Leigh's leading lady: Lesley Manville
Dave Calhoun meets the wine-quaffing star of Mike Leigh's 'Another Year'
You’ve made seven films now with Mike Leigh, including ‘High Hopes’ (1988) and ‘Topsy-Turvy’ (1999). How challenging was Mary compared to those other roles?
‘Well, I think Mary has a complexity about her, but there is a complexity about all those characters really. I do feel that I was able to go somewhere deeper than I have before… Have you seen “All or Nothing”?’
Yes – you and Timothy Spall play married parents of teens on a south London council estate.
‘I think Penny in “All or Nothing” was someone I went deep with, but she was different because she was so quiet. She keeps all her pain inside. It is only at the end, when their son has a heart attack, that they talk.
‘I like that film, and both Mike and I feel it’s the one that got away. Critically it did well, but everyone said “Oh God, gird your loins if you are going to see this because it’s grim and dark.” So nobody went!’
I remember Jonathan Ross telling people ‘to give it a body swerve’.
‘It was appalling. Other more serious journalists and critics were pointing out the film’s merits, but he was just saying: “It’s awful, don’t go to see it.” It’s kind of irresponsible.’
You put months of work – research and improvisation – into building these characters with Mike Leigh.
‘They all feel detailed because you do so much work. For Kitty Gilbert in “Topsy-Turvy”, I had to get to the point where I could improvise in the style of 1880, which is difficult. The research for that was huge. The great thing about Mike is that he has let me play these different characters at different ends of the social scale.’
Has he changed how he works over time?
‘Not really,the process hasn’t changed very much. We still do the same things and reach the same end. I suppose we all mature and get better as we get older, and he has too as a filmmaker. For my part, you have more life, you have lived a bit more and you have a greater depth to you. For me to play somebody like Mary, and him to make a film like “Another Year”, it’s something neither of us could have done 20 years ago, as we hadn’t reached an emotional place to deal with all that stuff.’
The final shot of ‘Another Year’ is powerful. It focuses squarely on Mary but leaves us to imagine where she might be heading.
‘Well, exactly. I think it’s up for grabs, that last bit, and that is deliberate on Mike’s part. I don’t know what happens to her either. There’s that whole thing of feeling that there’s a pain that’s never going to go away. She says earlier, “I think I might go away somewhere else and start again.” But she has spent her whole life saying, “I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that.” I think it is right that we are not left with a solution.’
Age is a massive hang-up for her.
‘I think that is why Mike deliberately never lets you know her age. You do wonder how old she is, though probably when Mary was 30 she was panicking about looking older. She is always going to want to look 18. It’s a mindset about being young and sexy because that’s the only way she feels men relate to her.’
To go back to working with Mike Leigh – do you think you need a lack of ego to work with him?
‘Well, personally speaking, yes – did you see how I looked in “All or Nothing”?! And also as Mary to a certain degree. Most definitely!’
I was hinting at the idea of not knowing what you’re getting into.
‘I suppose it wouldn’t suit everybody, and it wouldn’t suit your average Hollywood ego because they would want to know how big their part was. You do have to give yourself up to it.’
There has been talk of nominations in America for ‘Another Year’, and its US distributor is pushing it for awards.
‘Yes, I am going to be back on a plane in a few weeks and going to Santa Barbara, LA and New York, and then back again in December. They are really pushing it.’
There’s something amusing about discussing such a British, everyday character as Mary in Santa Barbara.
‘Yes! But that’s because they are screening it to 400 members of the Academy. It’s weird isn’t it?’
Would you like to work over there?
‘I have been acting for over 30 years and telling the quiet story for a long time. I like the possibility of another adventure. I would love to go and work in America with some of the directors there. I have a certain freedom now:my son [Alfie, her son with Gary Oldman from their marriage in the late 1980s] has grown up and I am not really tied to anything. I could flit off and go wherever I want, really. Now, because of all the awards attention, people might know who I am a bit more, which helps. It’s nice for the film, it’s nice for Mike, and it’s nice for all of us in it.’
Read our five-star review of 'Another Year'
Author: Interview: Dave Calhoun
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