Daniel Day-Lewis really wanted us to be absolutely comfortable together... many gins were had
Oscar nominee Lesley Manville talks to Eleanor Steafel about her extraordinary experience of working on Day-Lewis' final film
The first time Lesley Manville met Daniel Day-Lewis, they went on a rip-roaring night out. Dinner at the Wolseley flowed into after-dinner drinks, before they hunkered down in the honesty bar of a smart Covent Garden hotel and helped themselves to copious amounts of gin. All in the name of art, of course.
The pair were gearing up to star in the latest Paul Thomas Anderson epic, Phantom Thread, in which they play brother and sister. Day-Lewis - famous for his dedication to living and breathing every role he plays - insisted that by the time they began shooting six months later, he and Lesley should be as close as siblings who hadn't spent a day apart in their entire lives. Hence the need to go out and get well and truly drunk.
"I just went with the flow and quite a few gins were had, and we had a great night," Lesley recalls, as we chat in another smart central London hotel.
Lesley may not be a household name, but she's tackled everything from Shakespeare and BBC period dramas such as North & South to bittersweet sitcom Mum and crime thriller River, along with Hollywood blockbusters like Maleficent.
And she's not short on awards either (she just picked up her first Oscar nomination for Phantom Thread and previously scooped the Olivier in 2014 for her portrayal of Helene Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts, along with four Bafta nominations). But she has built up this estimable CV while remaining largely under the radar.
Does it bother her that she hasn't become a household name of the Helen Mirren or Judi Dench variety? She's quick to point out that both had careers that flowered later in life, and that, at 61, she is a good 10 years younger than Mirren and 20 years younger than Dench.
"People don't know my name, but that's good because I want them to see the characters. Young actors seem to think that what they need to do is be famous as themselves and that's going to be helpful. I don't think it is," she says.
In the months leading up to shooting Phantom Thread, Lesley explains it was essential to Day-Lewis that the two of them became close enough that they could convincingly play an inseparable brother and sister. "Daniel said: 'We need to get to the point where we can be silent together and we're absolutely comfortable,'" she says. "Really and truly, what we did was become friends."
Set amid the glamour of 1950s London, Phantom Thread tells the story of renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, who designs gowns for everyone from the Royal Family to film stars, sewing hidden messages into the linings of his dresses. Women come and go through his life, as lovers, muses or clients, but the one constant is his sister Cyril (played by Lesley), who has dedicated her life to managing her brother's.
Each is all the other truly needs for companionship until Reynolds comes across a young woman called Alma, who disrupts their lives.
The stories about the Day-Lewis school of acting are legendary. For his role in Lincoln, he stayed in character the entire time and expected everyone, including director Steven Spielberg, to call him 'Mr President'. But, for Lesley, his approach on Phantom Thread wasn't quite so jarring.
"He came to the set as Reynolds and he left the set as Reynolds. But you do talk about other things, because, I mean, there is the 21st century going on around you.None of it seemed odd. It really didn't. And there were times on set when we talked about my son or his kids. We did talk about us. I was very aware that he was coming at conversations via Reynolds, but I didn't ever feel on my guard. It was really something else doing scenes with him. He is an extraordinary actor."
Speculation about the film has been rife ever since Day-Lewis announced his retirement shortly after filming, citing the "sense of sadness" that overwhelmed him after playing Reynolds as one of his reasons for quitting acting. It's hard to imagine Lesley, who has taken on some emotionally draining roles in her time - most notably with the director Mike Leigh, with whom she has worked on and off since 1979 - being quite so affected by her work. She empathises with that feeling, she says, of being utterly "bereft" after finishing a big project, but she is as in love with the job now as she was at 23, when Leigh first told her she was "really quite good at this".
With Leigh, she says, she learnt how to play people who were nothing like her, to give them everything she had, and then to walk away. "That discipline of going in and out of character - I've been doing that with Mike for 30-odd years," she says.
It's an approach that she honed when she became a mother. Her son, Alfie, from her first, short-lived marriage to the actor Gary Oldman, is now 29, and for the most part she raised him by herself. Alfie is now a father and the pair remain "very close".
"We have a very nice relationship," she says, admitting that these days the only thing she really wants to do is to be in Sussex with her four-year-old granddaughter, Matilda, who calls her 'Nanna Oops', and her brand-new grandson, Ozzy.
Today, there's no hint of the wise grandmother who spends her spare time pretending to fall over to make her granddaughter laugh. In interviews she can come across as a little cold and curt, much like her character in Phantom Thread.
"I think I can be a bit scary," she admits. "I suppose it's because I'm focused. Sometimes if I'm rehearsing a play or something, and if I'm working with people who I don't think are being quite true, or haven't quite done their homework, or are sitting in front of me texting on their phone while I'm rehearsing Ibsen, that really pisses me off.
"I do have to say something then. Be in the room, absorbed, don't sit there going [she mimes texting, open-mouthed] while I'm over here doing the f***ing death scene."
But while she can be severe at work, she says she's a "pussycat" in relationships, "because… well, I'm clearly rubbish". (After divorcing Oldman in 1990 she had a four-year marriage to English actor Joe Dixon, from 2000 to 2004). "The trouble is I'm too nice. I've been too nice to partners, too forgiving, too open, too trusting, too everything," she says. "Lovely homemaker, housekeeper, cook. If you do everything brilliantly, you end up getting walked over."
It's at work, then, that she has always been most herself, most at home. After a stint in Emmerdale Farm in the mid-1970s, she was discovered by Leigh and also by the Royal Court, appearing in some of its landmark plays of the 1980s.
"By the time I was 34, I'd done 22 plays," she says. "Not many young actresses these days have that kind of catalogue behind them. It was an amazing time."
If her role in Phantom Thread catapults her into the spotlight, how would she feel about finally being seen as a leading lady at 61? "I wouldn't have wanted that in my 20s," she says. "I like anonymity. I go on the bus and the Tube. I don't have this rarefied life just going from one car to another."
She may be hitting a career high, but Lesley is one woman whose feet will remain firmly on the ground.
"I'm always thinking, 'right, that's it, I'm selling up, I'm going to go and live in Sussex because I've just got to be near my grandchildren'. I just want to go and make jam and change nappies."
Phantom Thread is out on February 2.