Lesley Manville doesn't show up until about halfway through the slow-burn, '60s-set Western "Let Him Go," but the arrival of the platinum blonde Blanche Weboy is worth the wait.
The matriarch of a North Dakota gang saunters into the frame in a haze of cigarette smoke and overcooked pork chops to greet her visitors, played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. It is anything but welcoming and it's a true scene stealer.
The film, which opens in theaters nationwide Friday, is centered on a Montana couple (Lane and Costner), whose ex-daughter-in-law skips town with their grandson after marrying a new man. They set off to find them and get their 3-year-old grandson back. But Blanche, the mother of the new husband, has other plans.
"It's like Bette Davis embodied," Costner said of Manville. "She is a world class actress and completely killed it in a very difficult, very difficult scene to pull off. She just kind of ran over that scene in such a beautiful way. We were lucky. We needed that kind of dynamic. She had to control the moment and she did."
Blanche is the sort of role that doesn't come around very often. With over 45 years of experience on stage and in film and television, Manville is one of the most versatile performers around and has the luxury to pick and choose roles in her home country. But even she was "quite surprised" to get this script with an offer attached to play what she described in a recent interview as an unpleasant bad girl from North Dakota.
"Nothing gets me out of bed more excitedly in the morning than a character that's a million miles from me and not like the character that I have just played before or I'm going to play after," Manville said.
Plus, she'd get to share scenes with Costner and Lane.
"It was a no-brainer," she said.
She got to work on the accent and figuring out the look of Blanche, who she imagined would have modeled herself on the blonde bombshells of the 1930s and 40s who were on screen when she was a little younger.
"Even though she's in the middle of nowhere, those kinds of images would be very important to her. She still thinks she's got it. She still thinks she's fabulous and rocking this peroxide blond hair, even though she's got the telltale dark roots coming through," Manville said. "But I knew that you should also be able to kind of smell her. There's something a bit grubby about her."
Manville arrived for her scenes deep into production and she was a little nervous to work with Costner and Lane whose careers she's watched for decades.
"They're great actors, but they're also movie stars and that can be intimidating," she said. "Although I say very, very quickly on the heels of that statement that neither of them play that role. They don't do the movie star thing. They are workers like me."
The roll-your-sleeves-up mentality extended to the stunt work. When Manville saw that Costner was "throwing himself around" when things really start to escalate later in the film, she wanted to do it, too.
"I thought, yeah, I'm going to get down and dirty as well! If he can do it, I'm going to do it, too, having done none of it ever," Manville laughed. "I suddenly decided I was going to be the stunt girl. I was going to throw myself around. I was going to be handling that gun having never picked a gun up in my life. But I did have Kevin helping me. And I did it. And he said I did it really, really well and that he was actually quite scared."
They didn't even need to use her stunt double, which she is particularly proud of.
"I got to flex muscles that I haven't really flexed before," she said. "It was just thrilling."
Credit for her casting, she said, goes to director Thomas Bezucha, who also wrote the adaptation of Larry Watson's 2013 novel. But he had to fight for her and it's one she believes he wouldn't have won had she not gotten an Oscar nomination for Paul Thomas Anderson's "Phantom Thread." The 2017 film raised her profile in the U.S. and changed her career.
"Getting an Oscar nomination opens doors. It just does," she said. "And I'm enjoying the little door of America that's opened to me, but the criteria of what I choose to do will always be the same."
Manville is currently on location in Budapest shooting a new film, but she's also already thinking about her next big role: Princess Margaret in the final seasons of Netflix's "The Crown," a part which will raise her global profile even more. That shoot is still a ways off, but she has been re-watching the first few seasons on her Sundays off with a little more focus on her predecessors.
"I've got to pick up the baton from Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham Carter," she said. "And what a baton that is because they've both been amazing."