Another Year - Oliver Maltman, Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen
Joe (Oliver Maltman), Tom (Jim Broadbent), Mary (Lesley Manville) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) © 2010 Thin Man Films Ltd

Lesley Manville has worked with writer/director Mike Leigh on Secrets and Life, High Hopes, Topsy-Turvy, All or Nothing and Vera Drake. But his new movie, Another Year gives her perhaps her most challenging role as Mary, a lonely drunk who bemoans her disastrous love life. Told over a one year period, Mary’s life crumbles in front of the audience in a performance that show business pundits are calling Oscar worthy.

I spoke with Lesley in Los Angeles about her role of Mary and the movie.

This is the type of role that can be so over-the-top and over-acted, how did you ground your performance in such reality?

Mary (Lesley Manville) © 2010 Thin Man Films Ltd

If you are familiar with how Mike Leigh works, we don’t have a script, we start from absolutely nothing. The first thing we do is work one-to-one and create the characters with him, and we had 18 weeks to do that before we started filming.

So by the time you get to the point where you’re improvising and you’re starting to structure the scenes, and Mike’s starting to think what narrative the film’s going to have and where it’s going to go, you’re so solid in your character and any situation he puts you in, because you know how the character is going to react. It takes care of itself in a way.

How hard was it to ramble on and on as your character?

I know, I did come up with a lot of dialogue! All of the words come from the actors as well. Mike does reduce it and tailor it and make it economical, because you can’t have dialogue that goes on and on forever and scenes that ramble on, so he gives them a dramatic shape. But he never says, ‘This is the kind of person I want you to play.’ It happens in a much more organic way.

Is this process hard to do?

Ronnie (David Bradley) and Mary (Lesley Manville) © 2010 Thin Man Films Ltd

I find it easier, because I like working in this way. I often find it hard when you have a script and you’re desperately looking to find stuff in it that you can make something of, they are a bit of a DIY job.

I like working with Mike because I know he’s going to ask a lot of me and I know that it’s going to be very collaborative, and I’m going to have to come up with a lot of stuff. But I find it incredibly liberating.

I hate the fact that when we shoot we’re not improvising, when we’re actually filming it the dialogue is absolutely set. But it’s a fantastic journey to go on with Mike if you’re up for it.

Did you also discuss your character’s costumes with Mike?

Mary (Lesley Manville) © 2010 Thin Man Films Ltd

Yes, with Mike but also with the costume designer and the make up and hair people, they are all on board very early on, because they’re working to help formulate the whole [character], they are not just brought in at the end.

The costume designer came in with lots of clothes, and it was just about trying them on and seeing what works, because Mary is somebody who is trying to look young all the time, she’s dressing and bright colors and she wants to look sexy, so it was important that the costumes reflected that.

Have people come up to you to say they know people like Mary?

Oh God yes, that’s the thing people say to me the most. They say, ‘I know somebody that’s a bit like Mary.’ And I have had people, journalists as well, come up to me and say, ‘I’ve felt a bit like Mary in my life.’

Mary is a bad case of it, because she’s had a series of terrible relationships and her loneliness is profound. But I know a lot of women who are in their forties and fifties and they are on their own and they’re very happy with that, and they’ve done it out of choice.

When you create a character like this over a series of months, is it hard to let her go?

Mary (Lesley Manville) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) © 2010 Thin Man Films Ltd

I don’t have any problem with that, but I think people do sometimes. I’m just not that kind of person, I brush it all off at the end of the day and don’t take it home with me which, in the case of Mary, is a good thing.

There is Oscar buzz around your performance, what would that mean to you?

It would be very exciting because I’ve lived and worked in England all my life and we don’t have that kind of buzz about things in England the way you do here, so it obviously makes you excited, because it’s out of the ordinary.

I don’t sit at home thinking about it too much, but it would be jolly nice, because it would give me a bit more status and therefore it would open up some doors that would be nice to be opened.

I’d love to work in America. You’ve got some amazing directors here and why wouldn’t I want to work here? My career is about as good as it can get in England, I do amazing theatre work and I work with all the best directors, including Mike, so if America opened up [it would be great].

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane