It’s a relief to report that Lesley Manville is warm, witty, and energetic in person, because her performance as the lonely alcoholic Mary in Mike Leigh’s Another Year is so indelible. Indeed, thanks to Leigh’s unusual rehearsal process that requires the actors to develop their characters from scratch over a series of months, Manville had to live with Mary for the better part of a year, but it seems to have been worth it: In a highly respected movie, she’s the most acclaimed member of the ensemble. With Vulture, she discussed her upcoming awards-season hopes, the film’s representation of single women, and her desire to duck out of Britain once in a while to work more in Hollywood.
How much backstory did you come up with that we never even seen onscreen?
Oh, tons! You never find out about her mother, her father, her friends, her childhood. You find out very little — she talks about a man she loved who was married, and a husband who ripped her off — you get little fragments, but we’ve done the whole canon of her life. There’s masses of stuff that the audience never gets to find out about Mary.
Is it odd, then, when you stop shooting and you’re left with all this information that never came to light?
It is a job that when you get to the end of it, you do feel a bit bereft. You don’t work on films as much as you do something like this one, which is about eight or nine months in the end. You’re rarely working on stage plays that long, even. It’s a big deal when you put it to bed.
How much did you know about the scenes that you weren’t in? Were they a total surprise to you?
Completely. When I saw the funeral section … I mean, Mary knew that Tom and Gerri had gone to a funeral, and she knew that Tom’s sister-in-law had died, but she didn’t know the details of it, she didn’t know about the angry nephew. I didn’t know anything about what Imelda Staunton was doing [in the opening scene].
Or even the scenes you were in! Tom and Gerri are Mary’s friends, but did you know that they traded so many loaded glances in Mary’s presence?
It depends! If Mary sees it, she sees it. If she doesn’t … it depends on where Mary’s looking and if she clocks it. It is interesting, all those times when Tom and Gerri look at each other like, “Here we go again.”
Do you think the film is rough on single people?
No, and I don’t like it when people say, “Is Mary representative of all single people? Are Tom and Gerri representative of all couples?” Of course they’re not. It’s representative of that couple and that woman. Mike wouldn’t be so shallow as to say this is representative of all single women over 40, and I mean, I know loads of single women over 40 who aren’t in long-term relationships and don’t have children, and they’re very happy about it. That’s what they want, and that’s their choice, but Mary isn’t one of those people. I can’t play all people in one person, I can just play one person, and this person is single, childless, has had a pretty hideous life, and is a raw nerve and lonely.
You’ve worked with Mike Leigh many, many times. Do you still remember all these in-depth, invented lives you’ve contracted and lived with for so long?
Sometimes! I guess so, although I don’t spend a lot of time trying to recall them. At the end of the day, the process is a fantastic process, but it is what it is and it’s a means to an end to get to the point to make the film. That’s why Mike is so reluctant to talk about the process, because he think the process in itself isn’t interesting because all that matters is what you see on the screen. I sort of agree with him, really, although I know the process is fascinating to people because it’s so unusual.
Was it unusual to you the first time you worked with him?
Oh, completely! But I love it. I love the freedom, the involvement, I love that I have to be so creative. I absolutely love it and I will never tire of it. Still, you’re not doing it all the time, and aside from a cameo in Vera Drake, I hadn’t worked with him since 2002, and that’s a big gap.
You’ve appeared in a lot of notable films, but this one is raising your profile to a whole new level in Hollywood. Are you ready for that call from Michael Bay wanting to cast you in a supporting role in his new action movie?
I don’t even know who he is! [Laughs.] So that probably answers your question. The thing is this: I’ve got an amazing career in England that couldn’t possibly get much better. I do the best theater around, I work at the National Theater, the Old Vic — which I’m sure you’ve heard of because it’s the one Kevin Spacey runs — and I play the most amazing roles and work with the most amazing directors. When I make films, I work with Mike Leigh, who’s the most prolific director in England. It’s all wonderful! But I would like to do some work here. I’d love to work with some good directors here and do some good projects. I think some of the television made here is pretty amazing, too. I’d love to do that as well, so if this opens that door for me, that’s good.
I’m at a time in my life where I have that freedom. I couldn’t have done this five or ten years ago because I had a young son, but he’s 21 now. He doesn’t need me in the same way that he needed me five years ago, sitting at his exams. So if it comes that I can have another adventure and I can come here and do nice work because of this film, then that’s very exciting.
There has been a lot of chatter about whether you should be competing for the Best Actress Oscar or Best Supporting Actress. Was that decision yours?
It wasn’t, really. Sony has now quite categorically put me in the Best Actress category. That might be an error — I don’t know — but it’s their call. I’m a novice at this, so I wouldn’t dictate it, really. I don’t know. It seems to have been a good year for women.
And thus, it’s a very crowded category.
I sort of try to think beyond that, that at last, it’s a good year for actresses. You know? And a lot of those actresses are over 40. It’s not just about young people — there are films being made that deal with women getting older. That’s a huge bonus, and here in America, that’s a huge step forward. But I’m kind of here and I’m doing [the awards circuit], and I can’t make the outcome be anything other than what it will be. I’m quite philosophical — I wasn’t born yesterday, and I’ve been acting for over 30 years. I’ve got a reality check on it.