"YOU'VE GOT TO LAUGH"
Brenda Blethyn Interviewed by Carol Allen
Having just got back from Cannes, tell me, it was your first time, was it?
Yes it was. It was absolutely thrilling. Marianne (Jean-Baptiste) and I were sort of trembling as we went along in the limo to get to the long flight of stairs with the red carpet and as we got out we looked at each other and went "Bing!!!" It was wonderful, we enjoyed every step.
This was the gala screening, where you're going up there like royalty.
Yes, we were treated like royalty the whole time really. But we were going up those stairs and there were thousands of photographers, hundreds of photographers either side and TV cameras, all shouting nice things, it was just dreamlike really, great
I hear the film got a pretty strong ovation.
It was about 10 minutes, the entire house stood up. Marianne and I looked at each other and thought "Wow, this is great". It was rather embarrassing. I said to her, "what do we do, do we just stand here?" She says, "stand there". It was so enthusiastic and when we came out there was people calling out in the street, it was great.
How about the rest of the time you were there - lolling on the beach in your bikini, I suppose?!
I wish, no. Hundreds of interviews with journalists and TV companies from all over the world covering the Cannes thing, and they were also enthusiastic as well, so it was a joy to do really, you couldn't get enough of it. But it was exhausting cos I had to come straight back, I came back on Sunday, Sam Mendes had given me a couple of days off rehearsals of Habeas Corpus to go to Cannes, which was really good of him, so I had to catch up.
I hear that you're tipped for the best actress prize.
OOOhh, well it's nice to hear that I'm tipped. I'm sure there's going to be better actresses than me there, cos we were the first film (Secrets and Lies directed by Mike Leigh), so oh it would be nice, I must say, but just to get the reception that we did. I'd like Mike to win, I'd just love that, cos I'm proud of the film too, we all are. We can say that, because we work in such a particular way with Mike, there's no script and the characters are invented or created, when you sit and watch it you're kind of removed from it, it's not like an interpretation as with a scripted play, you can actually sit back and be objective about it and quite removed from it and decide whether it's a good film or not and we all think it is.
Now that surprises me because as I understand the way Mike works you all start off by improvising your characters.
Well it is improvised but not in the way that you understand improvisation to be, people think we get in front of the camera and make it up as we go along but that's not the case. What happens is that sort of on a one to one basis with Mike initially we invent a character and then work out the entire history of that character, right down to the nth detail.
What you see on camera is the original improvisations recreated, that's an acting job, recreating those scenes. Obviously some of the scenes, like the barbecue scene, took about eight or nine hours to do and in the film it's got about fifteen minutes, something like that, so Mike will take out the salient points, the poignant bits that's useful to his idea of what's happening, and we rehearse it, and once it's in front of the camera it's absolutely rock solid.
It really is a super cracking role. Normally you'd say, oh thank you to that writer for writing me such a smashing role. You can take a lot more of the credit can't you.
(Laughs) I do really feel rather protective, possessive about her, but it is, I must insist, it's in collaboration with Mike cos he ends up knowing the character better than you do really, but it is an invention, yes and it's really hard work. You imagine, you invent - I mean she was how old? - 44 - when you meet her in the film so you've gone through all that time and the family life and of course she's got the young brother Maurice who's four years younger, so there's their life together, they have their secrets from each other. She's known Monica for 18 years, so there's the relationship there through the time that she was introduced into the family...
That's Phyllis Logan, Tim Spall's wife.
Yes that's right, I think Tim - well I think everyone gives a wonderful performance and Tim, that scene with Tim, when he comes to visit and Cynthia is just at the end of her tether and says, "give me a cuddle Maurice", she thinks he is as happy as Larry, he's got his own business, he's got this beautiful home and this rather lardy wife, that's obviously what he wants and she's so happy for him but at the same time she laments the fact that she never sees him but she's still happy that he's happy and got it all together and she's sobbing into his chest and it's not until I see the film and I see the other side of that - Tim's face, it breaks my heart, cos I can see that he's not happy. Cynthia didn't know at the time, so there's all those revelations when we watch the film, it's weird.
You referred to working with Marianne. Between Cynthia and Hortense a delightful trusting relationship grows up. It occurred to me that if you hadn't created those two characters from inside yourself the way Mike Leigh worked, if you were just playing them from a script, it would be possible to play those two parts and really dislike each other. I don't think it would be possible working the way that you do. Am I right or wrong?
Well I was explaining to someone, if I watch something that I've been in on TV or film that's an interpretation of a script, I invariably think, ooh I've misread that line, I should have had a different inflection on that line or why am I looking in that way, I should have held my head up, things like that, but when I'm watching the work I've done with Mike Leigh, I'm not even in, I just know there was no other way to do it, it's organic, there is no other way to do it, if you look ugly that's how they look, ugly, so it's unquestionable, and that's what is so satisfying for an actor to work with him.
In many ways Cynthia is utterly, utterly ordinary as many of Mike's characters are, but what his work seems to me to be about as much as anything is, as soon as you scratch beneath the surface of any ordinary person, everybody is extraordinary.
Yes, they are, I agree with you. We're all individual, we all have frailties and foibles and secrets and histories and you know, we're all as interesting as each other.
Another aspect of the show, you were working with Timothy Spall, you mentioned earlier, whom of course you worked with on Outside Edge.
