Lesley Manville was born in Brighton, East Sussex, the daughter of a ballet dancer and taxi driver. She trained as a soprano from the age of eight and won a place at drama school when she was 15. After turning down an invitation to join the dance group Hot Gossip, she appeared in 80 episodes of Emmerdale Farm before cementing her reputation on the stage. A meeting with director Mike Leigh led to a long and fruitful collaboration both in theatre and in film, with credits including Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake, Another Year and Mr Turner. She was nominated for two Baftas (2017 and 2019) for her portrayal of Cathy in the television series Mum.
Manville received her first Oscar nomination in 2018 for Best Supporting Actress in Phantom Thread, and was appointed CBE in 2021. She is set to star as Princess Margaret in the final series of The Crown, taking over from Helena Bonham Carter to play the royal at 60.
She’s been married twice, to the actors Gary Oldman – with whom she has a son, Alfie – and Joe Dixon.In her Letter To My Younger Self, she looks back at a diverse career that only gets more interesting.
My upbringing was working class. My dad was a bookmaker, he was a taxi driver, he was a plumber. My mother didn’t work, she had three daughters to bring up. We lived in a council house, then a council flat and we didn’t have a lot of money. But my dad was a gambler. So sometimes we had a bit more – I had a pony for a while, we’d go out for lunch on Sundays if he had a good week. He wasn’t a stupid gambler who suddenly couldn’t pay the bills, he was a happy gambler.
I left school at 15 and went to the Italia Conti stage school, ostensibly to learn music, acting and dancing, and to finish my education. But the education took a backseat. They were also your agent, so I started acting at 16 – my first job was a musical in the West End called I and Albert, directed by legendary film director John Schlesinger. That’s not a bad start, is it? I was so green. I didn’t know what I was doing. I did panto, presented a children’s programme, all sorts. I was very into Motown. That was what I listened to and danced to. While I was at Italia Conti, the dance teacher was Arlene Phillips. So I learned to dance with her. Again, not a bad start.
I auditioned for the TV series of Black Beauty when I was 16. I got down to the last two and they gave it to Judi Bowker and I got so insecure. I had ridiculous notions, thinking, “I’m too fat.” I wasn’t fat at all. I thought, “I’m not pretty enough, and she’s so pretty, her hair’s longer than mine.” I went through all that insecurity, and it stayed with me until I met Mike Leigh. Then, of course, I didn’t care how I looked because I was playing all these great characters. I can see it was a rather silly, fluffy obsession with looks. But I’m very comfortable with getting older. I can’t see the point of facelifts and Botox. We are going to get older. I’m so bored of looking at actresses whose foreheads don’t move, who can’t frown, and whose mouth is all puckered. It annoys me beyond belief.
I was working from 16 to 23, but just playing myself really. It never occurred to me to play somebody that wasn’t like me – I was just being cast to play these sweet, pretty young things. I did quite a bit of singing, I was in two big pantomimes, then I met Mike, and it was the most amazing lightbulb moment. He told me I could act, and he told me I could play people that weren’t like me, which was a revelation. Clearly I could do it, and that is what’s sustained me. We’ve been friends and collaborators ever since – I’m the actor he’s worked with the most. You play big parts in some things and little parts in others, but it’s never short of thrilling because he’s always going to get you to do something you’ve not done before. That’s the reason I’ve never been typecast, why I have had this great diversity of roles. It’s what keeps me interested.
The year between filming Grown Ups with Mike Leigh and it coming out on the BBC [in 1980] was tough, but it was the turning point. This was the first thing anyone saw that I did with Mike, an extraordinary film with Phil Davis, Janine Duvitski, Lindsay Duncan, the late Sam Kelly and Brenda Blethyn. I knew I was onto something. But nobody had seen it, so I was still offered these cute roles. Luckily, I was smart. I’d been in Emmerdale Farm and had put a deposit down on a flat. But in this gap between making Grown Ups and it coming out – when I imagined I was going to have this whole different career – I scaled down. I’d go to the market at the end of my street and ask for any bits they were going to throw out. I enjoyed the challenge of it – I was on a mission. I turned down so many jobs. I didn’t work for a year, the longest I’ve ever not worked, and it was hard. I was living on my own. I was still young, but I knew it was going to pay dividends. Fortunately, the rest is history.
There wasn’t a grain of anarchy in me. I got my homework in on time, my hair was brushed, my teeth were cleaned, my clothes were tidy. I never broke the rules at school. I was a very good girl. Anarchy and rebellion felt very odd to me, so when I started to work at the Royal Court Theatre, with all these people who’d been quite active and rebellious, that was a shock. When I worked with Hanif Kureishi, who was a new young writer, on a play of his called Borderline, I was all ears. I listened, listened and listened. What an education. I hadn’t been to university and had a chip on my shoulder about that, but I was working with all these great minds. Caryl Churchill, Edward Bond, Max Stafford-Clark. Stage acting is where you learn your craft, where you learn to sink or swim. Nobody can bail you out. You cannot be edited around. You cannot be made to look any better or worse than you are. It’s raw.
My younger self would be excited about quite a few of my film roles. My standout Mike Leigh film is Another Year. That character is in my bones, not that I’m like her particularly, but we’ve all got elements of Mary in us – the loneliness, the emptiness of her life. Then I had 14 of the most glorious weeks of my life on Phantom Thread, working with Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis. What an incredible role. It was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful in every way – then the cherry on the cake of it was that it shifted things for me. When you get an Oscar nomination it makes a difference. But I like to think the work speaks for itself. My new film [Mrs Harris Goes to Paris] is another departure – an unashamedly feelgood film with proper foundations and proper content. There’s something fairytale-ish about it, it’s intelligent escapism, I think.
And I don’t know where to begin with the plays I have done. There were two with Richard Eyre – Long Day’s Journey into Night and most significantly Ghosts, which was an extraordinary production where all the stars aligned. Grief, with Mike Leigh at the National, and a long time ago Miss Julie in Greenwich, the original production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan. And before that, Rita, Sue and Bob Too and Top Girls. I could go on and on and on. I worked with Marianne Elliott, a brilliant director, on Pillars of the Community. The directors I have worked with – it is unbelievable, an extraordinary list. When you get in the room with them it is so thrilling. It’s just too much – then there is all the wonderful telly, I’ve been involved with, not least Sherwood.
You could say I am having a kind of late-to-the-party success, but I’ve always had the career I’ve wanted. It’s just that now, mainly because of Phantom Thread, that I can get work in the United States. That was something I never thought would happen. I wasn’t seeking it particularly, but here it is.
Do not ever, ever, ever, ever go out with an actor! I was once asked what advice I had for my younger self about relationships. I’d had a few glasses of wine and that’s what I said. Because unfortunately that’s all I’ve ever done. It’s really bad of me. I really should have cast the net a bit wider. One director, but the rest actors. And they’re for the most part lovely, but it’s just not a good cocktail, two actors.
Having a working-class upbringing is political in itself, isn’t it? My parents were Labour voters all their lives. My dad thought Harold Wilson was great. But there wasn’t debate. I didn’t grow up with books, but I grew up with a very good work ethic. I was earning my own living from 16 and was never supported by my parents again. I’ve also inherited from my mother that feeling of being there for the family – she cooked proper meals for us all every day, we were fed and clothed and loved and hugged.
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is in cinemas from September 30. Read our review here.
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