Phantom Thread’s Lesley Manville on Playing Twisted Siblings With Daniel Day-Lewis

Lesley Manville. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Thomas Anderson is a skilled director of actors, but some make the job easy on him. In the filmmaker’s latest glowingly reviewed effort, Phantom Thread, Lesley Manville brings a lifetime of expertise honed on the stage, and more than holds her own against one of modern acting’s most intimidating scene partners. She portrays Cyril Woodcock, the fastidious sister to Daniel Day-Lewis’s virtuoso designer Reynolds and co-owner of their well-regarded couture house in ’50s London. Focused, precise, and obsessed with detail, they’re an ideal duo for the surgical business of dressmaking — until their delicate stasis is interrupted by Alma (Luxembourgian find Vicky Krieps, already a star in Europe and poised to gain a lot of Stateside fans very quickly) when the unassuming waitress captures Reynolds’s heart. Cyril regards the beguiling young woman first as a nuisance, then as a threat, then as something more difficult to define. Manville plays these shifting tones with exemplary subtlety, communicating through an askance glance what would elsewhere be a windy monologue.

Manville sat down with Vulture at New York’s Crosby Hotel for a deep dive into her work on Phantom Thread, from the complex dynamic between the siblings to the backstory we’ve never heard. And that still left a little time for a meditation on the upsides of working under fatigue.

During a Q&A about Phantom Thread, you mentioned that you’d been in contact with Daniel Day-Lewis to develop your characters, and joked that “a lot of texts ensued, some of them naughty.” I sensed a sort of soft-incest vibe between Reynolds and Cyril — your thoughts?
Oh, that was cheeky, you know. But erotic? No, I don’t think we were aiming for that. If you see that, that’s fine, everyone’s got their take. But I wouldn’t say it was quite sexual.

Taking a step back, then, they’ve definitely got an atypical dynamic for adult siblings.
I agree with you that it’s an odd relationship. But they’ve grown up together, they’ve had a very parentally hands-off childhood together — you’re talking about people who were children probably just before the turn of the century, a time when things were stricter and children were seen more than heard. We created the backstory, which was only important to us, but it was that the father died while they were quite young and the mother remarried. The mother worshipped Reynolds, but didn’t like Cyril that much. There were nannies looking after them. I think that as children, which is what informs the people that you see on the screen, they’ve been very codependent. They’ve needed each other for love and support and play and solace. Unlike most adults, who lead more separate lives from their siblings as they get older, they’ve taken their relationship to the nth degree by creating the couture house together. They’re equal in their contributions, it’s just that his contribution is artistic and more visible, while hers is utterly practical. She’s the heartbeat, keeping the business alive.

Reynolds is a very temperamental personality, and Cyril’s the only one who knows how to push the right buttons.
Yes, when he takes offense to Alma scraping her toast rather noisily, Cyril doesn’t like it either. She just isn’t saying anything about it, because at that point, Alma is not her responsibility, as it were. Cyril grows to like Alma. She thinks the challenge that Alma poses to Reynolds will be good for him. She knows him better than anybody, better than Alma will ever know him. And she facilitates every aspect of his life. So in that scene, when she says to Alma, “Maybe you should have breakfast in your room,” she’s not being horrible! She’s looking out for her. Cyril and Reynolds have their breakfast in a blissful silence. They’re very comfortable that way, with not talking. Not a word. What I thought was sweet was that when Alma sends Cyril out so she can cook, and the routine has been shaken, Reynolds keeps saying, “Where’s Cyril?” like a broken record. I found that so touching when I watched it because god, he’s like a rudderless ship without Cyril.

That moment struck me as well, though I thought of it as much sadder. I see an unhealthy dependence between them; in that moment, he sounded to me like someone elderly in need of their caretaker.
I never saw it that way. The first woman, Joanne — Cyril knows the signs. The woman’s brought these buns, and Reynolds says, “I told you not to,” and Cyril’s alarm bells start going off. She knows he’s talking in a language he assumes once he’s had enough and wants a woman out. She’s doing it because… hmm. Because she’s got to pay the bills at the end of the month. She’s got to make sure they’ve got enough fabric. She’s got to get rid of any unwanted girlfriends. It’s just one of her things [that] keeps everything running smoothly.

