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‘Phantom Thread’ Star Lesley Manville on Hollywood for Actresses Over 40: ‘It Is Getting Better’

The supporting standout of PTA's latest challenges Hollywood's notions of femininity, while also finding room to work under the filmmaker's unique creative structure.

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“Phantom Thread”

Laurie Sparham / Focus Features

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Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock may be the focus of “Phantom Thread,” but the women rule in Paul Thomas Anderson’s lavish character study. Although the fussy dressmaker is used to getting his way, every element of his professional and personal life is dictated by the women who surround him. And there’s no one more fearsome than his beloved sister and business partner, Cyril (Lesley Manville).

In Manville’s hands, Cyril is iron-willed with a flinty charm that keeps both Reynolds and the audience on their toes. From a particular flick of her eyes to an unnerving scene where she baits Reynolds for a fight he will undoubtedly lose, Cyril never gives anyone — least of all her brother — an inch.

It’s a stunning and subtle performance, and one that subverts what Hollywood expects from and offers actresses over 40. “I’ve got a movie, a TV series, and a play,” the 61-year-old Manville recently told IndieWire. “The jobs themselves at the moment are amazing. And you know, I’m not young anymore. The fact that I’m having such a great career at my age is quite a thing.”

Manville is currently working on the second season of the Hulu series “Harlots” and preparing to return to the stage for the Richard Eyre-directed revival of Eugene O’Neill’s classic drama “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” co-starring Jeremy Irons. She takes none of it for granted, but said that she believes it’s getting better for post-ingenue actresses.

“People are realizing that women over 40 want to go to the movies and see films where they are portrayed and where their lives are represented,” she said. “There is a shift. Women like Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Annette Bening, they’re playing women who are attractive and sexual and interested in love and their own sexuality. It’s not like all of that has to stop just because you are suddenly over 40. Or even 30, in Hollywood!”

Cyril’s own sexuality is a compelling counterpoint in the “Phantom Thread,” which follows Reynolds as he embarks on a new relationship with young muse Alma (Vicky Krieps). Alma joins a long line of Reynolds’ muses, but she wholly subverts his expectations and earns Cyril’s respect in the process. Cyril’s status as a confirmed bachelorette is a frequent topic, and the toll it has taken on her weighs heavy on her, especially compared to Reynolds’ own evolving love life.

Finally, Cyril realizes that not only does Reynolds’ life needs major change, she also must come to terms with her own life’s direction.

“Cyril realizes [that] her brother is in his 50s, and maybe he does want something that perhaps Cyril maybe would like as well, but isn’t happening for her,” Manville said. “I think that Cyril appreciates the challenge that Alma is. She’s not a girly girl, fluffy and lightweight. She’s substantial, she knows her own mind. She’s probably taming Reynolds in the way that perhaps Cyril should have done, but couldn’t do because it takes somebody to love you in a romantic way to shift you.”

As with many Paul Thomas Anderson projects, the “Phantom Thread” production contained a certain amount of myth-making. One story follows the allegedly claustrophobic nature of the Georgian townhouse they shot much of the film and served as both set and staging area. Day-Lewis called it “awful” and “a nightmare.” However, Manville looks back on the process with a lot of affection.

“It wasn’t that confined!” Manville laughed.” It was a huge, huge house in Fitzroy Square. The great thing about it was, we sort of used every inch of it. It felt like going into their home and salon every day.”

While the public and press might have scraped for details on the project for months, Anderson was eager to provide his cast with the film’s screenplay months before shooting, and sent updates as needed. Manville said she always felt fully informed by a director she called “very collaborative.”

"Phantom Thread"

“Phantom Thread”

“What I liked about working with Paul is that, yes, there’s a script, but it’s not rigid,” she said. “I don’t mean that we just made it up as we went along, we didn’t. But we would play the scene, but quite how we were going to play it and what shape it was going to take and where it was going to go was very much for up grabs.”

However, unlike Manville’s theater work, Anderson doesn’t have much use for rehearsals. He prefers to use his time on extended shooting schedules, which made sense to her. “It would be crazy to rehearse scenes in a film for five weeks, as you have to do on stage,” Manville said. “[A scene] is a minute and a half and nobody’s watching the whole thing; you’ve got a single camera, you’re shooting one bit and one person at a time. We could shoot one scene for two or three days. You’re pretty good at that scene by the time you get to day three and it’s take 45. There was time to get it right.”

Added Manville: “That’s when you see the kind of full PTA directing genius come out. He gets very excited once you start shooting. You’d think a genius like him would be kind of rigid, but he’s very easy. He’s not going to cast good actors and then just to treat them like robots. He wants your collaboration. He wants to do it with you.”

“Phantom Thread” opens in select theaters on December 25.

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