In Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread," Lesley Manville's enigmatic Cyril is critical in the development of the unusual relationship between her on-screen brother Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his new model Alma (Vicky Krieps). And in a sense, that's true of Manville herself — over her 40-plus-year career, largely played on British stages, films and TV shows, the 61-year-old (who was once married to fellow awards season hot property Gary Oldman) may not always take the lead — but she's a linchpin in making a story happen. The actress spoke with The Envelope in New York about relationships — poisonous and otherwise — and aspiring to chameleonic status. But be aware, there is a key spoiler ahead.
"Phantom Thread" is one of those movies that will likely have people talking – or scratching their heads — or both. What drew you to playing Cyril?
I'm interested in films about relationships. This was primarily a film about a romantic relationship, but secondarily a sibling relationship that shifted for Cyril once Alma became a permanent fixture. I felt that we could go anywhere with Cyril. I felt she was a woman who had a sense of herself and was sparse with language — but when she spoke, it was crystal-clear. There was a stillness about her.
And yet Cyril more or less disappears from the film once Alma asserts her authority. How did that feel?
A friend of mine saw it and said, "I wish Cyril's story had been resolved in some way." I know what they mean, but she is the third player in the story. I don't think her story can be resolved. The audience is left to imagine where Reynolds and Alma will go, but I think for Cyril, while the day-to-day dynamic of her life will be different, the pattern of her life with Reynolds won't alter that much. And by the end, Alma is a welcome third party in the gang.
Your career has spanned over 40 years, with a strong focus on the theater and largely British productions. How has that helped hone the actor you want to be?
This is the kind of actor I want to be now. The only kind of actor I want to be is a chameleon. Not disrespecting someone who just plays one thing — people can do that brilliantly. It's just not my thing. I love that I can jump around with class, with character. I can go from [starring in BBC dramedy] "Mum" to plays by Ibsen and O'Neill and then to PTA.
Daniel Day-Lewis has famously said he's retiring after this film. Can an actor truly just give up acting?
I don't feel like that. I'm having the most wonderful time at a time I have to guiltily acknowledge can be a terrible time for actresses my age. But I think there's a shift. It's getting better. Actors my age are defying pigeonholes of how they're meant to look. I can't imagine retiring.
"Thread" focuses on a powerful man who takes on an ingénue in a relationship both about work and sex, and the other women around him are subordinates who support his mercurial nature so he can be an "artist." It's a familiar trope — but do you think that in the current social climate this film will be received differently than it would have six months or a year ago?
Something that might come up is what people say even now about 10, 20 years ago: It was a different time. It was 60 years ago [in the film] and women were in a different position than they are now. But there's a balance in that, because Alma does challenge Reynolds. He's not very nice to her. He's not very likable for most of the picture. But you do see her challenging his behavior.
Yes, but that challenge takes the form of — spoiler alert — her poisoning him. Repeatedly.
I know! It's an extreme step, and he knows he's being poisoned. He's complicit. There's often an oddity in Paul's films. In "Magnolia" it rains frogs. I like the way he does that, in a minefield of reality, he'll just throw in something utterly heightened and surreal. The [poisoned] omelet isn't as heightened as raining frogs, though it is a strange route to tame Reynolds. But there's something about these characters that like to do this dance around one another. It's clever. Clever. I might try it myself one day.
Anyone in mind?
I have nobody in mind or in fact nobody to try it out on. But it's a nice idea. I can think of some people I might like to have tried it on.