Lesley Manville: ‘I have the stamina of people half my age’

Her career has spanned five decades and, at 65, The Crown star LESLEY MANVILLE is just getting started. She tells Julia Llewellyn Smith how she’s redefining our preconceptions of middle age – on and off screen – and loving every second. PHOTOGRAPHS: RACHELL SMITH 

The next time I need inspiration on juggling work and home life, I’ll look no further than Lesley Manville. The actress, who has starred in everything from the beloved BBC sitcom Mum to Amazon Prime’s drama series Harlots and will play Princess Margaret in The Crown’s season five (later this year), definitely knows how to work hard and have a happy personal life.

Take how she handled attending the 2018 Oscars, after she received a best supporting actress nomination for her role as the icy sister of Daniel Day-Lewis’s obsessive couturier in Phantom Thread. Lesley needed to be in Los Angeles for the ceremony, but at the time she was starring in Long Day’s Journey Into Night in London’s West End and the producers were reluctant to give her time off. ‘My understudy was brilliant but they felt people had paid to see me and [co-star] Jeremy Irons,’ Lesley explains.

Instead, a plan was formed, which makes my brain ache just to imagine. There was no play on Monday– the day of the awards ‒ so she did two performances on Saturday, then rushed back to her home in West London. ‘It was midnight but I thought, “I’ve got to wash my hair, there’ll be no time for that in LA.”’

She got to bed about 1.30am, only to rise an hour and a half later to go to the airport with her son Alfie, 32, a camera operator.

Airline schedules meant the only way to arrive on time was flying via Amsterdam. But their first flight was delayed and they were worried they would miss their connection. ‘But in Amsterdam an amazing woman picked us up in a buggy and steamed her way through the airport, practically knocking down children,’ Lesley says, laughing at the memory. ‘Alfie and I boarded the plane to LA and it was still only 8am. We had a glass of champagne and said, “Here we go!”’

As soon as she landed, ‘I was taken up by a whole team of people. One was doing my hair, one my make-up, one my nails.’ She rushed to the ceremony where she could finally sit back. ‘What people don’t realise, though, is the Oscars goes on for ever– four or five hours because of all the commercial breaks. Helen Mirren kept asking me to go for a drink at the bar. I said: “Helen, you’ve no idea what my journey’s been like. I don’t want to miss my category after all this travelling because I’m having a vodka with you.”’

In the end, Lesley lost out to Allison Janney for her role in I, Tonya but she still partied the night away– although the canapés served at the Governors Ball weren’t nearly enough to sustain her. ‘I was running on empty and jet-lagged, it was all so bonkers. I said, “I need a meal!”’

Lesley with son Alfie, above, at the Oscars in 2018 – she was nominated for best supporting actress in Phantom Thread

She wondered if she might get one at the two after-parties she had been invited to ‒ the prestigious Vanity Fair soirée or the ceremony host Jimmy Kimmel’s. ‘I asked my director Paul Thomas Anderson what the Vanity Fair party would be like and he said, “It’s just like this but ten times as crowded and full of 6ft 2in models!”’ Neither option sounded appealing, so instead a few people from the film headed back to the hotel. ‘We had omelettes and cocktails, but I had to stay sober because I was doing an interview at midnight with BBC Radio 4’s Today.’

The following day, she flew home. She landed on Tuesday morning and that night– 72 hours after leaving the London stage ‒ she was back performing on it as if nothing had ever happened.

I can’t help but wonder if she perhaps contemplated calling in sick? ‘No, sometimes I think I do my best work when I’m tired. I do have extraordinary stamina. When people half my age are flaking and tired, I’m still going. I’ve definitely got Duracell batteries hidden somewhere.’

Certainly, there’s an impressive keep-calm-and-carry-on sense to Lesley, who – at 65– looks a good decade younger than her birth certificate declares. It’s almost impossible to believe she’s a doting grandmother to Matilda, seven, and Ozzy, four. Only some faint lines on her forehead attest to her age. Not that she’ll be doing anything about them – Lesley has a disdain for cosmetic surgery, which, she says, ‘betrays my sex. On so many levels it’s wrong. The message it gives to younger people is so awful. Women of 25 are already Botoxing – where is it going to end? We get older, we die… you might as well embrace it.’

She attributes her resilience to leaving home, aged 16, to pursue her acting career, when she lived in a boarding house, was leered at over breakfast by male guests and dined out alone every night.

‘No one took care of me. I was on my own, in places with no friends. You can’t just brush that off and say, “Oh, that was then and this is now.” That time of my life really informed me. It ingrained in me the feeling of, “I will look after myself –I won’t rely on anybody else to do things for me. I’ll just crack on and get on with it,”’ she says.

Her self-sufficiency came into its own when – aged 33– she was left bringing up three-month-old Alfie alone, after her husband of three years, actor Gary Oldman, left them. It must have been devastating, but recalling that time Lesley shows zero self-pity.

‘I never entertained the idea of stopping working,’ she says. For the first three years of Alfie’s life she took stage parts. ‘I looked after him all day with no help, then someone would come at about 5.30pm and I’d go off and do the play. I’d get back, be up in the night with him and up again at 6am. I should have been absolutely knackered but I’ve no memory of that.’

In some ways, she admits, she relished having total control of the situation. ‘I had some relationships in that time, but I always had the feeling of “the decks are clear” and I liked it. I’m not very good at delegating responsibilities to other people and I didn’t have to.’

