There is a scene from the third season of The Crown that I think about often. Two young princesses, Margaret and Elizabeth, hatch an agreement: Margaret, the younger sister, would become queen instead of Elizabeth. After all, monarchy suited her better. She wanted it more.
Of course, Elizabeth became queen — not just any queen, but the longest-reigning monarch ever in British history. If Peter Morgan’s fictionalized Netflix drama is to be believed, Margaret never quite found her purpose. She lived a turbulent and often unfulfilled life as the “spare,” not the heir.
As The Crown concludes, it is Lesley Manville who brings Princess Margaret’s story to a close. Manville was similarly driven from a young age: As a child, she was a classically trained soprano singer and began acting professionally as a teenager. But unlike the Margaret we see onscreen, Manville’s purpose has always been clear: to play as many different types of characters as possible.
There is hardly a medium Manville hasn’t mastered, from soap operas and television crime dramas to four-hour theater epics and award-decorated films. Since the 1980s she has been one of film director Mike Leigh’s most frequent collaborators, having more recently appeared in Vera Drake, Another Year, and Mr. Turner. In 2017, her performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread — as eternally single spinster sidekick Cyril Woodcock — earned her an Academy Award nomination. Next year, we will see her as Amy Winehouse’s grandmother Cynthia in biopic Back to Black, plus Luca Guadagnino’s Queer — a historical romantic drama set in 1940s Mexico, co-starring Daniel Craig.
This versatility is why, by any actor’s standards, Manville’s schedule is busy. It is what has enabled her to play both heroes and villains — and women like Princess Margaret who, even after so many years of public royal life, we still don’t fully understand.
Princess Margaret had a luxurious morning routine. Are you a fan of breakfast in bed?
I’m not a fan of breakfast in bed, actually. The most I manage will be my early morning drink, which is fresh lemon and fresh ginger with boiling water. That’s my first drink of the day, and then I’ll segue on to Yorkshire gold tea. But I’m not really on to eating granola on toast, no. It’s not quite my thing. It’s not often I have the time. I’m normally jumping in the shower and cracking on with the day.
You’ve been working nonstop for decades across theater, film, and television. How do you avoid burnout while still taking on the work opportunities that you want?
I don’t ever claim that I do lots of yoga and go to the gym because I didn’t do either of those things. I think that I naturally come with quite a lot of inherent energy. A lot of people say I’ve got more energy than the average 25-year-old, and I have to say I think that’s true. When I was shooting a series called Harlots for Hulu, I was also performing in Long Day’s Journey into Night in the West End for 16 weeks. My criteria for choosing jobs is always the same: It’s always based on script quality, directors, and other actors. But I’ve been in a very privileged position for quite some time now, where I have a lot of choice. I’m pretty good at handling a busy schedule.
Mike Leigh is one of your most frequent collaborators. Is there a secret to forming those special working relationships that last for years?
When you work with someone for the first time, neither of you really have any idea of how successful that creative relationship is going to be. With Mike Leigh, it was clear that we really liked working together. Those relationships are great, because there is a shorthand. Likewise, I’ve worked with Richard Eyre a couple of times, doing plays. I hope that one day I’ll work with Paul Thomas Anderson again, and Alfonso Cuarón or Luca Guadagnino again. I think the key to all of those directors is that they understood that I like to be a chameleon. I am not interested in playing myself, particularly.
You must have worn hundreds of wigs in your career. Do you have a favorite wig? What’s your tip for staying comfortable while wearing a wig?
Most of the wigs that I’ve worn have been made by Alex Rouse — a famous London wigmaker — or Peter Owen. They make superb wigs that fit perfectly. You do not get hot and they’re beautifully made. If you wear a wig, it can be challenging when you can see the hairline, like with Princess Margaret. She wears her hair high and off her face, so the lace on the edge had to be very fine. They do this brilliant thing of putting little tiny bits of mohair around the edge of the wig. I loved my Princess Margaret wigs and I particularly love the wigs that Peter made for me for Long Day’s Journey Into Night. We’re not talking about going to the high street and buying some wigs for £4.50 — these wigs are made carefully.
You are a classically trained vocalist and, even as a young child, you were an accomplished singer. What is your No. 1 singing tip?
