Lesley Manville delves into the challenges of portraying a cancer patient’s physical development, and discusses her work with Mike Leigh.
It’s easy to take a great new performance from film and theatre veteran Lesley Manville for granted, but Ordinary Love’s cancer patient Joan is one of her most physically challenging roles to date. The film is a detailed look at how a very ordinary married couple (Joan, played by Manville, and Tom, played by Liam Neeson) cope with a life-threatening disruption to their amiable married life: Joan finds a lump on her breast, and a series of tests reveal it to be cancerous.
We’re given time at the start of the film to settle into the minutiae of Joan’s and Tom’s life together. The opening shot sees them holding hands as they walk down the pavement and up to a small tree by the roadside, which they circle around before returning back the way they came. It’s evident that this is some kind of tradition so ingrained in their everyday that they don’t even think about it; not a word passes between the two. They’re easy in each other’s company: we then observe them as they watch TV, talking but never looking at each other, because they don’t need to.
As Joan gets sicker, Manville embodies her gruelling physical and emotional transformation. It’s upsetting to witness the way that Manville’s body crumples in on itself, and to hear her moans of pain. But the real feat of her performance is how she provides subtle cues to Joan’s mental state: her fear and her growing discomfort in her own body. After she finds the lump, for example, Joan becomes visibly more protective of her body, with Manville holding onto herself and adopting a closed-off posture. After taking her physical health for granted for so long, she is now afraid of her body and not sure what to do with it. Later, after a particularly horrible round of chemo, it’s heartbreaking to see her snap at and scream at her husband who’s just trying to help. Manville is not afraid to show her character being mean, to show how extreme pain and illness are mentally corrosive.
I spoke to Manville about the film last September, at the Toronto International Film Festival. We delved into the challenges of playing Joan, the joys of acting in film vs. theatre, and we also touched on her work with Mike Leigh.
Seventh Row (7R): What excited you about playing Joan in Ordinary Love?
Lesley Manville: First of all, it was very well written, and for me, it starts and ends with that. Also, Liam was going to do it, and he’s a great actor. I really like Lisa [Barros D’Sa] and Glenn [Leyburn], the directors.
It’s a film about this fantastic couple who are middle-aged; they still like each other; and they still find each other attractive. And this thing [Joan’s cancer diagnosis] happens to them that is so prevalent in the world. It was a delight to read a dark story, but at the forefront of it, you’ve got this couple who actually have a sense of humour. They try to see the light through this dark situation, and they properly love each other. It is about the minutiae of life. It is about [washing the dishes], and are we going to eat the chops tonight? It’s ordinary. And that isn’t often depicted.
7R: Joan and her husband, Tom, have been together for decades, so there’s a lot of shared history between them. Did you work with Liam Neeson to develop that history before shooting started?
Lesley Manville: Yeah, we had some time together. I was in New York doing a play, and Liam lives in New York, so Lisa and Glenn came over to New York. We spent a few afternoons together talking, getting to know each other. We got on really well. It was very easy to be with him, so we could translate that to work for Joan and Tom. We read bits of the script, and we filled little bits of their life as much as you need to.
At the end of the day, you’ve got to get on the set, all the circumstances have got to be good, all the ingredients have got to be in place, and then you’ve got to do some decent acting. That’s what it boils down to. And instincts. Instincts about quite difficult scenes, where it’s quite hard to [pre-determine] what they’d be like. How’s it going to feel being in bed wrapped up with four coats on and a wooly hat and a duvet [while Joan is recovering from a round of chemo]? Well, I’ll know that when I’m in the bed and feeling it.
7R: I love how you portray the physicality of a long-term relationship. In one of your first scenes together, when Joan and Tom are watching TV together, you’re chatting, but hardly ever looking at each other. It feels so easy between you.
Lesley Manville: Well, it’s what you said. We don’t always look at people when we talk to them. [You and I] are now because we’re in a one-to-one interview situation, but we don’t usually!
Again, a lot of those things are just instinctive. You’ve got two very experienced actors. Liam’s made something like 60 films, I’ve made over 30. We kind of know what we’re doing. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. We could still do what we do badly. But there’s quite a lot of instinct. You get a feeling for a scene, and you can sometimes over-talk it.
7R: Given that you’re playing a character with an illness, the performance is very physical. How did you research the physical element of being a cancer patient?
Lesley Manville: Once I [understood] Joan [as a person, I had to then understand the physical element of her illness]. What really helped was the nurses in the scenes were all real specialists in that field. They were talking me through things a lot, telling me their experiences of dealing with other cancer patients and how chemo makes them feel, and what the breast biopsy feels like. I relied on them to let me know what it would be like.
If you get a cancer diagnosis, every new thing that happens is a surprise. It’s a new thing, so again, I didn’t want to pre-determine how I’d chart that story. We tried as much as we could to shoot it chronologically, but you can’t always because of locations. I did need somebody to tell me, in a course of six chemos, how progressively nauseous [Joan would feel], and what the stages of that practically are going to be. And then I do with that what I want to do with it in terms of the acting and the performance.