Cyril doesn’t have a husband of her own, and seems to throw a lot of herself into running their fashion house. In her private moments, which we don’t really see in the film, is she at all lonely?
I think she’s not lonely. She’s contentedly private. She has, in addition to the routine of her life with Reynolds, other things she does on her own. There’s comfort in routine for her. She can spend an evening, the gap between getting home and having dinner, just filing her nails. When that’s done, it’s off to bed. And that wouldn’t be lonely for her, that’s just the evening.

They’re both deeply compartmentalizing people. She recognizes that instinct to block off parts of herself in him.
She does. But equally so, as she grows to like Alma, she realizes that what Alma’s doing with Reynolds to break that is a good thing. It’s a shift that maybe she wishes happened in her life, that she’d have to unlock the routine of her life to allow something else in. She admires the sparkiness of Alma, the feminist side of her that goes, “No, if you want to have a relationship, you’ve got to compromise.” You’ve got to have compromise in relationships. It can’t just be all about you, and then all about you, and then a bit more about you.

You’ve seen the film now; were there any bits you shot that you may have considered significant at the time, but didn’t make the final cut?
Not much, just little bits. There was one scene, about two-thirds of the way through the film, when Cyril is starting to like Alma. Out at the country house, Alma finds the wedding dress that Reynolds thinks he’s lost. But Cyril’s got it, and Alma finds it. I can’t remember much, but it was a bit strange. Cyril said to Alma, “Don’t tell Reynolds.” It’s a secret between them. There were subplots that [director Paul Thomas Anderson] decided he didn’t need. He stripped it down to this central threesome.

Working with Paul Thomas Anderson, a very particular director that makes intense films, how did you find that?
If I didn’t know a director and you said they were particular or intense, I’d find that a bit worrying. Paul is the reverse of what most people would imagine a Hollywood director is. He’s kind; he’s funny; he’s caring; he treats people equally. He’s particular, but he makes great films. I know you didn’t mean that in a pejorative sense, there’s nothing diva-ish or dictatorial. Collaborative is the word I’ve overused. He gets good actors, and he doesn’t want to say, “Do it like this.” He lets you do your own thing.

I’ve enjoyed your films with Mike Leigh, who’s also known for having that collaborative spirit. How do their methodologies compare?
My having worked with Mike so much means that that feeds into everything I do. With Mike, you spend many months creating a character, and then several more months doing improvisations that will become the script of the film. But then once you’re shooting, you’re not improvising, everything’s been settled. It’s a process to get to a script. Paul’s got a script from the start, and though we went off-script sometimes, we had it. But the common ground is, Mike wants and has to collaborate with his actors, and Paul wants to because why wouldn’t you? You put three great actors in a room, why wouldn’t you let them do their thing?

One last thing — you’re touring through New York with a new production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night next year, and at four hours, it’s a decidedly long play. To what extent are the challenges not artistic but physical, when you’re doing a play at that length every night?
Our production with Jeremy Irons started in Bristol last year, and now we’re taking it through the West End in London, on to BAM here in New York, and then to Los Angeles. And our version runs, uncut, at three-and-one-quarter hours. We’ve got some speed on it. But yes, it is a physical challenge. Especially because I’m going to be shooting a series, Harlots on Hulu, during the day. Not every day, because it’s a sort of ensemble piece, so I’ll probably do three days in a week. I can manage three hard days, long days going into the night. I’m often very good when I’m tired, actually. I’ve been tired in the past, and I’ll have to do a long play, and I’ll sigh. I think, I just don’t know where this is going to come from. And then next thing I know, I’m thinking, Hey, that was really good tonight. Maybe because you feel you’ve got to dig down for the performance, because it’s not readily available due to the tiredness, that you can get something good. Who can analyze it?

Phantom Thread’s Lesley Manville on Working With Day-Lewis