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Lesley Manville of 'Phantom Thread' Explains Why She's a 'Bossy Bitch'

The legendary actor talks working with Mike Leigh and growing up.

by Lesley Manville; as told to Larry Fitzmaurice
Jan 12 2018, 7:40pm

Focus Features

In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's legendary actor Lesley Manville, who is just absolutely fantastic in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, Phantom Thread. It's in theaters now.

I grew up in Hove, which is right next door to Brighton. I grew up with two older sisters, and we’re very close. By the time I was four, I was labeled the bossy one. I tried to tell them what to do, even though they were older, and that label’s stuck with me ever since. It’s very classic of people who were the youngest in a family: They feel they have to fight to earn their place, because there’s always someone older and bigger that can nudge them out of the picture. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be nudged out of the picture at all—I was going to make the picture. I became infamous for being a bit of a bossy bitch.

I suppose we were what you could call a working-class family. My father was a taxi driver, but he was also a bookmaker and a bit of a gambler on the side. Sometimes, if he had a big win, we’d go out for dinner quite a lot. For a few years, we had a pony. It was an odd hybrid experience—working-class, but with privileges thrown in a bit. My mother was a very good ballet dancer, but gave it up at the age of 18 to marry my father and have a family. She’d been invited to dance at Sadler’s Wells—a very famous dance company in England—but she didn’t pursue it. So the dancing machine was in me.

My dad was always very charismatic, and a very good singer—he’d be the first one to get up and sing with other groups of people, and he had a Sinatra-type crooning voice. I got that from him, because I was trained classically and wanted to move into classical singing—opera—but I got diverted from that.

I left home around the age of 16 or 17 to a stage school in London—initially, to sing, but then it became more about acting. My first job was a musical, oddly enough, in the West End directed by John Schlesinger. When I was 20, I met Mike Leigh and, through working with him, I started to realize that I wanted to be was a chameleon actor—to play people that weren’t like me. I’ve been doing that ever since, it’s served me well, and it’s the only kind of actor I’m interested in being.

I love the way Mike works to create a character very meticulously, over months, so that you really embody this character. I found it incredibly liberating. Mike and I are very similar. We’re both quite fastidious people, and we don’t like to leave any stone unturned. Working with him is long, painstaking, and gradual. If you’re not up for it, if you’re going to be irritated—but it suited me. I got to play so many different characters with him over the decades. I credit him with giving me a varied career, because nobody’s been able to pigeonhole me since—and in a way, he’s watched me develop as an artist over the decades. It’s very nice to have somebody like that in your life.

You need to be very thick-skinned to pursue a career in the performing arts—you need to be able to take a lot of knocks. All through my life, I’ve spoken to people in more, shall we say, regular jobs where only do job interviews every five years, and they’re devastated they didn’t get the job. Think about what it’s like for an actor—they can get knocked back five times a week. It’s brutal. I know lots of young, struggling actors who are getting very despondent about it because it’s such a crowded profession now. It’s a huge test on your character and sense of self.

Of course, I’ve had difficult periods, but I can’t say the last 25 years of my year have been difficult—it’s a product of putting in the decades. I‘ve done massive theater work in England and was paid very little, but the experience was invaluable. We have such a tradition of great theater in England—if you can work in theater a lot, you’re a very lucky person. A lot of film and television directors go to theater to find their actors.

I don’t regret not pursuing singing, but it was certainly the god-given gift that I was born with. I could sing really well, and I was very successful at it. I don’t know it would have whether it would have made me happy, though. I’m so happy being an actress. I don’t know. The world of classical singing is very different—a rarefied existence.

There’s a bit of me that thinks I chose acting because it’s somewhere in me that I can act, but acting is so much about putting your life and emotional experiences on a plate for others to share. You aren’t always aware of that gift when you’re younger. I don’t have any regrets, but there are times where I am curious about it— Sliding Doors, how different my life would’ve been. I could’ve been starring at the Met this weekend instead of opening Phantom Thread. But I’m not going to jump ship now, because I think it’s a bit late.

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