The casting of Lesley Manville in Phantom Thread led some to believe Paul Thomas Anderson might be taking on a sprawling, character-filled Mike Leigh-esque look on London society, with a touch of inspiration from his mentor Robert Altman. However, his latest film quickly reveals itself to be a chamber drama (or comedy) and a more minor, but no less integral part of the three-way triangle is Manville’s Cyril Woodcock. Sister to Day-Lewis’ Reynolds, through no more than a few words and a penetrating glare, the true relational hierarchy reveals itself in cunning ways thanks to Manville’s icy cool.
I spoke with the actress about giving Paul Thomas Anderson cultural advice, what was left on the cutting room floor, the power of reactions, her character’s secret control, the underlying sadness of Phantom Thread, Jonathan Demme, and more.
This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film shot outside the United States. Did he talk to you at all about customs or culture to get advice from you?
Yeah, he did actually, about language. Sometimes I said, “That sounds a little bit American to me.” He said, “Yes, of course! Let’s change it.” Then in one scene we went off script a little bit, which we occasionally did, which was fine. It was encouraged. It wasn’t taboo. I said something that’s very English, but I didn’t realize it wasn’t an Americanism as well. In a scene with Alma, I said, “Well that’s as may be.” He went,” That’s as may be? What does that mean?” I said, “Well, that might be the case, you know. That’s as may be.” He said, “Are you sure? Because it doesn’t make sense putting those words together.” I said, “I’m sure it’s a real thing because I’ve been living in England all my life and we say that’s as may be, especially if you are middle class, upper middle class.” And it’s in the film. He trusted me. He believed that I knew what I was talking about, which I did. Yeah, but every now and again. I mean, Christ, he’s written a fantastic script about a very English situation and setting. He’s done pretty good for a boy from the valleys.
As an audience member, there’s a lot of humor to be mined from the interactions, but I’m curious on set, did that dynamic come across? Did you talk about it beforehand?
No, we didn’t talk about it, we just did it. I wasn’t aware that it was funny, but Paul has a big problem sometimes with laughing and when something makes him laugh he can’t really disguise it. There were two scenes that I did that he had to leave the room because he just got the giggles. I thought what’s the point of leaving the room? I can still hear you giggling next door. [Laughs]
Was one of the scenes when Alma proposes to you that she’s going to do something nice for Reynolds?
And you are kind of stone-faced. The power of that entire scene lies in your reaction. Did you shoot more than one reaction?
I think we did shot quite a lot of stuff. We generally shot quite a lot. We generally did most scenes quite a bit, but I think we both knew what was right. You try other things, like the scene where I say to Reynolds, “Don’t pick a fight with me. You won’t win.” I remember doing a version of that where I sort of shouted at him. It was fine, but it wasn’t really right. Paul said, “You know, it’s much more scary if you aren’t even looking at him, just drinking your tea.” And it is quite scary. I scared myself even. [Laughs]
This whole movie there’s this power dynamic between Reynolds and Alma, but then as the movie progresses, we learn that you actually almost own both of them in sense.
You control everything. Was that clear in the script?
Well, of course it kind of is all there in the script, but a script is up for interpretation. The great thing about Paul is that he doesn’t go, “This is how it is.” He lets you discover it, because he’s discovering it too. I mean, yes he can write it. Like all great directors do, they have a vision. They have a feeling for what the film will be. Above and beyond that, they can’t really know what it’s going to be like until it gets in the hands of the actors and if you’ve got good actors, they are going to be creative and they are going to come up with stuff. He would watch us do things and he would just love it. Then he runs with it and then he gets an idea. “I love the way you did whatever. Let’s push that a bit more.” So somehow or other through that sort of, not even a process, it’s just letting creatives be creative, we come to the point where Cyril is how she is and the way for her to deal with things is to kind of keep stony about it. Once when I did a scene I took the glasses off and tidied the hair and then there’s another scene later when I took the glasses off and he said, “You have tidied your hair.” I didn’t even think he noticed when I did it before. Of course, he noticed everything. He’s all-seeing, all-knowing.
I spoke with Vicky Krieps and she said there’s an opening of the film that was shot but wasn’t used, with her character at a church and you realize her mother had passed away. It was stuff we don’t see, but it helped her form the character. When it comes to your character, was there stuff you shot or talked about that helped you form Cyril?
There was only really one scene that of mine that was lost. I mean, Christ, along the way Paul lost a lot of little subplots. A lot. There’s a lot of woman coming to the couture house that had gone. All sorts of minor, not major, but minor subplots that ended up going. He did cut one scene with Vicky and I which was kind of halfway through the relationship of getting to know each other when Cyril starts to see that this relationship with Reynolds is slightly more serious than most of the other woman that have been in his life. It was in the country house and Alma finds his mother’s wedding dress that Reynolds thinks he lost. Because Reynolds says, “I don’t know where it is know. It’s probably ashes.” Actually, Cyril had kept it, but hadn’t told Reynolds. Alma finds the dress and they have a kind of strange conversation about this wedding dress and then Cyril asks her to keep it quiet from Reynolds that she’s still got it. But that went, and I could see why it would go, because actually you get that Cyril is warming to Alma just through the way Cyril is looking at her and smiling at her.
And the breakfast scene you say you actually kind of like her.