I think my number-one tip would be: Sing your heart out. I think singing is a fantastic thing, whether you have a good voice or not. I do enjoy roaming around the kitchen in my house, having a good old sing. Whether it’s to a bit of opera, Barbra Streisand, Adele, or whoever. Just let it out. I don’t have any top tips, but just get singing.
Next year you’ll appear in the Amy Winehouse biopic Back to Black. If you were to take one album to a desert island, what would it be?
I would probably take Barbra Streisand. I don’t know which album, because there’s so many. I’ve got loads of them — mostly on vinyl from back in the day. But I’d take a bit of Barbra, because she has such a magnificent voice.
Princess Margaret spent a lot of her later life in the Caribbean. Do you have a happy place to travel to?
I don’t have a happy place, but recently I’ve done more traveling for work than I’ve done in years. I’ve been to Prague, Budapest, Dublin, Australia, and Tasmania. I’m about to go to Luxembourg and Warsaw. It’s great going to places and working. In a way, that’s my favorite way to be in a place, because there’s no pressure to cram it all in and be a tourist. It’s the feeling of living there, even though it might only be for two months or three months. You can become part of the furniture. I was recently in Dublin for three months and it was just fantastic. I felt like I’d completely experienced Irish living and the full Irish experience because I wasn’t just being a tourist.
You’ve played so many different characters from all over the world. Do you have a favorite accent to play?
I do enjoy doing an accent and I work with some great coaches who help me. On The Crown we have William Conacher, who helped to help us all with our dialects. I’ve done a lot of American accents and different parts of America. But sometimes it’s about doing British accents that are more specific. In The Crown, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret grew up in a time when the royal aristocratic accents were really quite strong and different to how the royal family sounds now. If you go back and listen to Margaret as a child, she sounded very different from how she sounded when she was in her 60s. Most of Margaret’s life she was in with the creative crowds, so she would have had that influence on her accent. I love doing an accent, but you’ve got to have the right person teaching you.
Some actors hate watching themselves onscreen. How do you feel about that?
I always watch the final product, but I am not a fan of watching myself after you’ve done a scene on the monitor in the studio or on location. I think it can make you self-conscious. For me, that’s not a good idea. I know that quite a lot of young actors like doing that: They do a scene and they run to the monitor and watch it back. I’m not sure how helpful that is. But I always watch my work when it’s done.
In the theater, is there a specific faux pas that audience members do that is annoying for actors onstage?
Late-comers can be annoying, but there are sound reasons for being late. They might have been held up in a car accident or something, who knows. But people eating? No! I can’t even bear people eating popcorn in the cinema. I’m there, in this amazing space, to watch a film. I do not want people crunching popcorn around me, I find that really distracting. Definitely not in the theater, because it’s very distracting to the people onstage. And obviously, the biggest pain is when people play with their phones during a performance because you can see the light. If you want to go and do your emails or something, don’t go to the theater.
If you were able to have dinner with any of the people from The Crown — deceased or living — who would you pick?
Margaret. She was a fascinating and complex person. She had a lot going on and had a very complex set of rules by which she had to try to live. Juxtaposed with a temperament that maybe wasn’t always suited to being a royal. But I think she’d have been fun. I feel like there would have been quite a good few nights out with her, maybe. She liked to have a drink. She was a good-time girl.
Is there any professional advice you’ve been given that you have held onto?
There’s been no one single person, but Mike Leigh has played a huge part in my career. I learned so much from him. I think I’ve found my route through my career with the jobs that I’ve done. Back in the day, in my 20s and 30s, the state of my industry was very different. Everyone was wanting to go and do plays. That is really where I feel that I’ve learned the most. Yes, film and television are different from theater, but my job is to create characters and people that the viewer can look at and recognize, empathize, sympathize with, hate, or love. Whatever media I’m working in, that is my principal job. I regret that young people don’t have those kinds of opportunities now. A lot of them seem to be wanting to be famous. Not all of them, I’m not generalizing — but I think a lot of them do.
Would you describe yourself as famous?
Well, it’s clear that I’m well-known. You go to places and people want to talk to you about your work. They know you and they recognize you. Your peers know who you are, and the industry knows who I am. But you can’t live your life thinking, Oh, I’m famous, because that’s going to take you down quite a dangerous, lonely path. People know who I am because of the amount of work that I’ve done. I’ve done a lot of stuff, so a lot of people are going to see that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.