Anything but 'Ordinary': Oscar nomination shakes up Lesley Manville's world

The 'Phantom Thread' star's Oscar nod took her career in a new direction, including the romantic drama 'Ordinary Love'

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Lesley Manville was doing just fine without an Oscar nomination. 

The English actress has a hugely successful career in her homeland, where she is a star of theater, television and the big screen. "In England," she says, "I’m as up-there as you can be."

Lesley Manville in "Ordinary Love."

But one day in early 2018, when she was rehearsing for a West End production of "A Long Day's Journey Into Night," she got a phone call from one of her girlfriends. It was the day Oscar nominations were being announced, and the screaming on the other end of the line was all she needed to hear. She had earned a surprise Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in "Phantom Thread." 

Suddenly, things shifted for the then-61-year-old. "This whole new area opened up for me," says Manville, speaking in the fall during the Toronto International Film Festival. She had never sought out America — "I certainly wasn’t going to come and plant my a-- here and hope for the phone to ring," she says — but then America came to her. 

Among the offers that came pouring her way was the lead role in "Ordinary Love," which opens Friday. 

Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville in "Ordinary Love."

In it, Manville stars opposite Liam Neeson. They play a married couple who very plainly, very unfancifully, very realistically deal with Manville's character's breast cancer diagnosis. Along with the upcoming "Misbehaviour" (where she plays Dolores Hope opposite Greg Kinnear's Bob Hope) and "Let Him Go" (starring Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), Manville says it's a role that might not have come her way if not for the Oscar nod. (The award itself ended up going to "I, Tonya's" Allison Janney.) 

Lesley Manville and Daniel Day Lewis in "Phantom Thread."

She looks at it as a bonus, an unexpected perk of a long, fulfilling career. "I’m level about it," says Manville, who turns 64 next month. "I don’t do social media and all of that stuff. I’m a grown up. I’m treating it the same way that I treat my work in England. I do the work I want to do."

Manville grew up in Brighton, England, and started acting in musicals when she was 16 years old. She drifted toward acting but wasn't headed in any particular direction until at 22 when she met English theater and film director Mike Leigh and formed a creative partnership that extends to this day. 

Leigh has cast Manville in nine of his movies, including "High Hopes, "Secrets & Lies," "Topsy-Turvy," and "Mr. Turner" — some small parts, some large — and she has become a consistent presence in his repertory of actors; no other actor has appeared in more of Leigh's films.  

Paul Jesson and Lesley Manville in Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner."

"I was a very open book at age 22 when I met him," says Manville, chatty and casual during a mid-morning interview. She says she appreciates his approach to character- and story-building, and their personalities mesh with one another. "We’re both Pisces, we’re both very practical, we’re both very ordered and un-chaotic, and I think, in a way, that’s what his method is like. He made me see that I could play characters that weren’t like me, and that’s been the most liberating thing and what gets me up in the morning. I like to play people that aren’t like me."

For "Ordinary Love," she drew from family members who have battled cancer. She bonded quickly with Neeson, whom she had never before met, when he came backstage and gave her a hug while she was doing a play in New York. "That was very, very nice and I thought, 'Christ, you’re tall, I’m going to have to do an entire movie standing on a box," she says of the 6-foot-4-inch "Taken" star.

"Ordinary Love" was shot in Belfast a few months later and achieved its authentic look and feel by casting real-life chemotherapy and cancer doctors in the film's hospital scenes. It was a heavy shoot, Manville says, although it was a bit of a family affair; Alfie Oldman, her son with ex-husband Gary Oldman, was part of the film's camera crew. 

Lesley Manville (center) and Liam Neeson (right) in "Ordinary Love."

"I was really glad he was there because it’s quite a hard film and it was just nice to have somebody in my family there," she says. "Most evenings he’d just come back to the hotel and we’d have a Guinness together. He said — only afterwards, which was good of him — he found it quite hard seeing me go through the cancer scenes with the bald cap and all that. Fair enough. It was lovely having him there, I needed that Guinness at the end of the day. It was a good little bit of comfort."

In the UK, Manville wrapped her three-season run on the popular sitcom "Mum" in 2019 and is currently performing in the National Theatre's production of "The Visit," opposite Hugo Weaving.

Having put in the time, she's riding the wave of her career — and her life's — work.

"Where ever it takes me, I’m already winning," she says. "I’m a very happy bunny." 

'Ordinary Love'

Rated R: for brief sexuality, nudity 

Running time: 92 minutes

Opens Friday