LONDON — Despite the horrifying headlines of the past few months, there are still a lot of nice guys working in film and theater. Just ask the 61 year-old actress Lesley Manville, who stars opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in “Phantom Thread,” the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson.
“Beautiful, inside and out, both of them,” says Manville of her costar and director, adding that, on set, she would often think to herself, “I’ve got a pretty good job. There’s some good eye candy in this room. Working with these two gorgeous men every day — I can’t complain.”
Manville, one of Britain’s most versatile and hard-working actresses, says she took the role because she wanted to work with Anderson, and she also relished the challenge of working with Day-Lewis, who plays her complicated couturier brother in the film which is set for release later this month.
“They’re very close, codependent,” she says of her creepy, domineering character Cyril and the spoiled, fickle Reynolds Woodcock.
“They’ve not been separated all their lives and they had quite a dominant mother who loved him, but didn’t love her. How you create a close relationship like that is tricky,” says the petite, genial Manville during an interview on a bright winter afternoon in London.
“Daniel and I spent a lot of time before the film getting to know each other and creating a kind of ease between Lesley and Daniel, as it were, and getting used to being comfortable with silences so that you can just sit and eat breakfast without the need to talk.”
She adds that at the time, no one was aware that “Phantom” was going to be the final film of Day-Lewis’ career. “We just made the film in the way that you make any film,” says Manville, who describes her costar’s method as “privately immersive.”
Not many actresses can take on the intensity of working with Day-Lewis — who’s famous for stepping straight into the skin of his characters — but Manville is one of them. A stage, screen and TV veteran, she has spent much of her decades long, award-winning career working with writer and director Mike Leigh both on stage and in films including “Secrets and Lies,” “Another Year,” and “All or Nothing.”
She also refuses to be typecast, regularly hopscotching between contemporary drama, period drama, big-screen, small-screen and the stage, sometimes doing them all at once.
Right now, posters are plastered across the London Underground advertising Manville and her costar Jeremy Irons in the upcoming production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” at Wyndham’s Theatre. She’s also shooting a TV series for Hulu called “Harlots,” where she plays an 18th-century madam.
“I think I’ve cleverly jumped around with characters, so no one’s ever been able to typecast me. A lot of my ability to do that is testament to the work Mike Leigh gave me when I was young because he gave me such a wide range of characters to play.”
Manville also considers herself fortunate to be a 60-plus woman in the business at a time when so many actresses bemoan the lack of good roles. While it hasn’t been easy for women, she believes the tide is changing. (She declined to comment on the sexual harassment scandal unfolding in the film and theater business on both sides of the Atlantic).
“For the last five years I do think it’s getting a bit better because, ostensibly, film and TV companies have realized that there’s a huge audience of women over 40 and 50 who want to see themselves represented in stories in an interesting way, and not just at home making dinner or cleaning up the mess. It’s been getting better the last five years — but it’s still got a long way to go.”
Manville certainly plans to witness — and take part in — all the changes that are coming. Asked if she has any intention of winding down, she looks over quizzically. “What would I do all day? I just want to keep going. Look at Judi Dench. She just keeps going. What’s not to like? It’s a great job.”