Among the several delights in Paul Thomas Anderson’s consistently surprising new movie Phantom Thread is its incisive explication of how fragile masculinity can be. Daniel Day Lewis, in what he has announced will be his final film role, plays Reynolds, a couture designer in 1950s London, whose world is propped up by the fleet of women he employs. Along comes a muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps) who challenges his ritualistic way of life and teases out the fetishistic extents of his relationship with power. The trailer makes it look like some sort of a thriller, but Phantom Thread is a romance that is funny more often than not—of all the films in PTA’s oeuvre, it shares the most with 2002's Punch-Drunk Love.
Another of the film’s delights is Lesley Manville, who plays Cyril, Reynolds’s sister, and the right brain to his left. She helps keep his life and business running smoothly while suffering not a single fool, Reynolds included. It’s one of the veteran stage actor’s highest-profile film roles, and her mannered performance is diametrically opposite of that in her gut-wrenching breakthrough, Mike Leigh’s 2010 film Another Year. In that movie, Manville played Mary, a perpetually struggling receptionist whose insecurity was embedded in each spit-second jitter Manville gave her. Cyril, meanwhile, is so severe and dry, you get the sense that she could kill a bouquet of flowers by just looking at them.
That’s to say that Manville’s range is tremendous, that she’s an incredibly underrated actor in the world of film. At age 61, she’s only begun to get the kind of mainstream recognition she deserves. I sat down with Manville last week at Manhattan’s Crosby Hotel to discuss Phantom Thread, breaking through after 50, and the Weinstein effect. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: How did you come to be in this movie?
LESLEY MANVILLE: It was so simple. It was one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever been offered. Paul rang me and said, “I’m going to send you a script. Have a read, give me a ring.” And that was it. The job was mine.
Did you have any experience before with him socially?
No, it was a complete bolt from the blue. I had no experience with Daniel either. Daniel thinks we met. There’s a sort of infamous pub in Islington, in North London called the [Old] Red Lion. Back in the late ’70s, early ’80s, there was a kind of group of actors that used to go to the Red Lion a lot but I wasn’t one of them because I always lived in West London. I think I did go there once or twice because Daniel and I have mutual friends, but Daniel was convinced I used to hang out there. And I didn’t.
It’s a great power move to be able to tell Daniel Day Lewis, “I don’t actually know you even though you think I do.”
“We really haven’t met.” So that was it, job in the bag. That was about six or seven months before filming started. Paul came over to London and Daniel did too. We went out and got drunk, had a nice dinner, it was just really lovely. Really easy. Paul is the opposite of what people would imagine a Hollywood director would be like. He’s kind, funny, nice, warm, treats everybody equally. He’s just a great person.
Did you get any sense of which roles of yours led to him casting you in this movie?
He’d seen my films with Mike Leigh. Another Year was quite a big one for me, about seven years ago that was.
That movie is incredible, but Cyril couldn’t be more different than your character in Another Year, Mary. It’s astonishing that he’d see Mary and think Cyril.
I don’t think he would think that. This is the same man that sees Daniel play Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood and thinks Reynolds. He sees the actor, which is how it should be. My buzz is playing different characters. That is what does it for me. I’ve got no interest in playing a kind of version of me, although there is always a bit of you in everything you do inevitably. I just love jumping around.
That’s what was so refreshing about working with Paul. It was not, “This is how Cyril’s got to be.” How she is, which is pretty unique, really did evolve. On the page, it could have gone any way. She could have been bustling and jolly, “Hello! Good morning!” She could have been anything. She became that through, I suppose, osmosis that was happening with me over the six months she was quietly cooking away in my head and my conversations with Daniel and my conversations with Paul. But then mostly, it happened when I got on the set and started doing it. That’s when Paul comes alive. You give him something and he goes, “Oh wow, yeah. I really like that. Let’s go a bit further with that.” It was just great.
One of the things I love about this movie is that it’s partly an exposé of the fragility of masculinity. This evil genius has a fleet of women propping him up. Did that speak to you at all?
