Lesley Manville Follows ‘Another Year’ to Another World: Hollywood

British actress says Hollywood has finally taken note of her improvisation-based work with Mike Leigh

Last week, I bemoaned the fact that Javier Bardem was being overlooked in awards voting. In the female acting races, meanwhile, Lesley Manville is the most glaring example of an actress whose remarkable performance hasn't picked up the nominations and accolades it deserves. As a lonely, needy, jittery woman who hides her desperate unhappiness in too much talk and too much drink, Manville commands the screen in "Another Year." It's the seventh film she's made with the unconventional British director Mike Leigh, who develops his films through a lengthy and singular process of improvisation with his actors.

Lesley ManvilleManville has been working on the British stage and screen for more than 30 years – but "Another Year," which opens an Oscar-qualifying run in the U.S. this week, has given her the highest Stateside visibility she's ever had. The National Board of Review named her the year's best actress, and there's still plenty of time for the most significant group of voters to add her to their own honor roll.

(Photo by Dave J. Hogan/Getty Images)

Among people who write about awards, there was a furious email exchange a while back about whether Sony Classics should be campaigning for you in the Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress category.
It's difficult. It’s a film with three leading roles, really, isn’t it? [Manville, Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen] So you could go either way with any of us, I guess. But it's out of my hands. It's up to Sony Pictures Classics, and I think they've pretty solidly decided to put me in the leading category. That's their stance, and whether I feel good or bad about that is kind of by the by. They're not going to shift.

And in the end all they can do is suggest – it's the voters who actually decide.
Well, I guess so. I don't know how it works. I don’t know that if they campaign me for leading, that people can then make their own minds up and say, "Well, I would like to vote for her in supporting."

They can. The Oscars acting ballot comes with a note that essentially says, "Don't pay attention to the campaigning. If you think it's a lead role, vote for the person in lead. If you think it's supporting, vote for them in supporting. And if you think it could be either one, feel free to write their name down in both."
Oh really? That's good, but I suppose it can split the vote, can't it? If they're not clear, it splits it, and then you're in a lose-lose situation. (laughs)

I think that’s why there's campaigning: hoping that the power of suggestion will prevent a split vote.
Oh well, we'll see. It's all a mystery. We're British, we don’t know much about the Oscars.

When you made the film, did things like awards season ever enter your thinking?
Certainly not when I was making it, no. And not even when I first saw it. The first screening, Mike shows it to just the actors in it. And Jim and I rang each other up afterwards and said, "I don’t know, what do you think?" Because you're so close to it, and so involved, that you just didn’t know.

It took me about three times seeing it before I could watch it objectively, and really start to see the whole thing and see that it's great. That third screening, which was Cannes, then I kind of felt very connected to the whole thing, as opposed to just watching me be Mary.

Lesley ManvilleWhen you first started working with Mike Leigh, you hadn't had any experience improvising, had you?
No. But you don't need to have had experience improvising. Because he does improvising that goes to a whole different level. Most people might do a bit of improvising when a script isn’t working, or on day one they say, "Let's stand up and improvise."

That isn't how it is with Mike. You start out improvising in week 12, when you've absolutely got your character. Because otherwise improvising is a waste of time, I think. All you're doing as an actor is thinking of what you can say that's interesting.  And of course that isn't the point with Mike at all. You're improvising to understand the inner state of a character, and you're absolutely encouraged not  to be interesting. It is a kind of improvising like you've never done before.

You first met him on a play, didn't you? What was he looking for at that point?
He was looking for probably not me. I think he was being encouraged to employ me, because he was doing this play with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I was working with them at the time, and I think for economic reasons he was being encouraged to employ people who were already in the company. But I did a session with him, and I had done that thing of trying to be interesting, which is absolutely not what he was looking for. So he didn’t think I was going to be a good candidate at all.

But then, long story short, he did employ me, and when we actually got down to it and started working properly, it was a revelation to both of us. And he had to admit that having thought I wouldn't be any good at his way of working, I absolutely took to it like a duck to water. I found it fantastically liberating. I loved it. And it opened up this whole new career for me.

In what way?
He was the first person to get me to play people who were not like me. I mean, I was young, I was in my early 20s, but it had never even entered my head before that to play people who weren't like me. I hadn't really had any formal training, and I was playing lots of young, pretty girls. That's all I did. I was having a great time, I was earning money, and then I met him and it was just amazing. 

And then eventually when I made my first film with him, which was a film he made for the BBC called "Grown Ups," my life really changed.

Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville and Ruth SheenHis process starts with the characters, and the story grows out of that?
It can be exhaustive explaining the process, but basically, yes. In essence, we have 18 weeks. We know nothing about the film, and he knows nothing about the film. He doesn’t come up to me and say, "Will you play Mary, she's a lonely alcoholic?" Because she doesn’t exist until we create her.

He works one-to-one creating a character with you, then eventually he'll start to bring you together with other characters that your character would have a relationship with, be it family or friends, whatever. Then, further down the line, you'll be doing major improvisations. Then, much further down the line, there will be a brief scenario of what the film's going to be about, what area, what period it's going to cover. And then you do more improvisations, many many improvisations. And out of all these different drafts of improvisations, a scene will finally be distilled and honed down and made exact.

We never have it written down, but we do say the same thing each time we shoot it, so we don't improvise on camera. So that is the process, in a nutshell. It is detailed, it is time-consuming, it's boring at times. But at the end of the 18 weeks you know the character, so that he can then put that character into any situation, along with all the other characters that he's been working with, and stuff will start to happen.

What were the seeds of Mary?
All sorts of stuff. It's too random a process to be definite about, but it's bits of all sorts of people, bits of all sorts of women that I might know a bit, or not at all, or somebody that I've just seen in the street. We pull it all together and sort of make Character X, and then when we've got a very rough idea of who Character X is, we'll go back to the beginning of their life and give them a life story, a complete and total history.

So by the time you actually start to shoot, you're no longer improvising?
We're kind of on target by then. It's just a case of doing improvisations, pinning down the dialogue, and shooting it. Then the crew will go away for a few days, and we'll sort out the dialogue for the next few scenes and they'll come back and we'll shoot those.  The story emerges as it goes along.

Have you gotten more interest from Hollywood since this movie started screening?
I have. I've now got a manager here in L.A., so that's new. I had meetings last time I was here, about six weeks ago, and I have more meetings tomorrow. So yeah, people are less vague about who I am now. Before, I think you had to be a real Mike Leigh aficionado to know who I was, but now that all this stuff is happening with "Another Year," and my name seems to be out there. So it's easier.

And it does seem to be getting better for actresses over 40 as well. I think it's kind of bad news for me that it's kind of a bumper year for actresses – but good news really, because actresses have had a difficult time historically.  So it's very good that there have been a lot of good parts, and a lot of good parts for women that are older. And that there are key women, certain women like Annette Bening and Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep who are still playing women over 50, women over 55 even, who are sexy. It's a great breakthrough.

Would you like to make mainstream Hollywood movies?
The same criteria would still be in place for me. I don’t do bad scripts with bad directors at home, so I'm not going to start doing that here. But yeah, I’d love to work here. This film, if it opens up some doors for me here, would be amazing. Because it's come at the right time in my life. My son has grown up, and I have a certain freedom and liberty to go where I want now. And if this film allows that, that would be terrific.

("Another Year" photos by Simon Mein/courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)