She points to her other Leigh roles, such as the through-the-wringer mother in "All or Nothing," admitting to looking "pretty terrible" throughout the film. "A lot of actors wouldn't want to go there," she says. "I, Lesley, I like looking nice. I like doing my hair and wearing makeup and wearing nice clothes. But I don't care what my characters look like."
The actor was able to fully disappear into Mary, thanks to Leigh's extensive creative process. As the filmmaker told Back Stage in a 2004 interview, he casts, then works with each actor individually to create characters. Then he introduces the characters to one another in the order they would have met in life. And then he conducts extensive discussions and research and "masses" of improvisation—"Another Year" allowed for 18 weeks—while he structures and distills the film through rehearsal.
As Manville reveals of her process here, she and Leigh started by "just talking about women, all sorts of women, different aspects of women, people that you know a little bit, people you might know a bit more." Then, over the course of several weeks, he gathered common characteristics, and he and the actor structured the rough shape of the woman the character might become. Then, she says, "once you've sort of got a loose picture of this person, whoever she might be, you'll go back to the very beginning of their life and create their whole history, everything you know: parentage, homes, schools, friends, lovers, marriages, everything, everything. And it's slow. Then much further down the line, we'll start doing improvisations that cover their lives and stories. And then we'll start to pin it down and then shoot it. We never improvise on camera. Once you actually shoot it, it's very tight dialogue."
Although she isn't sure whether Mary has learned anything at the film's end, she says, "I think she's at heart a good person, and I think she's misguided and behaves inappropriately a lot of the time. She's like a lot of people who are lonely: When they are with people, they kind of become a bit too much because they're just lonely. There's nobody to talk to at home; their lives are very empty."
Manville was able to bring Mary's manic energy to the screen with the help of Leigh's process. As the actor recalls, "When we shoot the scenes, we'll have been working on them for a few days. The dialogue is quite fresh. We only actually pin the dialogue down maybe a day before we shoot it. So that scene is very much in your mind and kind of what you're focusing on. And obviously you know the level you need to come in at it with. And a lot of the time, it's a question of acting. You just have to act it well. You can put a lot of ingredients in place, but if you come on and act it badly, it doesn't look very good." Would she call the process a sort of sense memory? "America has a lot of labels for a lot of things," she says. "I don't really know what all of that means. We just do it."
So why spend 18 weeks on a role when she could shoot a blockbuster and make the same salary? "Well, it doesn't get any better than this," she says. "It would be just nice to do rich work like this and be paid a little better, because we're not paid very well in England. That's for sure. So, no, for me, the quality of the work will always take precedence. Always."
Despite her full résumé, Manville claims the hardest part of her career is being unemployed. But during those down times, she says, "There's the world to observe around you. There's never any shortage of what to do. You just carry on living your life and carry on observing everything and being a bit spongelike, which I think most of us that work with Mike are." And then she'll call her agent.
-Won best actress from the National Board of Review and is nominated for a British Independent Film Award for "Another Year"
-Says the more successful one gets, the less work one takes, "because you get offered an awful lot of rubbish, and you just don't want to do it, because 90 percent of it's terrible"
-For stage work, prefers rehearsals rather than the run. "I always love the rehearsals, the previews, and the press night. And then I kind of don't need to do it anymore."