Straight No Chaser

"Another Year's" Arch Melancholia

by Matt Mazur

23 December 2010

Director Mike Leigh 

The research lasts five months and then the shoot happens right after, which is highly atypical. So when you go into a film that is not a Mike Leigh production, how does that specific training inform your performances, when you don’t have as much time to research?

Jim Broadbent: On a bigger film, someone else has done that work, maybe not quite as thoroughly…

Lesley Manville: It makes you think about the script and the character you’re playing. It makes you think about it in different ways. You’ve got the equipment. We all know how to create a character’s back story and do all that. I don’t really like working on my own, you know? I think the problem with a lot of the work I do – regular work – is that directors sort of expect you to read the script, learn the lines, work out the crucial moments by yourself at home, and then come in and deliver. And there’s very little rehearsal. I mean, unbelievably, it does seem completely incredible that some major films are made, important films are made, and oddly enough the whole priority of giving the actors rehearsal time is overlooked. They can’t afford it. They just expect you to get your act together, and to go in and perform it. I need somebody to look at what I’m doing and make suggestions.

Mike Leigh: The fact is that a large portion of what happens in making films, the actors, on the whole, are not doing character acting, i.e. the actor just goes in and does what he or she is. That’s it. When you get a character actor, like you guys, you then devise your character, you may get some collaboration or you may not. I find, extraordinarily enough, that it’s not just a question of the collaboration. It’s just that to arrive at any of these main three characters, we have done some very complex work, and confronted all kinds of choices. All kinds of chemistry and salient elements have gone into creating these characters on all kinds of levels, and that’s the thing. That’s not just an idea, that’s the actual characterization, the substance of what the actor is actually doing. The idea that you could arrive at something round and relevant and real and three dimensional without any choices or process – I don’t really know how that happens. I have to accept that in some circumstances, it happens because of talented people who are able to do this.

Jim Broadbent: And a very good script might suggest it. Very often on films, they might do a week’s rehearsal, in which you might be involved with one and a half days. Some of them sort of read or do a bit of rehearsing of one or two of the major set pieces in the film. But its very sort of … I think it’s mainly for the director to get an idea of how he might save you! But actual character work is left to the actors.

Ruth, what was your most challenging scene to play once you got to shooting?

Ruth Sheen: Yeah, all of it! (Laughing) Different scenes demanded different….you know…In some respects the scenes with Mary were quite challenging, because of Mary’s character, especially towards the end when Mary was very upset. It was very emotional and very moving. That last scene in the kitchen where Mary is upset was very emotional. It comes not out of anger but from where they’ve been upset – when Joe [Oliver Maltman] gets upset with Mary – to see how upset Mary is. Gerri, her emotions are very compromised. It’s a bit complex, to have a friend whose damaged, who you’re very fond of, who you care about, yet she’s sort of intruding into your family’s life. So, some of that stuff was very difficult to sort of, I don’t know, make it good and still be true to the character. I enjoyed all of it; it was challenging; it was emotional; it was moving.

Jim Broadbent: You do, you have to identify. You get into character, and you have to identify with the character. The scene after the funeral where Carl [Martin Savage] is stomping around the place and being very threatening and angry? I completely identify with Tom’s tension and Gerri’s tension. There’s an electric charge there.

Mike Leigh: [At that point] We’d shot lots of the film, and we’d settled – (To Broadbent…) you’d settled – quite properly, into a clear, solid sense of Tom. Suddenly, there he is, which is why it is interesting dramatically, he’s confronted by stuff that he has to deal with. So that’s the first time you see Tom doing that. From your point of view, you opened up a sort of whole new antechamber. (To Manville…)What was your most challenging scene?

Lesley Manville: Well, I hadn’t played drunk before and we only talked about the degrees of it, really. We didn’t talk about, and I think that was correct that we didn’t, how you actually act it. We did sort of take it for granted that it would just be alright.

Mike Leigh: I did not come to you and say”‘well, how are you going to do it?” It was always a surprise.

Lesley Manville: No, exactly! So we just talked about the degrees of drunkenness. Interestingly enough, the thing about playing drunk is that normally, working with Mike, we can do these big, emotional scenes, and we’ve got so adept at popping in and out of character that we can be in character through a big scene that might be tricky and emotional and difficult, and then we can come out of character and it’s a simple process. In and out of character. It’s a discipline, yes. The thing about being drunk was that, very quickly, I thought it was quite hard to stop it and then get into it again. So, I just kept quite quiet and private in between takes of that scene, and kept it on the go a little bit, and I found that helped.

Mike Leigh: Vodka helped!

Lesley Manville: (Laughing) It was a new area. We all usually just come out of character and you’re out. What you get is that: a) people think you’re in character all the time, when you’re not, and b) that the ability to come out of character is sort of a slow process, but it’s not the case.

Mike Leigh: I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘surely, she must have had a real drink.’ That’s not how it happens.