One thing I love about Paul Thomas Anderson and the way he does transitions, it can feel as though you’re watching just one scene unfold across the entire movie. It helps with Jonny Greenwood’s score weaving through everything. When you saw the film for the first time, what was your reaction?
Well, it’s always lovely when you see a film for the first time because you’re seeing all the stuff that you’re not involved in. One of the scenes that really struck me is the omelette scene, which has got very little dialogue in it. I mean very little. We probably watch her making an omelette for about three minutes and we watch her putting the butter in the pain and chopping the mushrooms. Then we watch him watching her making the omelette. Then she washes her hands. Nobody is saying anything and then there’s this incredible score. The way that scene is cut together, I find it such a genius piece of filmmaking, the whole thing. You can say the performances are good. Yes, the performances are one element. Paul is responsible for all of the elements. He’s responsible for our acting. He’s responsible for how it looks. He’s responsible for editing it. He’s responsible for putting the right music on, getting the right musician, getting the right music in the right place. I think that section will become one of the great scenes from filmmaking history. I think it’s extraordinary, a really, really, really extraordinary sequence. And I just love the film anyway. If I wasn’t in it, I would love it, because I love films that are about relationships and about how hard relationships are. Whatever life we think somebody is having–the person out on the street, the people we read about in glossy magazines–however you idealize other people’s lives, they are never like that. Every relationship is utterly unique and what goes on behind closed doors, nobody can ever know. Except Cyril. She knows everything.
One of the great things about this fall season is seeing both you and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water on this circuit.
I know, isn’t that good?
Mike Leigh’s troupe, you could say, both doing amazing things.
Have you spoken to her at all?
No, I haven’t spoken to her for awhile, actually. I miss her. We used to communicate a lot, but it’s been less so in the last few years. I’ve been thinking I must get in touch with her. Who knows, we might even bump into each other, but I think she’s more likely to be there than I am and well, good luck to her. Richly deserved.
Back to Phantom Thread, as they viewer you see all these costumes coming through, but I imagine it was even more on a massive scale on set, seeing it all unfold. One of my favorite scenes is the auction day, when they are parading the costumes around.
Ah, yes. That’s how they did fashion shows back then. I knew the way they did fashion shows in that day is they walked around with a number and it was mostly done in houses or sometimes in the designer’s garden and there was people smoking because everyone smoked and no one cared about it, making the house stink and all that kind of stuff. It was a great scene. All the elements were just spot-on. I’m sitting there and I’m watching this parade. I think it is a beautiful scene. I love it when Alma goes back into the changing room and she’s so high on it. She sort of skips around and sees him. He’s doing all the kind of neurotic [adjustments]. There’s a bit of you that goes, “Oh, come on Reynolds. It’s a dress. Get real here.” But of course it’s the center of their life and it’s the center of his life because he’s a complete obsessive.
Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson mentioned in an interview they felt this great sadness after finishing the film, how it was almost indescribable. Could you sense that on set? It is a romantic film, but there is this underlying sadness throughout.
Oh, there is! There’s a sadness to all those characters. For my money, all good films end with things not tied up. You may have some resolution with Alma and Reynolds, but it’s not totally because you just don’t know where he’s going to go. He marries her, but then she eats her breakfast and it drives him mad again. You just don’t know where it’s going to go, where that neurosis is going to lead him and whether he’ll ever be really cured as it were. You’re left wondering about Cyril. I mean, some friends of mine said, “Oh, I wanted Cyril’s story to be a bit more resolved.” I said, “Well, it’s not going to be resolved.” That’s like saying you want my–Lesley’s-life to be resolved. You can’t say, “Oh, next Tuesday it’s resolved, Lesley’s life.” And tie it up in a neat bow. “Oh, that’s Lesley’s life.” It goes on and it continues and it breathes. I love the film for that. The last day of filming was the scene in the end in the park. When they go off for dinner and they leave Cyril with the baby.
That got a lot of laughs at my theater, your character taking care of an infant.
[Smiles.] And that was our last day. We were in this rather chilly park. It was sad. And also, what I didn’t know until last week, when I saw the film was credited to Jonathan Demme, I said to Paul, “Was a he a great friend of yours?” He said, “Oh, very, very much.” And he died the day we shot that scene, our last scene. He died on that day. So he was sad for double reasons. I mean, I was sad because I wasn’t going to walk into work every day with three people that I admired hugely and had a great time with, felt like we had done something rather special. So I miss the people and I miss playing Cyril, but there’s something in me that says, “Okay, alright. Next.” I don’t take characters home with me. I mean, Christ, if I took some of my characters home with me, I’d be in an asylum. And I don’t mean that “next” in that I’m blasé about it. I’m not blasé, but I’m a pragmatist.
Yeah, Vicky said she couldn’t take off months to prepare and had to go right to the next project, just to pay rent. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis, who had the luxury of taking years off.
Yeah, I spoke to Daniel a few weeks after we finished and he said, “How are you?” I said, “Oh, I’m great, but I’m filming this series I do called Mum.” He went, “You’re doing another job?” I went, “Yeah, I was commissioned to do this series and it was always slotted in.” He just said, “I wish I could do that. I wish I could do it.” I said, “Well, there is another element to me doing it, which is that I’ve got to pay my electricity bill.”
Phantom Thread is now in limited release and expands this weekend and wider on January 19.