Lesley Manville on a life on screen, awards season and being an older woman in Hollywood

"You can have a lover at 60," says the actress. "You don’t have to be shoved in a corner in a cardigan doing knitting"

Lesley Manville (RT shoot by Mark Harrison, EH)

In a surprising moment halfway through the RT photoshoot, Lesley Manville is offering to “do a Christine Keeler” and straddle a chair. She is wearing her own clothes: a black leather Armani jacket, heeled boots and cropped trousers. She looks incredible.


It’s a look worlds away from Cathy, the very ordinary and slightly dowdy character she plays in the gentle BBC sitcom Mum, which was critically acclaimed and is returning for a second series.

But Manville, 61, has been something of a chameleon throughout her career, playing everything from posh to working class and all in between, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the actress is hard to pin down in real life.

“You can’t join the dots with me quite as easily as you think,” she admits. “People who don’t know me don’t realise I’m working class by birth. They think I’m university-educated or went to Rada because of the work I’ve done. I find that quite satisfying. I think anonymity is not to be sniffed at, and it’s where longevity lies.”

Although she has always worked prolifically, Manville’s career has become increasingly high profile in recent years. From her Bafta-nominated performance in Mike Leigh’s Another Year in 2010 to her Olivier Award in 2014 for Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Almeida, the last decade has undeniably seen a change of gear for her.

Lesley Manville (RT shoot by Mark Harrison, EH)
Photography by Mark Harrison

And now there’s an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress for her performance in Phantom Thread, a quirky film about a couture house. It’s her first Oscar nomination. She’s also nominated for a Bafta for the same film, and is rather giddy about it all. “It’s really quite hard to put into words,” she says, laughing. “It felt pretty good getting the Bafta [nomination], but the Oscar feels different – it has this added historical zest to it. Whether you like the Oscars or not, there’s this feeling that it’s the ultimate prize in film. It’s the big one!

“I wasn’t expecting it. I knew I’d been in the running but judging from the press it’s clear that I was the surprise nomination. So I think I got in there by the skin of my teeth. My feeling is that I’ve got absolutely no chance of winning but I will always be an ‘Academy Award nominee’ and they can’t take that away from me.

“It’s strange, I’m 61, I’ve been acting since I was 16. I have a very full and wonderful career. It takes quite a lot to make me feel that it’s getting any better, because it’s already fantastic. But this is extraordinary.”

It may well be the first time that an Oscar nominee has also been the lead in a small-budget BBC sitcom at the same time, but combining the two is typical of Manville’s versatile and eclectic style.

She landed the lead in Mum in 2016. Cathy is a recent widow grieving for her husband, watching her son prepare to fly the nest, and struggling to reconcile her feelings towards her friend Michael, played by Peter Mullan. From the writer/creator of Him & Her, Stefan Golaszewski, the first series won several awards including a Bafta, while Manville was Bafta-nominated for her beautifully understated performance.

Manville is rightly proud of the show’s success, and delighted that the programme represents a change within the television industry towards older women, something also reflected by the other actresses nominated at the Oscars – none of the runners for best supporting actress, including Laurie Metcalf and Allison Janney, is under 40.

“Isn’t that good? To be alongside those women! And, the thought of Meryl Streep [nominated for best actress] having her breakfast and reading the paper and going, ‘Oh look, Lesley Manville’s nominated’ – that’s kind of a dream. But that Meryl might actually be there and recognise me, that would make my life!

“I’ve felt there’s been a shift bubbling for a while for women of our age. Some people might read this interview and go, ‘You’re in a film, you’re in a series, you’re in a play, and it’s all great for you, Lesley Manville, but it’s not always great for the rest of us.’ I know that, and so I’m wearing some guilt about how good things are. But I’m not talking about how it is for me at the moment. I do think globally there is an umbrella shift happening for older women.

“I think that’s because film and television-makers realise that there is a huge audience of women who want to go to the cinema or turn on the telly and see stuff that doesn’t alienate them, that embraces them, that isn’t just about gorgeous 20- or 30-somethings, that represents their lives.

“There are actresses – Celia Imrie, Meryl Streep, Annette Bening, Helen Mirren, the list is long – playing women who are still sexually active, being attractive.”

In Mum, Cathy is so busy running around making sure her family are happy, she rarely bothers to look after herself, and that extends to her clothes: tracksuit bottoms and no make-up are de rigueur in her Essex house. Manville isn’t the type to wear tracksuits herself, but she is happy to do dowdy for the role and enjoys the fact that Mum is “a love story about two people who are 60 who are not glamorous: they’re just ordinary-looking people”.

It’s not the first non-glamorous role she’s taken, though she reveals that her turn as Mary in Another Year in 2010 shocked some American critics. “In the last half-hour of the film, that character hasn’t slept, she’s been on a bender, she hasn’t taken off last night’s make-up and her hair’s in a state,” she recalls. “The question I got most [doing press] in America was so wrong in the way they asked it – why did I allow Mike Leigh to let me look so appalling?