Yeah - oh I think he's wonderful. I'm a real fan of Tim.
Did you become mates on the TV series Outside Edge?
Oh we are mates, yes, we did. He's really good news. He lives near me anyway, he's a neighbour in South East London, so he's a real pal, his whole family are friends of mine, it's great.
This is only your third film which is not surprising, cos you live in England!
I know people say to me why have you only done three films, this is a wonderful film, I don't understand it, you're really good in it and they're very complimentary. Well the answer to that is I've only been offered three.
So you took them all, you're not fussy!
I took all three of them, yeah. I mean, touch wood, I haven't been out of work. I've worked mainly in theatre, TV, radio and I'm fortunate enough to switch from one to the other and I've been very lucky in my career. People say, oh it's not luck, it's all talent, don't be stupid and modest, but there's that, I work hard, I do my job, I turn up on time and know the lines, things like that, but there's a lot of people could do that and I'm lucky that I am doing it.
You were in The Witches.
I was blonde in that. I was Bill Paterson's wife. Mai Zetterling's grandson gets turned into a mouse and his friend, the little fat one, was our son, the Jenkins son and she's petrified of mice, so when the son turns up in her handbag in the form of a mouse...
And in River Runs Through It you played Tom Skerrett's wife, Brad Pitt's mother. Now there were only two decent female parts in that. One was the young woman, played by a Brit, Emily Lloyd, the other was the wife, played by a Brit, you. Why did Robert Redford choose to cast two English women?
Emily, good actress, living in America and she had the right sassiness, that character was a bit sassy, maybe ahead of her time, unconventional and that's what he needed for that character and she was dead right for it, wasn't she good. As regards me, I was doing a play off Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club and just when he happened to be casting the film and a friend of his saw it and said, hey you should see this girl for the film, she'd be right. So he hadn't seen it and I sent a showreel and on it there was a piece of a play I'd done for BBC Scotland directed by Bill Bryden, which was a David Mamet play, The Shawl, obviously American accent.
Whether that was the piece that decided him or not I don't know, but I was offered the job, I couldn't believe it. When I got there, thinking it was a Scottish role, he says, (in American accent as Redford) "oh no, we're all going to be American, it's going to be non-regional and we're just gonna go with that." And I thought, 'ooh blimey'. So I spent a week down in the town just hanging out in listening to the locals chatting away and getting into as much conversation as I could to get the accent, but that's how that came about, yeah. It was more reacting in that film, it wasn't a great role, but on reading the novella (on which it was based) the mother's rarely referred to, so the way it was structured in the film, the focus on her, was accurate.
How did you feel when told, Robert Redford wants you for a film Brenda?
Ah well I nearly fainted, in fact I thought it was a joke. I actually did think it was a joke, I still do. He's a really interesting man, good director, appreciative, totally approachable, polite and fun to be with - he was great -highly intelligent and I liked him a lot.
I have an instinct that after this you're going to be pretty much the hot thing, after how many years in theatre?
Oh gosh, over 20. I don't know, I often think people just - I'll probably have piles of scripts of poor unfortunate women but I don't know, I'm so pleased with Cynthia, that might be my swan song in that department, unless Mike calls upon me again.
In (your current play) Habeas Corpus, Jim Broadbent plays your husband and Imelda Staunton plays Mrs Swabb the cleaning lady.
She's delightful. In fact she was in the film I've just finished called Remember Me that Nick Hurron, director of Outside Edge directed, his first feature and that's a Michael Frayn script and that's farce. People are saying that's the last comedy to come out of Ealing studios but I hope that's not the case.
What's it about?
The character I play is a very middle class
lady about to go off on a boating trip with her husband, James Fleet, and
they're in their fourwheel drive and they've got the boat on the back and
to break the journey they call in to see the family just for a nap but
there's all hell let loose in the house. There's Imelda and Rick Mayall
and Bob Lindsay and a young actress who you must keep your eye on who's
just wonderful, called Natalie Walter. Quite splendid and she's in Habeas
Corpus with us as well. There's a farcical situation going on into
which we arrive halfway through the film to
So you've got another film, you're becoming quite a film star now.
Yes I've done the four now.
Going back to Outside Edge, as we haven't really talked about it much and it's probably what most people know you for cos it was a terrific success.
Yes huge, I just thought all the ingredients were fortunate enough to be good and Richard Harris the writer turned out some lovely stuff. And, with Nick Hurron directing, it never went into a sitcommy kind of thing, he never encouraged anyone to be gross, he just wanted the honesty to come through and let the comedy take care of itself. Beautifully shot, well cast ...
Are you disappointed there won't be another series?
Yes I am rather. I mean onwards and upwards but we had such fun and we became very close, Bob and Josie and Tim and I and everybody else.
Anything lined up after Habeas Corpus?
No I suppose there are hopes for that to go somewhere else but immediately after that of course Secrets and Lies will be going to America and it's been intimated that they'd like me to go and promote that. It was terribly funny walking along the seafront in Cannes, the Croisette, I actually burst out laughing at one point because you hear like these clichés that if you go to Cannes scripts are thrust at you and two people came and said, "I have a script for you, Miss Blethyn, can you read this script", I said. "send it to my agent." You've got to laugh haven't you, I don't believe any of it till I see it. I always think the job I'm doing's the last one I'm likely to do. I can't see further than the end of my nose.
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