From the deeply affecting first glimpses of Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson, as Joan and Tom, taking a power walk along River Lagan in Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s inspiring new film, Ordinary Love, to shots of mundane meals, routine trips to the grocery store and silly arguments, the viewer is allowed into the quite normal world of a seemingly ordinary couple. But don’t be fooled. As embodied by Manville and Neeson, these characters have an extraordinary power: a true and palpable love for one another. When Joan discovers a lump in one of her breasts, our couple embarks on a terrifyingly real journey that all too many people can relate to.
The film was written by playwright Owen McCafferty, based on his own true experience with his wife, and pulls no punches in its unsparingly honest depiction of what each step—from diagnosis to treatment—is like for both the person with cancer as well as their spouse.
Manville, a recent Oscar-nominee for Paul Thomas Anderson’s acclaimed film Phantom Thread, has starred in many Mike Leigh films including Another Year (London Critics Circle Film Award, National Board of Review Award, BAFTA nominee ), All or Nothing (London Critics Circle Film Award), Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy, Secrets & Lies and High Hopes. She has extensive television credits (River, The Go-Between) and has won many awards for her stage work on the West End, which includes: Ghosts, Grief, Six Degrees of Separation, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night opposite Jeremy Irons.
Neeson is no slouch either. He received an Oscar nomination for portraying the titular character in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Schindler’s List. Other notable film credits include Suspect, Nell, Michael Collins (Golden Globe nomination), Gangs of New York, Kinsey, Love Actually, The Grey and Silence. On stage, he’s appeared on Broadway in Anna Christie with wife Natasha Richardson, The Judas Kiss (as Oscar Wilde) and The Crucible opposite Laura Linney.
Ordinary Love marks the first time the two actors have worked together.
Awards Daily journeyed to The Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan to speak with the actors. Upon arrival, they seemed pleasantly surprised that a warm body had entered the room since most of the interviews so far that day were via phone.
Awards Daily: Firstly, let me say that these are two absolutely lovely and loving performances. How did the script come to you and what made you want to do it?
Lesley Manville: (to Liam) You start because it came to you first through–shall I name drop for you?
Liam Neeson: Yeah, you can name drop for me.
LM: Bono sent it to him.
LN: …who is a friend of one of our producers, Brian Falconer. They have a good relationship and Bono’s a pal of mine. He sent me an email saying, ‘Can I send you this script? It’s a real page turner.’ He sent it and it, indeed, was a page turner. And my litmus test with any script is if I get to page five and I think, I must go make a cup of tea, it’s not a good sign. This one I just read from cover to cover and thought this is really fucking good. Then I found out it was based on Owen McCafferty, the writer, an episode of a year/year and a half of he and his wife Peggy’s (life). And that he had to be coaxed slowly into writing this, after that experience, which made it all the more beautiful and precious and real. Then I heard Lesley was going to be involved, and it was like a no-brainer. I’ve been a huge fan. She’s one of the great, great actresses.
LM: I got the script and knew Liam was involved. It’s all about the script, really. It was a page turner. It was wonderful. And I was as eager to work with Liam as, thankfully, he was with me. (Smiles at him) Because, you know, what’s not to love really.
AD: Let’s speak a bit about chemistry because I don’t think it’s something you can manufacture and you guys have it. Did you feel the connection from the very beginning?
LN: Absolutely. I did.
LM: Yeah. We got on as people. I suppose Lisa and Glenn, the directors, were holding their breath when we both had agreed to do it and you finally meet, which was in New York…That’s a very hard thing to predict and they struck lucky…I think we’re quite similar actors. We both use our instincts a lot and just get on with it, really. Obviously the circumstances were good. We had great help from Lisa and Glenn.
LN: And a lovely crew. A very sensitive crew.
LM: Sensitive, yeah.
LN: To the material and to us. I don’t mean that they walked around on eggshells but they were sensitive to the subject matter which was beautiful.
LM: And when they saw that we weren’t pretentious and diva-ish in any way, it was even better because we just all got it done, difficult stuff and nice stuff and funny stuff…
LN: And the first week, when the directors would yell cut, Lesley would say, (overdone) “where’s my fucking chair?” (Lesley cracks up) You soon realize that maybe that was not the thing to say in Belfast. (More laughter) To be fair she got over it and realized, okay, I’ll be normal now.
AD: We’ve all known people with cancer and lost loved ones to it. I love how the film brings you into that world and holds you there. It’s a film about empathy at a time right now where we’re kind of devoid empathy.