“Firstly, we created that character together. He didn’t do it to me. It was a collaboration. And secondly, how do you want me to look? Like a cleaned-up version of someone who hasn’t slept in 24 hours and is still drunk? Like, ‘Mike, please make me look attractive, think of my Oscar! America’s got to love me!’ I was never once asked that question here. There’s an awful lot of Botox floating around Hollywood, and worse. I’m sure it’s floating around here too, but the pressure is less here.”

Mike Leigh has cast her in his films more than any other actor. When they met, Manville says she felt out of her depth as an actress because she didn’t have the classical training of many of her contemporaries. She left her school in Hove early to go to performing arts school Italia Conti, where she’d concentrated mainly on singing, and was even offered a job in Hot Gossip by Arlene Phillips, which she turned down.

Another Year cast Ruth Sheen, Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville (Getty, EH)
Another Year cast Ruth Sheen, Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville (Getty)

“If I’d joined Hot Gossip, it probably would have been ‘career over’ by the time I was 25 because dancers’ careers are short-lived. I do wonder how my life would have been if I’d pursued classical singing. Singing is a gift I was born with, whereas acting is something I feel you get better with, the more life you’ve had.

“I started acting when I was 16 and I didn’t really think about the kind of actress I wanted to be. I didn’t know much about plays. I met Mike in my early 20s and just loved working with him. He demystified it all for me because I hadn’t been to Rada, where acting is discussed and talked about and played around with. The range of characters I’ve played with him is quite extraordinary. I think he’s the reason the wider industry doesn’t pigeonhole me or typecast me.”

The roles that have particularly won praise for Manville over the years have all involved grief: Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, which she is currently reprising at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, opposite Jeremy Irons, Helene Alving in Ghosts, Mary in Another Year and of course Cathy in Mum. But this is not because she has experienced particular hardship: she is a single mother to Alfie, 29, after a divorce from fellow actor Gary Oldman, but seems thankful for the benefits that has brought.

“I’m very close to my son, very close, and I suppose that’s inevitable,” she says. “I am a good mother, and hopefully my son would back that up. I was the right person to be cast as a single mother in my own life, as it were, because I’m good at juggling things and I’m really good at multi-tasking.”

Alfie will be attending the Oscars as her date and is particularly delighted. “It’s pretty big for him,” she says, “because his dad’s nominated as well. The announcement came out at 5.30am in LA, and lunchtime here. My son woke up Gary and said, ‘Hey, Dad, you’ve got a nomination and – guess what? – so has Mum!’ He thought it was hilarious! It’s a win-win for the family really.”

Not exactly – Oldman is nominated for best actor for his role as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, but his film is also up for best picture against Phantom Thread. That means, of course, Manville and her ex will effectively be battling it out for an award.

“Oh! I haven’t thought about it like that,” says Manville, slightly unconvincingly. “I don’t know what to say about that. They’re both pretty marvellous films, in very different ways. So it’s down to the members. But I doubt there will be fisticuffs on the red carpet.”

Manville’s character in Phantom Thread is an emotionally cold but physically stylish presence. She plays Cyril, the sister of Daniel Day-Lewis’s neurotic fashion designer Reynolds, in the edgy Paul Thomas Anderson film. Day-Lewis is also up for an Oscar, having gained particular attention when he announced his retirement after completing it.

Phantom Thread's Daniel Day-Lewis, writer, Paul Thomas Anderson, Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps (Getty, EH)
Phantom Thread’s Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Thomas Anderson, Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps (Getty)

Manville says she had no forewarning about his decision, which she concedes will be a loss to the industry, and adds, “Nobody was [aware]. It’s a totally private, personal decision. I can’t make anything of it because I don’t know his reasons. Probably he’ll share with me at some point but I suspect he’s not sharing them with anybody at the moment.”

In the flesh, Manville is great fun and hugely self-deprecating. When she realises I have watched the entire second series of Mum as well as Phantom Thread before our interview, she apologises with mock horror, “I’m sorry you had to endure eight hours of Manville! That’s an entire day. Oh God.”

And when we talk about what she will wear to the Oscars, she says, “Well, it’s a film about couture – I can’t turn up looking like a blob – there’s some pressure there!” Although for the Baftas she confirms she’ll be dressing in black alongside her fellow female stars in support of Time’s Up, the stand against sexual harassment. “I think it’s important to show solidarity,” she says. “I do feel very part of that whole movement and I want to be associated with it.”

Manville is, however, missing the run-up to both awards, including the campaign trail for votes, as she is filming a second series of the ITV drama Harlots by day and treading the boards by night. Beyond that, she doesn’t know what the future holds, although she does profess to fancying a bit of Shakespeare, having only ever been in one of the Bard’s plays. But whatever happens next, there is no doubt this is her year.

“I think I got good at acting very, very slowly,” she says modestly. “It’s all been a slow burn, and I think that’s been great. I do feel in a good place, after this slow sea change. It’s OK to be 60. You can have a lover at 60. You don’t have to be shoved in a corner in a cardigan doing knitting.”

The British Academy Film Awards are on Sunday 18th November from 9pm on BBC1


Series two of Mum begins on Tuesday 20th February at 10pm on BBC2.