Actress Lesley Manville has achieved international acclaim as a member of Mike Leigh’s prestigious film ensemble, appearing in Vera Drake, Topsy Turvy (for which she was nominated for a London Film Critics’ Circle award), Grown Ups, High Hopes and All or Nothing, for which she received the London Film Critics’ Circle Best Actress award.
Her most recent stage appearance was as Mrs Coulter in the National Theatre’s adaptation of His Dark Materials. Before that, she was a regular at the Royal Court, starring in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls (also in New York, where she won an Obie award). Her other Royal Court appearances include Serious Money, How Now Green Cow, American Bagpipes, The Pope’s Wedding, Falkland Sound, Rita Sue and Bob Too, Borderline and Three Sisters, for which she won the Clarence Derwent award.
For the Royal Shakespeare Company, Manville appeared in The Wives’ Excuse, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, As You Like It and Philistines. Her other West End productions include The Cherry Orchard, directed by Sam Mendes at the Aldwych.
On television, Manville’s credits include North and South, The Cazalets, Other People’s Children (for which she was nominated for an RTS Best Actress award), two series of Real Women, Silent Witness, Holding On, The Bite and Angels in the Annexe for the BBC. She played Diane in Rose and Maloney for Company Pictures, and has also had roles in Promoted to Glory, Bodily Harm (RTS Best Actress nomination), Plain Jane, David Copperfield, and Painted Lady.
Manville is currently starring in the world premiere production of Neil LaBute’s Some Girls at the West End’s Gielgud Theatre. She plays one of David Schwimmer’s four ex-girlfriends who he visits ahead of his impending nuptials.
Date & place of birth
Born 12 March 1956 in Brighton, East Sussex.
Lives now in…
Ashdown Forest, Sussex.
First big break
Working with Mike Leigh was my first big break. I hadn’t been to drama school and, up until then, I’d really just played myself. I was in my early twenties and couldn’t even imagine that I might be able to play characters not like myself. Mike got me thinking beyond that and opened up this whole world of possibility for me. We’ve collaborated on seven or eight things now (including the films All or Nothing, Vera Drake, Topsy Turvy and Secrets & Lies). You probably know, Mike works in a very specific way and I took to it, it suited me. I didn’t come from some great intellectual standpoint – I never have been, and still don’t consider myself to be, an intellectual. It just made sense to me and seemed very straightforward. What you do is, you create your character from scratch - their life, their influences, the pattern of their day-to-day, including all the mundane bits. Perhaps you base it on various people that you know. The canvas is absolutely blank when you begin. It can go in any direction.
Career highlights to date
Mike has been very significant in my life so working with him has always been thrilling, even if it’s a bit part. Also working with Max Stafford-Clark at the Royal Court. I spent many years there in the Eighties working on new plays - Top Girls, Serious Money, Rita, Sue and Bob Too. I had the best time. The Eighties was a wonderful decade. I didn’t earn much money but they were real halcyon days.
Favourite production you’ve ever worked on
When I was in the original RSC production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, I knew it was something special. Initially, we were in The Other Place in Stratford, which is this corrugated iron shed and absolutely baking in summer. But the building suited the play and its themes of decadence, decay and degradation. I remember the first performance, realising that what we were doing would have a life way beyond that night, and yet I know Lindsay Duncan, Alan Rickman and I all felt how perfect the play was in that space at that time and that it could never be repeated. We had tamed the beast.
I’ve worked with Timothy Spall quite a lot, we collaborate nicely together. Deborah Findlay and I became really close from working on Top Girls, both the original production and the revival, when we were joined by Lesley Sharp, who also became a good friend. Acting is the kind of job where you meet literally hundreds of people, but few you know will stay in your phone book forever.
