Few performances in 2010 were as difficult to watch as Lesley Manville’s turn in Mike Leigh’s “Another Year”. A Razzie nominee, you ask? No, far from it. Tabbed by various critics’ groups for their Best Supporting Actress award, and a BAFTA nominee to boot, Manville turned so heads and wrinkled so many brows in wincing, knowing exasperation because of just how skillfully she embodied the suffocating neediness and loneliness of Mary, an aging British singleton who serves as a boozy, chatty leech on the lives of her best friends, Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen), and their adult son. In advance of the movie’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release on June 7, we had a chance to speak with Manville by phone recently, about her feelings regarding her character, her rich working history with Leigh and the unique manner in which the award-winning writer-director shapes his material. The one-on-one conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Can you take me back to the beginnings of your relationship with Mike Leigh, and when you first met?
Lesley Manville: Wow, we first met a long time ago. I was in my early 20s, and he was going to be doing a play for the Royal Shakespeare Company and I was working in the company at the time. But for various reasons that play didn’t come to fruition, it was abandoned. But in meeting we’d established that we both thought we’d have a good working relationship. For me it was a huge eye-opener, because I was very young anyway but up until that point character acting wasn’t part of my remit. I’d just played myself and was very happy doing that, and I didn’t really think beyond that. The great thing about meeting him was that he made me see, relish and enjoy playing people that were not like me, and that was a great big release. But we went on quite soon after that to make a film for the BBC called “Grown Ups”… and that went out, and my career changed overnight really. It was great, and I do h0ld him responsible for giving me the varied career that I’ve had, because nobody ever typecast me. If they see me (first) playing some working class woman then they’ll probably see me with Mike playing somebody upper-middle class in the next film. Nobody’s been really able to pin me down, and I think that’s good in terms of longevity of career. And the (personal) buzz that I get out of it is also [important].
ShockYa: There’s such an intense and escalating audience discomfort that the character of Mary provokes — she’s manic and tiring — and yet she’s also so relatable.
LM: That’s what a lot of people said, when I was in the States at various festivals and openings of the film and doing publicity tours. That was the most prevalent thing people were saying, that either they know someone like Mary, or felt that they had once been a bit like Mary at a time in their life. Because I think loneliness is very universal, isn’t it? We’ve all experienced it — it’s whether we unfortunately, like Mary, have it as a staple of our lives or whether it’s a fleeting thing that’s triggered by the end of a relationship or the death of a family member. With Mary, she’s been lonely for many decades, since childhood really, and so therefore it is quite a shattering portrayal of it, really. Because of the way that Mike chooses to tell the story, in the end you’re just left very quietly, as the audience, watching the face of somebody who’s just trying to come to terms with everything, and listening to everyone else talk about their lives and travels. She’s sitting there with nobody to do anything with.
ShockYa: We’ve all felt that sort of loneliness, but it’s an outward manifestation of it, or even talking about it, which often makes us uncomfortable.
LM: Yes, because if you just saw Mary in the first half-hour of the film and then left you’d think she was somebody who talked too much, dressed too young, and was inappropriate and loud and a bit of a drunk. But all of those things are a product of the loneliness, and the armor plating that she wears to try to mask the loneliness — because that’s a word that she can’t really use, the thing she can’t acknowledge.
ShockYa: The manner in which Mike workshops his scripts with his cast is very unique, but also obviously very respected and successful, as he’s been Oscar-nominated for four or five screenplays, I believe.
LM: “Another Year” was pretty much the same experience as working with Mike previously, which is of course very different from working with other directors. He hasn’t really changed the way he creates work for some decades, although each project obviously flags up individual challenges that need to be dealt with. The only thing that’s changed, really, is that in the last 15 years or so he’s predominantly made films for the cinema instead of for television, and therefore he’s had more time and a bit more money. Although, having said that, “Another Year” was his lowest-budgeted film in a long, long time. People don’t believe it, but we really do start with nothing, and the work that we principally do in the beginning is one-to-one. We create characters, and then it’s his job — because he’s the only person with an overall vision of where the piece is going — to put these characters into situations where some kind of narrative or a dramatic arc develops. Or if your character is put together with someone who might be [the other half] of a married couple, you might do extensive improvisations investigating their day-to-day existence. Those improvisations won’t be very exciting. They’ll be long, but they’ll be trying to get to the heart of what those characters’ lives are like. They won’t be particularly interesting, to the point where you ever thought of filming them, but there comes a time when all the material that he has [must then] be given a dramatic structure. We never improvise on film. When it comes to shooting, we absolutely know what we’re saying and all the scenes are very, very finely worked out. Otherwise the films would be long and rambling and boring, and you certainly couldn’t shoot them in the conventional sense because everyone would be saying different things in each take, which would be hopeless. It’s a very finely tuned piece of script which we actually shoot, but the way that we get to that point is done collaboratively with the actors, as opposed to a scriptwriter sitting down and first writing it and the actors then having to inhabit those characters.
ShockYa: This is perhaps a strange question, but given the nature of that collaborative construction, was Mary, and the type of melancholy and loneliness that she experiences, any more of a difficult character to escape once production ended?
LM: No, but that’s just me. I think that given the depth of sadness of Mary your question is very understandable, and some actors maybe would [have trouble not taking that home]. But I’m just not one of those actors, really. I feel lucky in that way, because I am capable of playing characters who are profoundly unhappy and troubled but I don’t take any of it home. I think part of it is the discipline of getting used to working with Mike; you go to great lengths to create these characters, and he gives you plenty of time to get in and out of character while workshopping, so that by the time you’re shooting that whole process of getting in and out is very short. So I come home and can go about [my business], and think about everything else I want to think about.
ShockYa: What’s next for you?
LM: (laughs) Well, I am working with Mike again, actually, but we’re working on a stageplay. And since, as I mentioned, the first time we tried this it didn’t come to fruition, it’s quite nice. We still have 18 weeks of rehearsal and the process is very much the same, except at the end of those 18 weeks we do have to have a play with a beginning, middle and an end, as opposed to when we do a film, where sometimes we can get the beginning, shoot it, and then have the crew go away while we might work out what the middle is going to be, and then come back and shoot that. With a play, we obviously have to move a bit faster. We’ve only just started. We’re in our third week of rehearsals, and we don’t open until September, but it’s at the National Theatre in London, which is just about as good as theater gets, really, so I’m really looking forward to it.
Written by: Brent Simon