'Phantom Thread' Star Lesley Manville on Being a "Late Bloomer"

Phantom Thread -Still 1 -Lesley Manville - Publicity -H 2018
Courtesy of Focus Features

The 61-year-old actress, who received her first Oscar nom this year, also talks about her non-audition audition and what surprised her most about director Paul Thomas Anderson.

Manville is one of England’s most celebrated actresses — a frequent muse to filmmaker Mike Leigh and an Olivier-winning stage actress who’s worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre and Old Vic. But despite all of her accomplishments, Manville, 61, has not yet managed to entice Hollywood in the ways that some of her contemporaries — Emma Thompson, Helen Mirren, Tilda Swinton — have. All of that is now poised to change, however, thanks to her turn as Cyril Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Manville has earned her first Oscar nomination for the darkly droll performance, playing the controlling sister to Daniel Day-Lewis’ obsessional couturier, Reynolds Woodcock. Manville spoke to THR from her home in the U.K. about making Phantom Thread — and what an Academy Award nomination means to her.

What is it like auditioning for Paul Thomas Anderson?

Well, the process couldn’t have been easier in that he asked my age and if he could call me and I said yes. On the dot of 11 o’clock, he called me. And he said, “Look, I’m making this film that I’ve written and Daniel is going to be in it and I’m going to send it to you. Have a look, and give me a call back when you’ve had a minute to read it and we’ll go from there.” So I thought, “This seems a bit easy.” So I read the script and I thought that it looked great. It was beautifully written but quite sparsely written, which I like — there was an awful amount of room for an actor to really bring something to the page. So I called him back and I said, “Listen, I love this script.” And that was it. There was no auditioning.

You’ve referred to your career as that of the “late bloomer.” Is this Oscar nomination the cherry on the late-blooming sundae?

I suppose it is, really. Everyone always thinks about the Oscars as the ultimate prize. And they are. Whatever your feelings are about them, they are absolutely held up on a pedestal. They are regarded as the ultimate. For me, I do a lot of theater work, but there was a giddy excitement — my 12-year-old came out when I found out I was nominated. But this film was such a full and satisfying and glorious experience, so it feels very right. I had 14 wonderful weeks making it, and I’ve become very good friends with Paul and Daniel.

What does an Oscar nomination mean for you now?

I’ve worked in England since I was 16 and done some of the best theater work available in this country and worked with some of the best directors in the world. So I’ve had an amazing career and it couldn’t get much better for me in England. But the Oscar nomination might open things up a bit in America if anyone wants me. It says “OK, here’s this person. She’s in this film, and now she has an Oscar nomination. Maybe we could pay her a bit of attention.” And if that happens, that would be lovely. But if it doesn’t, I’m really doing all right in England.

What surprised you about Paul Thomas Anderson?

He was not at all what I expected. I expected him to be less human and less kind. He treats everyone equally. He’s a warm, generous genius and proof that you don’t have to be nasty and hard-lined and difficult to be a genius, to be creative, to make something so unique and beautiful. The greatest thing about him is his sense of humor — we make each other laugh a lot and sometimes I would make him laugh in the middle of takes and he would have to leave the room because he couldn’t stop laughing. You could hear him laughing in the next room.

You and your ex-husband Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour) are only the sixth pair of parents to be nominated for Oscars in the same year.

It’s completely nice and friendly. We were all together on Christmas year before last. We spoke on the phone the other day — he rang me when he saw Phantom Thread, I rang him when I saw Darkest Hour. Just because you’re divorced from somebody doesn’t mean you hate them. It’s nice for our son. I think it’ll be a good weekend.

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.