Brenda Blethyn caught the attention of American audiences with her Oscar-nominated performance in Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies” more than a decade ago, yet the British actress generally remains an anonymous presence to the average filmgoer. Perhaps it’s because the 61-year-old seamlessly inhabits any character she plays, whether a mother undergoing liposuction in “Lovely & Amazing” or Mrs. Bennet to Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth in “Pride & Prejudice.” In her latest film, “Introducing the Dwights” opening Wednesday, Blethyn stars as Jean, an eccentric professional comedienne and single mother of two living in Australia whose finely calibrated family life is threatened by her 21-year-old son Tim’s first brush with love. She will also be seen later this year in the film version of Ian McEwan’s “Atonement.” During a brief stay in New York, Blethyn chatted with WWD about Oedipal relations, blooming late and avoiding disappointment. — Vanessa Lawrence
WWD: Jean is, for lack of a more eloquent term, a bit of an attention whore. But you are not someone who really courts the limelight. How did you tap into someone who seems rather divergent from how you are as an actress?
Brenda Blethyn: Well, I don’t have vanity about the roles I play. I embrace characters who are not immediately sympathetic so long as they’re real. And I also knew that the audience was going to meet this lovely girlfriend, Jill, before she does and that straightaway Jean was going to be even more vilified. But I knew that once they got to know the woman that they’d realize maybe they were a little harsh on her, because when her son is behaving strangely, when you can all see he’s met this girl, Jean doesn’t know that. All she knows is that her son is behaving furtively and being secretive when he never has been before. So any mother would wonder, What on earth is going on? Could have been on drugs for all she knows. So she’s protective of her sons and she adores them…
WWD: She certainly does, and in fact her love for her son is often expressed as intense jealousy toward his girlfriend Jill. Do you think her feelings ever veer into something more romantic, or slightly incestuous?
This story first appeared in the July 2, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
B.B.: Good God, no! What a mind you have! Good Lord, no! Heavens.
WWD: Obviously not in a consummated sense, but emotionally…
B.B.: No, absolutely no. That never entered my head. Or hers. I guess someone kind of intimated that, but I find that absolutely not. It’s passion for her sons.
WWD: Got it. By acting standards you had a rather late start. You only went to drama school when you were 27. You were 50 when you made “Secrets & Lies” and that was sort of a breakout. Have you felt any hindrance because you started late?
B.B.: No, I’ve always had a job, touch wood. I’ve never been out of work. And that is, in my book, successful. I never considered that I had to be famous in order to be successful…I came into the business to work in live theater. I never dreamed I’d be on television or in a movie and neither did I crave it. It was simply to work in theater — which I did for 20 years before “Secrets & Lies” came along, which was only my third film.
WWD: Now that you have been doing a lot of film work, do you crave it in a way that you didn’t before?
B.B.: No, I don’t crave anything. I am blessed with a lack of ambition, so I’m rarely disappointed. I think you set yourself up for disappointment if you want the moon and stars. I’m just happy where I’m at, at any time. And I consider myself lucky to feel that way.
WWD: In the British press you’ve been touted as following in the footsteps of Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave and other grande dame actresses. How do you feel about being pushed as the “next” one of them?
B.B.: Well, I’m the now Brenda Blethyn. That’s what I’m happy with.