‘It’s really interesting to see a middle-aged love scene’ - Lesley Manville talks Ordinary Love and working with Liam Neeson
Lesley Manville talks about her new film in which a middle-aged couple's bond is tested by cancer, doing love scenes with Liam Neeson, and cinema's slow shift to where older women are now 'cheerleaders of the story'
At a time in life when most female actors are competing for dramatic scraps, Lesley Manville is out the door with work. In the last two years the 63-year-old has headed up the hugely popular BBC comic drama Mum, starred in a string of critically acclaimed West End plays, earned an Oscar nomination, and appeared alongside Angelina Jolie in Maleficent 2.
There’s a reason for all this business, of course: she’s a phenomenal actor, the muse of Mike Leigh, endlessly versatile, as at home on the stage as she is in film and TV, and capable of incredibly powerful performances. She more than held her own with Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, playing the formidable keeper of the gate at a fusty 1950s London fashion house.
Her latest film, though, is a quieter affair, a strikingly grown-up drama about an ordinary couple negotiating a crisis. She is Joan, a middle-aged woman who lives simply and contentedly in a leafy Belfast suburb with her husband, Tom (Liam Neeson). They do everything together, share a jokey code, and take ritual evening walks to keep the circulation flowing. Then, one day, Joan discovers a lump on her breast.
It turns out to be cancerous, and the beginning of a torrid journey through diagnosis, surgery and chemo. And as Tom and Joan face each other across a suddenly sombre breakfast table, one wonders if their love will survive the coming storm. How, I wonder, did she prepare for such a demanding role?
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“My elder sister Brenda had breast cancer many years ago, so I had the experience of watching her going through all the chemo and the hair loss. But also what we had in the film — which was really quite special, and useful — was that in all the scenes when Joan is getting tested and scanned and treated, those were all real nurses and technicians who do that job. So they would talk me through it all, and they were really amazing, and it was very, very helpful.”
Directed by Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa, Ordinary Love was written by Northern playwright Owen McCafferty, and is primarily an intense and demanding two-hander. “This film is essentially the story of Owen and his wife. Peggy McCafferty went through what Joan went through, but what is fictionalised is the daughter side of the story.” Keeping Tom and Joan close but adding to their woes is the relatively recent death of their only child, a daughter.
“I think, dramatically, he put that in as a device to make this couple’s lives a little more insular,” Lesley says. “They’re very co-dependent, they’re not having a massive social life, their world has become each other, and they’re not unhappy with that. And I love the fact that, yes, it’s about the breast cancer, but it’s also a very normal middle-aged love story, and isn’t it great that you see them still desiring each other and being loving and sexual.
“It’s really important, all of that, because how boring that you so rarely see physical love expressed between older people.”
In one powerful scene, Tom and Joan go for a romantic night out on the eve of a major surgery. “It’s a beautiful moment, but Liam had this idea and said wouldn’t it be really lovely if he takes her headscarf off, the sort of turban she’s put on to cover her baldness. And of course, objectively speaking, it looks more attractive if she’s got this scarf on, but Tom just wanted to love her as she was.
“I don’t know when anyone’s ever shot anything like that before, where you see someone who’s in the full throes of the after-effects of chemotherapy doing a love scene.”
Liam Neeson has spent so many years making unsophisticated action movies that one tends to forget he can act; he’s exceptionally good here, giving a natural, unfussy, totally convincing portrait of an ordinary, decent man. “Liam’s a really wonderful actor and, yes he’s done these action films and that’s all fine, but you’ve only got to look back at his other work, particularly Schindler’s List, and back to the days when he used to be onstage: he’s a fine actor and it was just so easy working with him, it really was.”
Born in Brighton in 1958, and raised in nearby Hove, Lesley was one of three daughters born to taxi driver Roy Manville and Jean Manville, a former dancer. They must have been farsighted parents because, when she was just 14, they allowed her to leave school and concentrate on her acting dreams. She also danced, and nearly ended up on Top of the Pops with ’70s dance troupe Legs & Co.
“I was at a stage school called Italia Conti. I was 16, I think, and Arlene Phillips [the former Strictly Come Dancing judge] was the dance teacher there. I took her class and one day she said, ‘I’m going to start this dance troupe, but it is going to be very raunchy and we’ll be on primetime television, and you will be scantily clad,’ and I just thought, ‘Oooh no, I don’t know, my dad...’ I mean, my dad wasn’t a prude by any means but I just thought, I don’t think I can go on television in a suspender belt, stockings and a bra, so I said no.”
A wise decision as it turned out, because instead of Top of the Pops, Lesley turned away from dance and towards serious theatre: by the age of 20, she was appearing with the Royal Shakespeare Company and had established what would become a very fruitful working relationship with Mike Leigh.
She retains her passion for the stage, and is about to open a new West End production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit. “I’ll never stop doing theatre,” she says. “I mean, when you talk to people in LA, they can’t imagine that you can do theatre and television and films, but I love the three very different disciplines and requirements of each one.”
Speaking of LA, did she enjoy her visit to the Oscars? “I did, I did, although I was there for all of five minutes.” Lesley was nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for Phantom Thread and didn’t win, but should have. “I was doing Long Day’s Journey into Night in the West End at the time, so I couldn’t really just go and enjoy it and languish in it. I flew in, I had an hour-and-a-quarter to get ready, and I did the Oscars and I flew back again and went onstage.
“It was quite a whirlwind, but it was exciting, and I suppose the thing I realised was that, with Phantom Thread, because it’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and stars Daniel Day-Lewis, everybody’s going to see it. And what took me by surprise was how much people knew me: I just went to the Oscars and people like Steven Spielberg were coming up to me and saying, ‘Hello, Lesley,’ and I thought, ‘Christ, he knows my name!’”
She feels fortunate to be so busy. “I’m very aware of that because I’ve got a lot of friends and colleagues who are of a similar age to me and are not experiencing what I’m experiencing now, and while I do think that things are getting better for women, it is slow. But the other crucial thing is that hopefully I’m doing work where, like Mum is a middle-aged love story, Ordinary Love is a middle-aged love story, so I’m not just playing the wife or the mother; I’m playing women who are the cheerleaders of that particular story.
“There is a shift in the thinking now that I think is actually quite interesting, so you have these older stories being told, and it’s really interesting, for instance, to see a middle-aged love scene.
“It’s very much a female problem, and in fact I was talking to Liam and I think Ordinary Love was one of the first films he’d done sex scenes with someone who was in the same decade of life.
“So I suppose the next thing I should do is complete the circle and do a film about a woman who has a very young lover. That would even things up.”
‘Ordinary Love’ is in cinemas from Friday, December 6