7R: Seventh Row is very interested in the conversation between film and theatre, and I wondered if you could speak to differences between both mediums from an actor’s perspective, given you have experience in both? I imagine a huge difference is rehearsal time.
Lesley Manville: Of course, it’s very different, because you’ve got five or six weeks rehearsal. It’s a different muscle. You’re working towards creating an evening or an entire two hours that you ultimately will be responsible for with the other actors. There’s nobody going to talk you through it every night. You’ve got to get to the point where you can do it on your own. Technically, it demands different things. You’ve got to be heard.
But equally, I love the challenge of being on a set and thinking, “Right, we’ve got three hours to shoot this scene,” and you’ve just got to get those 30 seconds right. All your energy goes into making that work. I love the fact that sometimes I have six weeks to consider something, and then sometimes I’ve got a few hours to consider it. You’ve got to turn in as good a performance [with only a few hours prep] as you do at the end of six-weeks rehearsal for a play.
They’re very different skills but I do love doing both. I get very itchy if I don’t do a play every year or so. I’m going to do one at the end of the year again [Manville is currently performing in The Visit at the Olivier Theatre in London]. I love the balance of doing it all. One feeds off the other and helps the other.
7R: Seventh Row has a vested interest in the films of Mike Leigh, since we published a book on him in April 2019! I’m interested in hearing about your experiences working with him.
Lesley Manville: That’s a very long conversation! I mean, you know how he works in essence, I’m sure. It’s fantastic. But he’s a one off. A lot of the time, people know I’ve worked with him and say, “Oh come on, you’re good at improvising! Let’s do the scene, let’s improvise,” and I absolutely will not do that. Because it’s an insult to his method of working. We don’t get there on day one and start improvising. It would be stupid. You’d just be thinking about what to say. The improvising starts after months of creating a character and thoroughly researching it and filling out their life. It’s a very careful process, the culmination of which is a series of improvisations that will then become part of the film. But then, when you film it, it’s absolutely set in stone.
The other myth is people think you improvise on camera. Of course, you don’t; you could never shoot it if everyone was improvising. You’ve got to structure it. It’s just a means to an end, the end being a script. Mike just takes four, five, six months to get there with his cast. He does it with his cast, and you create it together, whereas normally, the script just pings through my email box.
7R: I’d particularly like to point out how much I love your performance in Secrets & Lies (1996).
Lesley Manville: Oh, did you! That’s nice.
7R: It really stood out because you’re in one scene, and yet I feel like I know exactly who that character is.
Lesley Manville: Yes, well that’s good, that’s what we’re aiming for. A lot of the repertory of actors who work with Mike, we will go and do small parts in one film and then big parts in others, and I love that. And his actors are normally very happy to do that because the work is so interesting in itself.
7R: In that film, did you go through the same process, even though it’s such a small part?
Lesley Manville: Yes, but it’s in a smaller amount of time. Because economically, let’s say he’s got six months to create a film before he shoots it, five or six. He can’t pay everybody for five or six months. You couldn’t economically afford to do that. So he has to kind of work out who’s going to be in it a lot and who isn’t. The other one I did a cameo in was in Mr. Turner (2014): I played Mary Somerville. I had about a month to do the research on my own for Mary. There’s so much written about her, so much to research. I had to try and become a physicist within one month. So there’s all these challenges, but not everybody has the full five-month experience.
7R: I’ve interviewed a lot of costume designers and production designers, and I always like to ask them about their collaboration with actors. What’s that like from an actor’s perspective? Do you like to have your say in those elements?
Lesley Manville: Yeah, it’s crucial! I don’t think any department in a film or television or theatre project should be dictated. A good costume designer will want to hear your thoughts, as you’re playing the character. And then it’s up to them to interpret what you think into the language of a costume. The same with hair and makeup. It’s not, “Oh well, this is what the makeup designer wants.” Well OK, but I don’t know if I’m going to want that, and I’m playing them!
It has to be a collaboration. And of course, for the people who are the best in their field, it is. They wouldn’t dream of coming in and dictating. That’s not the fun of it. The nice bit is to work with all these brilliant people, who are so good at their jobs, and work it all out together.
7R: Did you get a chance to collaborate in this way on Ordinary Love? I suppose it depends on how much prep time you’re given.
Lesley Manville: Well, you’ve got to have costume fittings. There’s quite a few story days in Ordinary Love so we needed quite a few clothes. There are lots of discussions and thoughts, and you might make a little mood board of what you think is right. But I usually get a lot from the costume designers. They bring something, and I go, “Actually, yeah, that’s really good,” and it helps me find the character, which is wonderful.
Calling all Mike Leigh fans
With Peterloo in Process, uncover the magic behind Mike Leigh’s working process
as told by the man himself and the people who work with him.