I have quite a list of those I’ve worked with: Sam Mendes (who I did The Cherry Orchard with) Tom Cairns (Miss Julie), Howard Davies (Les Liaisons), Adrian Noble (Three Sisters). They’re all great theatre directors and they all have their own style, that’s very important. Because I’ve worked so much with Mike Leigh and Max Stafford-Clark, a lot of the time, other directors can feel intimidated. They think I’ll want to work in the same way with them. That’s not the case. Every director has their own method. It’s hard to pinpoint what makes the ones I mentioned unique, but they all have something that’s conducive to working collaboratively.
Caryl Churchill is up there for me. And Chekhov is splendid. His work is so about the subtext, what people aren’t saying as opposed to what they are saying.
What roles would you most like to play still?
There are lots but I don’t tend to sit around and think about it. Some roles I’ve missed because I’m too old now. I would have loved to have played Juliet. I was the right look when I was younger, but it never happened. I would like to do more Shakespeare. I’ve actually done very very little. Maybe Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
More funding so that ticket prices can come down. Look at the National with its £10 season. It’s worked, it’s full over there and they’ve now got a much younger age group in the audience. The West End is staggeringly expensive, musicals especially. Here I am in a new play in the West End. That’s such a rarity. And if didn’t have David Schwimmer in it, it wouldn’t have happened because it’s just too much of a risk. That’s a shame because new plays should have a place in the West End.
I’ve just been reading Saturday by Ian McEwan. I love his writing, I can’t get enough of it at the moment. I also love McEwan’s Enduring Love and my favourite of all time is Atonement.
Favourite after-show haunts
I quite like the Wolseley, but generally I just come home.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I’m very interested in child psychology so I’d like to think I would have worked with children in some way. Nutrition is so important. I’m thrilled that Jamie Oliver has got school meals sorted out, that’s something I’m passionate about.
Why did you want to accept your role in Some Girls?
When I did His Dark Materials last year, I hadn’t been on stage in ten years. I was very keen to get back to theatre. I had done a lot of big projects with Mike Leigh, each of which takes up a year of your life, so couldn’t do theatre. His Dark Materials is such an epic. It’s three hours of serious running around and big drama – or six hours of hard slog when we did parts one and two on the same day. Some Girls is not only a very short evening, each scene is a two-hander and I’m only in one of them. I’m on stage for 20 minutes, take my clothes off (though not all of them) and come home again. It’s like a holiday after Some Girls. It was a bonus that I like the play and am doing it with David Schwimmer.
How would you describe your character?
She’s a Bostonian academic who had a destructive extra-marital affair with an ex-lover and then never saw him again. Now he’s come back to bury his demons, but she has nothing but revenge on her mind so she sets about to trick him.
What’s it like working with David Schwimmer?
It’s lovely. He’s not at all starry. He doesn’t take a solo curtain call. He likes to take his gloves off and get his hands dirty. He’s a very committed, hard-working theatre actor so we’re just like working any other group of actors in that way. Of course, that’s not necessarily how other people see it. A friend of mine rang the box office to collect a ticket I’d reserved for her and the girl said, “who’s Lesley Manville?”
In Some Girls, Schwimmer’s Man treats his lovers very badly. What’s your best crap boyfriend story?
What can I say? They’re all crap. Full stop.
What’s your favourite line from Some Girls?
I like it when my character says: “I think you’re the kind of person who leaves a whole bunch of hurt in his boyish wake.”
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened during the run to date?
It’s hard to be with such formidable women and not be able to do any acting with them – but that’s the script! We all like each other a lot. When one woman is on stage, the other three are having chats in the dressing room. We also meet before each performance for a warm-up and have tried to arrange a girls’ night out once a week – with David, too, he’s a token girlie.
What are your plans for the future?
I don’t know. I’ve got several things that are possible, but it would be churlish to discuss them yet because they’re not concrete. Let’s say they’re healthy options. I always want to be able to do more theatre, but as ever it will depend on the offer and its merits.
- Lesley Manville was speaking to Terri Paddock
Some Girls continues its limited season at the West End’s Gielgud Theatre until 13 August 2005.