavy and difficult. They are all of those things, but they are also glorious with knobs on.”

I mention a DVD outtake in which she and Day-Lewis improvised a full-on food fight: tea was spat, jam was smeared, eggs were smashed. I was surprised by how loose Day-Lewis seemed – not the solemn method actor I’d imagined. “Well there you go,” she says. “I think that sums up what the myth is and what the reality is. I mean yes, that myth does prevail, and he is very in character, but once you’re in character, you can kind of go anywhere and it’s OK.”

She loved the lavish clothes her character wore, though “it was incredibly physically restricting. I don’t think Cyril would do what I do at the end of the day, which is put on a pair of sloppy trousers and a T-shirt. I can’t wait to get out of my day clothes when I get into the house, and I’m not even wearing any of that s**t.”

In that respect, the character reminded her of her mother. Manville, the youngest of three daughters, grew up in a “working-class family” in East Sussex with a stay-at-home mum and a taxi-driver dad. “When I was a child in the mid-Sixties, my mother would put on what she called a roll-on. We wore them in Phantom Thread, it’s kind of a residue of the corset. It was like a completely elasticated bathing suit that was a bra, and then it was your suspender belts as well. It’s strange that it lasted so long. I mean, really! What took women so many centuries to get rid of the girdle? It’s ridiculous. No wonder that whole [feminist] movement in the Sixties had the ‘burn your bra’ slogan. Christ almighty, yes, burn it.”

Manville’s character in Mum is a little more low-key than she is – though they have the same glint in their eye. “Cathy’s not a banging on the door feminist,” she agrees, “but she’s a quiet one.” Mum began in 2016, opening in the aftermath of the death of Cathy’s husband. She grieves – a grief that feels “sometimes a mile away, sometimes right next to you, but it’s always there” – alongside the remaining members of her sweetly daft family. It is one of the best sitcoms of the past few years.

Cathy is a calm, stoic, endlessly tolerant woman. “She’s everything good isn’t she?” effuses Manville. “Like with a lot of women I guess, she’s been this rock throughout all of these, predominantly men’s lives – her husband, her son, her brother. You never see her saying, ‘Actually, I want this, I need something’. She’s always on output. I mean wow, it’s very selfless isn’t it?” She does an exaggerated exhale. “Leaf out of that book!”

Lesley Manville as Cathy in ‘Mum’, a series the actor describes as ‘a comedy about grief’ (BBC)
Lesley Manville as Cathy in ‘Mum’, a series the actor describes as ‘a comedy about grief’ (BBC)

Over the course of the three series, Cathy slowly falls in love with her lifelong friend Michael (Peter Mullan). “It’s a comedy about grief,” says Manville, “but it’s also this beautiful love story about an ordinary, middle-aged woman falling in love. It’s good that it’s an older women having a love affair. Your needs and wants and sexual desires, and the need for love and companionship and excitement, doesn’t stop at 35. But also, it’s flagging up that we are all going to have tragedies in our life, we’re all going to lose people we love, we’re all going to have the rug of life pulled from under our feet. But the point is to carry on.”

Manville’s no stranger to that. She was married to the actor Gary Oldman, but he left her in 1989, three months after their son, Alfie, was born. She brought him up as a single parent, but she rejects the tragic narrative that is sometimes built around her. Or, indeed, any celebrity who goes through personal tumult. “Yeah, ridiculous, I mean come on,” she says. “I do hate it when I read a headline of somebody in the industry that says, ‘I’ve been divorced, I’m bringing up the child on my own.’ I try to talk about it in a down-to-earth and practical way, because it’s awful to set yourself up as something unique and special because you’ve done that.”

Besides, she had money. “Masses of people are doing it with far less privileges than I had. I wasn’t doing it poverty-stricken, I wasn’t it in a bad housing situation. I’m not negating the emotional stress and strain of being left, and bringing up a child on your own, but it’s the feelings that are universal. The situation – for me, on a practical level – was comfortable. I don’t think it’s right to do the boo-hoo stories. Come on, there are people in far worse positions than I am. Bringing up a child without enough money is a horrendous thing to have to do. God almighty, I didn’t grow up with privilege. I didn’t grow up with money being a thing that was easy to come by.”

In the end, being a single mother was something Manville enjoyed. “Enjoyed is the wrong word, I loved it. It’s been the greatest journey of my life being a parent. The fact that I did it on my own is kind of by the by.”

As for her parenting style, she just tried not to overthink it. “I never wanted to be calculated. I could only be the mother I could be, and I hope that was enough. In general terms, I’m a good person, I’m not ridiculously messed up… you just do your best and hope for the best. You give them the space to be what they are, and guide and suggest, but you don’t finger wag and dictate. It’s hard. Sometimes you want to finger wag and dictate, and something you want to get very angry. And sometimes you are angry. But you know, it’s very hard to watch a person emerging into a grown-up. You just have to remember how it was when you were doing it.”

She certainly made mistakes when she was younger, and acquiesced a little too much. Or, as she puts it, “put up with a lot of s**t”. “Although there wasn’t, career-wise, a lot of s**t I was putting up with,” she adds. “Most of the s**t I put up with was personal, and I definitely wouldn’t put up with that now. But that doesn’t set me apart from most women of my age, who have matured and had time to reflect on their actions. God, we all do things when we’re young that later we’ll grow to think, ‘God, I shouldn’t have done that.’ But that’s normal. That’s just getting older.”

Now she knows what not to tolerate – in both her personal and professional life – Manville has no intention of easing into retirement. As well as reprising her role as Flittle, alongside Angelina Jolie, in the sequel to the fantasy Maleficent, she’s just worked with Keira Knightley on Philippa Lowthorpe’s Miss World film Misbehaviour, and with Helen Hunt and Sean Bean on the BBC mini-series World on Fire. “It’s great, and I’m loving it,” she says. “But I’m also enjoying the bus pass.”

Mum airs on Wednesdays on BBC Two at 10pm