- By Charles Ealy Special to the American-Statesman
British actress Lesley Manville will face a quandary at Oscar time.
Like many critics and movie lovers, she thinks Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays her high-fashion designing brother Reynolds in “Phantom Thread,” will be nominated for a best actor Oscar.
She thinks fellow Brit Gary Oldman, who stars as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” is also a highly probable nominee. He happens to be her ex-husband and the father of their son, Alfie Oldman.
So, who’s she going to be rooting for: her “Phantom Thread” co-star or the father of her son?
“As if I’m going to tell you that,” Manville says with a laugh. “As if. I’d be a very naive actress if I discussed who I would be rooting for. … Listen, it’s very hard to ever judge who’s the best this or the best that. What touches some people might not touch others.”
So she’s staying mum on the subject, she says.
In writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” which opens Jan. 12, Manville plays Cyril, the sister and manager of London’s most famous fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis).
It’s probably the most high-profile role of her career, at least as far as American audiences are concerned. Back in London, she’s a regular collaborator with independent filmmaker Mike Leigh, and she’s regarded as highly successful, with plenty of projects in the works.
But “Phantom Thread” is a relatively big-budget film with an American director. “I would have thought making a major film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson with Daniel Day-Lewis was a long shot, and that I’d probably have to do what I no longer have to do in London, and that’s audition,” she says. “But (getting the role) was none of that. I got a phone call, and Paul said he was sending me a script and would like me to do it. That was about six months before we started, and it was as simple as that.”
In terms of character, the role of Cyril, who’s “very economical with her words,” is a far cry from one of Manville’s best-known roles, as the voluble Mary in 2010’s “Another Year.”
When reminded of that role, Manville says, “Oh, yes, I loved that film and that sweet character Mary … poor, sad, lonely Mary,” she says. “You can’t help but love her, and she couldn’t help but love the white wine.”
In “Phantom Thread,” Cyril might share some of Mary’s loneliness, but she’s in control of her life — and that of her brother. She runs things. “She’s a very, very closed shop, but she’s strong, and she lives for her brother,” Manville says.
The dynamics of the brother/sister relationship change when Reynolds falls for a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps).
“When Alma comes on the scene, at first Cyril thinks she’s just another muse, another girlfriend,” Manville says, “but Cyril soon realizes that she’s quite a forceful woman to be reckoned with and that she’s going to challenge Reynolds in a way that he hasn’t been challenged before, and that it’s a good thing.”
Part of the push and pull among Reynolds, Alma and Cyril comes directly from the fact that Reynolds is quite persnickety. He doesn’t want any noise at breakfast, for example, and thinks that Alma butters toast too loudly. It turns out, eventually, that Alma doesn’t want to kowtow to Reynolds’ peculiarities.
“Suddenly, this young woman comes along and takes him on a journey where he has to work out if he wants love and a soul mate in his life,” Manville says. “If so, then some compromises are involved. You can’t just be a self-absorbed narcissist.”
Rather than reject Alma as an intruder in the brother/sister relationship, Cyril begins to see the merits of Alma. “I think it’s evident that Cyril has always been the one who wears the trousers,” Manville says, “and I love it when she tells Reynolds, ‘Don’t pick a fight with me. You certainly won’t win.’ He may be the clothes-designing genius, but she has got something over him in terms of tenacity and willpower and will exert that as required.”
Some movie fans might think that Reynolds is emotionally abusive to Alma, especially when he rejects early moves by her to have equality in the relationship.
But is Reynolds emotionally abusive? And does that possible perception hurt the chances of “Phantom Thread” as the United States grapples with widespread questioning of male behavior?
“To be honest, you’re the first person to bring that up,” Manville says. “There are aspects of Reynolds that are unlikable, and that’s the point of the character.”
“I’ve got to be careful,” she says. “I’m not suggesting that how he treats Alma is to be approved of. He’s vile at times. But I don’t know whether you would label that abuse. I don’t know.”
Manville says she doesn’t want to “give a sound bite, because it’s too complicated to discuss” in the time we have left during the telephone interview.
“I suspect that question will come up again,” she says. “And it’s a very pertinent question.”