Yeah, of course it did. You’ve just summed it up. It is great when you see this man who’s lived this selfish, narcissistic life and he’s got this fucking woman now who’s going to make him look at himself in a different way. He’s got to stop being so bitchy at the breakfast table.
Did you have a sense of how funny this material was while you were shooting it?
Sometimes. If something makes Paul laugh, he cannot hold it in. There were a couple of times where he had to leave the room. There’s a scene later on when Cyril’s in her office and Reynolds comes in and Alma walks into the back of the shot and she says, “She’s disruptive.” I think it was when I said, “I don’t want to hear it ‘cause it hurts my ears.” Paul can’t stifle it and then you just see him out of the corner of your eye, in the middle of a take, walking out the room. He thinks he’s gone out of earshot but you can hear him laughing in the next room.
Daniel told W that in doing this role, “I gave so much thought to every single detail, I was probably infuriating.” Was he?
No, I didn’t find him infuriating. That’s the way he has to do it, and I have utmost respect for whatever gets an actor through the night, gets them on the screen or on the stage, delivering the right performance. It’s complex. We all have our ways of doing things. Daniel has got his way and that works and has worked brilliantly for him. If that’s what he needs, that’s what he needs. And the film is about detail. Have you ever seen a film with so much sewing? The fabulous shots of him pinning something. He’s really got a tailor’s fingers, where they get scratched by pins and needles. The detail is vital.
As someone who’s based in the U.K., what do you make for what’s going on in Hollywood right now and the Weinstein effect?
It’s a seismic shift and it needed to happen. It seems unstoppable now. I think let’s bring it on. Let’s try and deal with it so that it is a permanent shift, not just a fashionable shift, the same way that having all people of all colors represented, you hope, isn’t just a fashionable shift.
Deadline recently published an article that asserted in its lede: “The British television industry is a ‘toxic’ environment with companies paying only ‘lip service’ to allegations of sexual harassment and bullying, according to a new report.” Does that ring true to your experience?
Not in my experience, no. I’m not saying therefore that’s typical—I just haven’t experienced it. I wouldn’t be surprised if people have. But I wouldn’t be surprised if people experienced it in that shop over the road, or in that office block up there, or in this very hotel. It’s important that it’s not just, “Oh it happens in the film and television industry.” It’s been a universal problem.
What about the overall atmosphere of misogyny? Do you relate to people’s stories about that?
Less so now, because I don’t think people would mess with me now. When I was younger and naive and hadn’t found my voice, yeah, men would make misogynistic statements to me. I couldn’t give you any examples, but I’m sure I just didn’t quite know how to deal with it. I think that I wasn’t in sufficiently enlightening circles when I was quite young to develop the ammunition to deal with it. Obviously, I’m not in my 20s now, so...
It’s fascinating to look at the bigger narrative of your career—many considered Another Year to be your breakout film role and it came for you in your 50s. That’s an unconventional narrative.
It is. I really like that. My 20s and 30s were full of plays in London but at the best theaters with the most interesting writers—Caryl Churchill, Edward Bond. I was also doing Shakespeare and Chekov and Ibsen and Strindberg. You’re not going to come out of two decades of work like that without it impacting you. Even so, you know, three years ago I did a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, which we brought to BAM, and it was a hugely successful production and I won the Olivier Award, the first I’ve won, and even that shifted things for me.
I know it was my theater work when I was younger that led to my getting television work, and getting film work. It absolutely began and ended with how good you could be onstage. Even television producers know there’s no hiding place there. If you can hack it onstage, you can hack it anywhere. There’s too much pressure now on young people to be successful. I was just working hard in my 20s and 30s and doing some of the best work that was around, but nobody thought about being famous then. Nobody thought about coming to America and doing pilot season. It didn’t really happen for Judi Dench and Helen Mirren until they were in their 50s. That’s why Judi and Helen are such great actors—their history is steeped in the theater. Young people now are missing out on that—not all of them, there are some brilliant young people doing plays and good on them. But the pressure is on them to be successful and be on television and how many Twitter followers. I feel for them because it’s ludicrous. They’re not thinking of the long haul. I couldn’t be happier that it’s happening now for me.