LN: I agree, man. And you’re right, the first thing you said. Lesley has experience with cancer in her family. I have had four relatives die of it. So it did touch a little nerve, certainly. The statistics! Just the other day I was reading that one out of eight women in this country, the USA, are going to experience some form of breast cancer at some stage. I just find that horrific. It was brand new to me, the whole process that Joan has to go through…And I find the writer’s response just seems real. I just thought it was real and beautiful just to say the words and not get in the way of it, not try and act it. And Lesley was very much that way, too.
AD: The emotional journeys of the characters are rich. You have both done extensive stage work, I was wondering if you feel that was helpful in a film like this where the emphasis is on intimacy and character.
LM: I guess it’s always about character…I think it all feeds every—whether it’s a play or a (film), they feed each other. I’m doing a play at the moment and playing a very big character. Nothing like Joan…
LN: For three and a half to four hours every night!
LM: Not this week.
AD: What play?
LM: Tony Kushner’s version of The Visit at The National. But…it’s all coming from the same place. Joan has got a whole well of stuff inside her. Pain about the death of her daughter. Now this new pain, having to go through this journey. And my character in The Visit has got equal amounts of pain inside her that comes out in a different way, comes out as fury and anger. It’s all just the way one character filters it differently than another. I forgot what the question was now. (Laughs)
AD: The emotional journey of the character.
LM: Yes! I think we shot quite a lot of it chronologically, especially when it came to the hair loss. I didn’t shave my head because even if I’d have been willing to, which I couldn’t because of another job afterward, it wouldn’t have been much help because it’s all about the stages of the hair going and then coming back. So there were actually eleven caps with various stages of hair growth on them. There was only once where you saw me completely bald…I mean the scene where Tom shaves her head. You can’t predict that. You can’t be in your hotel room the night before thinking, ‘well when he says that, I’m going to do this.’ We’re both actors who are in the moment. Just watching Liam shave my head and looking at the result of it in the mirror: job done.
AD: That moment had great humor…
LM: I love that moment. When he’s doing that and he makes a joke about what kind of hair and they have a giggle.
AD: And their strolls together were very effective, not just as a framing device, but it brought me in right away. I fell for them.
LM: They’re a warm couple, aren’t they? Humor’s a great magnet for an audience, isn’t it? It is great. I crave it in my life. Humor. And when you put two people together who’ve got this delicate, witty…twinkling away on the surface, it’s very appealing.
AD: Lesley, I have to ask you about working with Paul Thomas Anderson on Phantom Thread. What are your reflections on that experience?
LM: It was fourteen of the most joyous weeks that I’ve ever had. Meeting Paul was like meeting Liam. It was instant joy. And ease. And fun. (He’s) a great master. I love watching and listening to directors discuss shots with their DP. I love all of that. Paul has a camera operator but he lights it himself with his gaffer, which is quite unusual so we did a lot of tests before we shot. With different lenses. We shot it on proper film as well, not digital. I learned an awful lot…I found it all really fascinating. And we had a lot of fun. Any job you do in life, it shouldn’t be arduous and head banging. It shouldn’t be. Look what we created with Ordinary Love. Look what we created with Phantom Thread. You can create films of great depth and gravitas without blood being shed.
AD: And speaking of gravitas, I wanted to ask you, Liam, about working on Schindler’s List…
LN: Y’know, I’ll be very honest with you. I think Steven made a wonderful film and it’s the one part—I’ve made 63 or 64 films—it’s the one part that I feel I never quite owned.
LM: Is that right?
LN: And it still bugs me. Steven wanted me to be—he had a fellow who died, Steve Ross, he was very successful at Time-Warner, so Steven was sending me personal videos of Steve Ross and I was also trying to study Oskar Schindler, what was written about him. And I got confused by the two of them. And sometimes, in the very first couple of weeks, I felt Steven was micromanaging me. I was a smoker at the time and he was telling me how to smoke! And how to breathe. And Steven knows this, I’m not saying nothing behind his back. And one night in the hotel, I was having a drink with Ben Kingsley, and I shared this with Ben. That he (Steven) should have cast Jack Thompson. I heard he was up for it—or whoever. There were a few. I knew Jack and thought he’d be brilliant in this. And I was sharing this with Ben, about feeling micromanaged. And Ben said something to me that stayed with me and really helped. He said, ‘A good conductor, as Steven is, needs a good soloist.’ And you’re a good soloist. And it really helped me, just him saying that.
But I do think Steven made an extraordinary piece of work. There’s a couple of little scenes I like, where I think, oh, that’s me, I owned that scene. But the rest of it—but that was 26 years ago!
Ordinary Love is in theaters now.