Although Lesley was married again for four years to the actor Joe Dixon, for a long time now she’s been happily single. ‘If I met an absolutely fantastic man who ticked an awful lot of boxes then it would probably be a great thing and I’d be very happy about it,’ she says. ‘But I don’t actively look for that. Lots of my friends do it, so it’s not an age thing, but I’m certainly not going to start putting pictures of myself on websites ‒ Tinder or whatever. I’d have to meet somebody organically in the way I’ve always met people. If it never happens and I go to my grave without a partner, then fine. I don’t need someone to make myself look nice and dress up for. I dress up and look nice for me.’

That sense of Lesley as an independent woman, totally fulfilled by her career and happy in her own company, feeds perfectly into her latest starring role as editor Susan Ryeland in Magpie Murders, BritBox’s new, engaging and stylish adaptation of the popular Anthony Horowitz novel about an investigation into the mysterious death of a bestselling but unpopular author.

Susan’s a classy woman who drives an MG sports car and has a gorgeous, attentive boyfriend with whom she lies in bed sipping champagne, but appears to have absolutely no plans to marry. Even her outfits are all gorgeously covetable. ‘We just thought, “Let’s make Susan a bit swanky” and I love that about her,’ Lesley grins. ‘In my career, I often play someone who is married and has children, so it’s lovely to play someone with that freedom of spirit you usually equate with 20- and 30-somethings. It’s redefining the preconceptions of what middle-aged women are supposed to be doing.’

In her characteristically no-regrets way, Lesley’s long been on good terms with her ex-husband Gary, who – having gone on to marry four more times‒ now lives in the US and was also at the Oscars that night, where he bagged the best actor gong for playing Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

‘Gary winning was fantastic and we spent time with him and his wife and Alfie’s two half-brothers. Alfie’s one of very few people whose parents were both nominated the same year. It’s happened once before with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It’s a very exclusive club.’

Does she ever feel in acting competition with her ex, who – I’d heard– exclaimed ‘f***ing hell!’ when he heard Lesley had been awarded an OBE in 2015 (this year it was upgraded to a CBE). ‘No, I’ve always been a big champion of Gary’s work and he of mine.

He did say “f***ing hell!”, but his tone wasn’t envy, it was, “You’ve done all right for a working-class girl from Brighton.”’

Lesley grew up in a council house, along with her mother –a former ballerina – her two elder sisters and her father, who had several different jobs, including working as a taxi driver, a plumber and in a bookmaker’s – appropriate for a man who gambled enthusiastically on the dogs and horses.

‘Dad never lost all our money; actually he used to win a bit, so we would often go out for lunch on Sundays and for a few years my sister and I had a pony. So it was a weird upbringing: working class but with perks.’ When he died in 1995, his family scattered his ashes over Brighton racecourse’s five furlong mark.

A talented singer who won several county competitions, at 15 Lesley left her secondary school for the Italia Conti stage school. She studied dance under the legendary Arlene Phillips, who offered her a place in her dance troupe Hot Gossip, which she turned down. ‘I wanted to sing and act and I also knew Hot Gossip was going to be sexy. My mum and dad were far from being prudes, but I just thought, “They might be embarrassed that I’m scantily clad on telly.”’

Instead, Lesley bagged a part in the soap Emmerdale (then Emmerdale Farm), where she stayed for two years, before deciding to move on. ‘I learned so much doing Emmerdale. I was living in Leeds, having a really nice time, earning great money– enough to put down a deposit on a flat aged 19. But I was curious to do more.’

Her father, in particular, was worried. ‘He couldn’t work out why I wanted to leave. I was earning more money than he’d ever earned in his life. A lot of people said, “You don’t want to go, you don’t know what it’s like out there.” I said, “I’ll find out for myself.” I hadn’t gone into acting to be safe.’

It was the right choice: Lesley became a favourite of the film director Mike Leigh, appearing in several of his films, as well as in myriad stage shows and television programmes. Daniel Day-Lewis was amazed to hear that almost as soon as Phantom Thread wrapped she’d be filming the second season of Mum. ‘Daniel’s a huge fan of Mum, though he couldn’t entertain going from one acting job to another in just three weeks. But that’s how I’ve always done it.’

As such an industry veteran, Lesley is unimpressed by the lack of work ethic in some of her younger colleagues. ‘You’re being paid to do this – this is your job – so any kind of airy-fairy, flaky, “Oh I’m tired, I was out last night, I can’t learn my lines,” I just think, “No!” There are some exceptional young actors who are clearly in it for the long haul, but others are looking for quick-fix fame in a profession that these days is all about self-promotion and social media followers and they behave unprofessionally.’ She won’t be drawn on names.

As Princess Margaret filming the latest series of The Crown

In contrast, filming The Crown, which she’s right in the middle of (Lesley is taking over the role of Princess Margaret played in previous seasons by Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham Carter) has made her reflect on the Queen’s astonishing work ethic. ‘You can’t deny she’s put in the hours. She’s a formidable woman, isn’t she? She has worked tirelessly all her life.’

While Princess Margaret notably slowed down as she grew older, with Lesley you have the strong impression that she’s just getting going. ‘Everything in my life has been a slow burn,’ she beams. ‘And I like it that way. There’s a lot to look forward to.’

Magpie Murders will be available to stream exclusively on BritBox from 10 February