Lesley manville: Oscar nominee and star of little-known BBC comedy 'Mum'

N A SOMEWHAT surprising moment halfway through our Radio Times 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 trendy cropped trousers. And she looks incredible.

It's not exactly what I was expecting, and it's a world away from Cathy, the very ordinary and slightly dowdy character she plays in the gentle BBC sitcom Mum.

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

"You can't fill in the dots with me quite as easily as you think," she admits. "People who don't know me don't realise that I'm working class by birth. They think I'm university educated or RADA because of the work I have done. I find that quite satisfying. I think anonymity is not to be sniffed at, and I think it's where longevity lies."

Although she has always worked prolifically, Lesley's career has become increasingly high profile in recent years.

From her BAFTA winning 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 the actress, and we talk about this at length at our photoshoot.

Then, lo and behold a few weeks later, the Oscar nominations are announced - and Lesley is on the list, for Best Supporting Actress for The 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 she's really quite giddy about it all. 

"Quite a lot has happened since we last spoke," she says, laughing, when we catch up again. "It's really quite hard to put into words. It felt pretty good getting the BAFTA but the Oscar feels different - I don't know why, but it has this added historical zest to it. Whether you like the Oscars or not, there is this feeling that it is 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 there by the skin of my teeth. My feeling is that I've got absolutely no chance of winning but I will always be '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 it's typical of Lesley's eclectic style to do both.

In 2016 she landed the lead in Mum as the titular Cathy, a recent widow who is 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 and creator of Him and Her, Stefan Golaszewski, the first series won several awards including a BAFTA and a Rose d'Or, while Lesley was nominated for a BAFTA for her beautifully understated performance.

Lesley 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, who include Frances McDormand and Meryl Streep for Best Actress, while none of the runners for Best Supporting Actress, including Laurie Metcalf and Allison Janney, are under 40.

Lesley says, "Isn't that good? It's very good indeed. To be alongside those women - I mean, the thought of Meryl Streep having her breakfast and reading the paper and going, 'Oh look, Lesley Manville's nominated', that's kind of a dream. But Meryl might actually be there and recognise me, which would make my life! 

"I’ve felt there’s been a shift that’s been bubbling for a while for women of our age. Some people might be reading this interview and going, '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'.

"And I know that, and so I am 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 that is happening for older women. 

"I think that is 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, 30-somethings, and that represents their lives. 

"There are actresses – Celia Imrie, Meryl Streep, Annette Bening, Helen Mirren, the list is long – who are 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 rigeur in her Essex house. 

Lesley admits she is not 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 Lesley has taken, though she reveals that her decision to go method as Mary in Another Year in 2010 shocked some of her American fans.

She says, "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.

"And the question I got asked the most [doing press] in America was so wrong in the way they asked it, which was, why did I allow Mike Leigh to let me look so appalling?

"I got asked that so many times, because I turned up for the interviews looking nice. Well firstly, we created that character together. He didn't do it to me. It's 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. I think England is less prescriptive about it. There's an awful lot of Botox floating around Hollywood, and worse. I'm sure it's floating around here too but less so, I think, and the pressure is less here."

In stark contrast to Mary, Lesley's character in The Phantom Thread is an emotionally cold but physically stylish presence. She plays Cyril, the sister of Day-Lewis's neurotic fashion designer Reynolds, in the edgy Paul Thomas Anderson film. Day-Lewis is also up for an Oscar, as is the film, which gained particular attention after Day-Lewis announced his retirement after completing filming.

Lesley 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. It's a great film and I was thrilled to be part of it." 

In the flesh, Lesley 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 later 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!"

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But she can also be serious and weighty, and it seems the different sides to her personality have afforded her an eclectic career: something which was picked up on by Mike Leigh who has cast her in his films more than any other actor.

When she met him, Lesley says she felt out of her depth as an actress because she had not had the classical training of many of her contemporaries.

She had left school early to go to 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.

"If I'd have joined Hot Gossip it probably would have been 'career over' by the time I was 25 because dancers' careers are short lived," she says. "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 and all the things that happen to you along the way.

"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 I just loved working with him. He demystified it all for me because I hadn't been to RADA or somewhere that acting is discussed and talked about and played around with.

"The range of characters that I’ve played with him is quite extraordinary. And I think that he’s been responsible for why the wider industry doesn’t pigeonhole me or typecast me."

The roles that have particularly won praise for Lesley 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 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 was 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."

Indeed, Lesley will have to play happy families at the Oscars whether she wants to or not - because Oldman is nominated for Best Actor for his role as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, which is also up for Best Picture against The Phantom Thread. Which means, of course, that Lesley and her ex will be effectively battling out for an award. 

"Oh! I haven't thought about it like that," says Lesley, 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."

What she does say, however, is that her son is absolutely delighted, and will be attending the ceremony as her date.

She says, "It's pretty big for him because his dad's nominated as well. It's a win-win for the family really.

"He's just giggly. 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."

Lesley will be missing all the run-up to the Oscars, including the campaign trail for votes, as she is filming a second series of Hulu and 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 okay to be 60. You can have a lover at 60. You don’t have to be shoved into a corner in a cardigan doing some knitting."