Lesley, I wanted to just talk a little about your theater work – including All About My Mother, Six Degrees of Separations, The Cherry Orchard, among many other greats – because Mary in Another Year reminded me so much of a distaff Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire. How does this particular kind of variety of roles stretch you as an actor?

Lesely Manville: Well, I feel that if the work you do in any other territory is good work, you’re going to take from it. I really enjoy working on stage. I suppose my feelings are that I like it because it’s a complete evening, nobody’s going to stop you. You can’t make bad actors look good, you can’t edit around them. So, I like the pureness of it, the wholesomeness of it. But it’s different and I think that I don’t have any preference. I enjoy doing both, and I really like the technical challenges of filmmaking. Aside from creating the character, interacting with other characters in a scene, I also enjoy the knowledge that there’s the camera there and that the camera needs to be relating to me in a particular way.  I like all of that. I like having all sorts of disciplines on-the-go.

I know we maybe shouldn’t talk about someone who isn’t here, but I was fascinated by Imelda Staunton’s role in the film…

Mike Leigh: (lifting the tablecloth, looking under the banquette, and wildly pointing) She is here, actually!

(Laughter all around)

Ruth Sheen: I’ve worked with Imelda before, on Vera Drake, in a very different combination, so it’s quite difficult to say how I felt about her because I just played the scene, you know? I didn’t sort of sit there and go…‘oh….!’ I just sort of go on with it and I did it. It was right in the beginning…I sort of just got on with it! She’s just Imelda to me…

There are so many stories about films losing funding, and the budget difficulties for filmmakers seem to be getting worse. The last time we talked, you mentioned how you thought it was a little crazy that people give you money to make a film without a script.

Mike Leigh: I must have been drunk! (Laughing) I think its remarkable. I think I’ve gotten away with a lot, had the most remarkable luck. I don’t know how I’ve gotten work! Nobody here knows! It’s remarkable...

Lesley Manville: (Laughing) You’re such a charlatan!

(Laughter all around)

Mike Leigh: I’m joking, of course. It’s probably called ‘irony’ – you call it ‘irony’! The fact is that apart from anything else, Another Year had the smallest budget of any film I had worked on in a very long time. It only goes to show what you can do for five bob, really.

The reception out of Cannes was strong. I’m always curious to see what the relationship of actors and directors is to the world of film criticism is…Do you read film criticism or care about film critics at all?

Mike Leigh: Yeah. I mean, sure. We don’t make these films – as far as I’m concerned – for newspapers, but for audiences, and you want those films to get a sense of audience. People writing about them is part of the process, so it matters. And also, I’m interested, always interested, to know what people write. Sometimes it is a painful experience and sometimes it’s a joy.

Jim Broadbent: You dip into it a bit, occasionally, if it feels like there’s a good vibe, then you read a few more. But generally, I just keep my head to the ground to see if there’s a good feeling about it. I’m certainly not one of those who never ever reads [reviews]...

Lesley Manville: We’ve all three of us been actors for a really long time, so I think we’re all pretty level-headed about it, really.

Ruth Sheen: I think sometimes, talking about what someone says, if it’s personal, then perhaps you might take it more deeply than other times. I mean, I read all of it, good or bad, because I think it is important to accept that. I mean, it is one person’s opinion and also everyone is entitled to their opinion. Nobody’s going to like everything you do.

Mike Leigh: On Happy-Go-Lucky, we had a thing with the cast and crew and lots of people came, and one person, who’s a friend of mine, shocked me and said, at the screening, something that at that time no one had said at all: ‘I couldn’t stand her [Poppy – played by Sally Hawkins]. She really got on my nerves.’ And I was shocked. I didn’t know that it was going to be that a substantial number of people were going to say, including some critics. I mean there were so many British critics who absolutely said that and other people who thought she was wonderful. Personally, I don’t see how you can do anything other than fall in love with the character myself…

Nevertheless, the point is, in the context of the question, is that you kind of learn. You may reach that point where someone is completely off-beat or out of order, but in the end, the movie-going experience, when you’ve made a film, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a learning curve that goes on for a very long time. You learn from accepting audiences, how you do Q&As, you learn from the way people react to it, and the interesting thing is, I will get in the street, people saying ‘I loved your film. And it’s a film that people criticized to hell, or negatively. It’s an ongoing thing. Criticism is a part of it. Everybody, not least journalists—critics are in the end mostly journalists—come at things from all kinds of different angles, different kinds of backgrounds, different perspectives, different interiors, different objectives, tastes.

It seems like in the film you maybe say that people are either happy or not. Do you feel like it is that cut and dry?

Mike Leigh: Absolutely not! I think that’s twaddle. I never said that and the film doesn’t say that. The film is extremely complex and that’s the very thing the film doesn’t say, if you don’t mind me saying so! Are you happy?

(laughter all around, again)

Touche, Mr. Leigh.

* * *

Another Year opens in limited release December 29th.

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