I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Brenda Blethyn won the 1996 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or for best Actress for her tour de force in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies . It’s well deserved; Blethyn’s emotional portrayal of a working-class woman facing huge upheavals in her life is raw and brave without being sentimental or discreet. The entire ensemble production under Leigh’s unique use of improvisation, rides upon her ability to let her character rise and fall, fail and ultimately find peace. Blethyn played a supporting role in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It , but is best known to English audiences as a stage actress with the Royal National Theatre and for her television series, Outside Edge , for which she won Best Comedy actress in 1994. We met at her house in London the day after I watched her performance from backstage (the house was sold out) in Alan Bennett’s play, Habeus Corpus .
Michael Collins Is Secrets and Lies your first film with Mike Leigh?
Brenda Blethyn I worked with him 16 years ago in Grown Ups, a film for the BBC, so I knew the procedure.
MC What was your role in that film?
BB The film’s about a young couple who moves into a Council house which happens to be next door to a private home where their two old teachers live. I was the older sister of the girl in the Council house who kept visiting the teachers, driving them crazy, making cups of tea. A bit of a parasite.
MC So your role as Cynthia in Secrets and Lies is only the second time you’ve worked together?
BB Mike had asked for me in the interim, but foolishly I chose to do a television series (which had in fact been written for me). I consider that to be one of the mistakes of my career. So when Mike asked me to do Secrets and Lies after such a long break, I leapt at the chance. I should have worked with him and not done the TV. Anyway, just the fact that you’ve realized you’ve dropped a clanger is healthy. I’ve just finished another television series, Outside Edge. It’s a wonderful comedy series, revolving around amateur cricket, with Timothy Spall. It’s won several awards over here.
MC Timothy Spall plays your brother in Secrets and Lies. You know Mike and Timothy very well then?
BB Oh yeah. I got home from work one day in Nottingham, and Mike, who I hadn’t spoken to for some time, phoned. I went, “Hello,” and he said, “are you going to be in my film or not then?” The bugger. I thought I’d won the lottery. And Tim’s one of my best friends. He lives just around the corner from me. We seem to have been joined at the hip for the last three years since we’ve been working on the cricket series…and then the film, which took ten months to complete. We’re buddies—I’m friends with his whole family.
MC In the film there was such a close relationship between the two of you.
BB That would have been there anyway because of the work process, even if we were strangers. You know how Mike works, don’t you? You know there’s no script?
MC I knew there was improvisation, but no script at all?
BB There’s no script. Neither do we know what it’s about. If he’s got an idea in his head, he doesn’t say. Neither is there a title, so no clues at all.
MC No idea at all?
MC How does he introduce the character to you?
BB He doesn’t. You just talk about characters in general (on a one-to-one basis with Mike). It can take a week, a fortnight, a month … in my case I think it was about three weeks. You talk about characteristics, about how people lead their lives, what drives them, making certain assumptions about them, and then eventually he will decide the starting point for the character and from there we work out a complete history of that person from infancy, down to what’s considered their earliest memory, their home life, what they consider their parents’ attitudes towards them … You work in the minutest of details, a daily log building up to the present day. And meanwhile Timothy is also working out his early background with Mike on a one-to-one basis. Then, as a threesome, we sometimes work on the relationships.
Cynthia, my character, is four years older than Maurice, her brother, so she was four in this process when he was only a baby. We create the parents as well, even though by the time the events in the film take place, they’re both dead—Did they like savory foods? What was the bed linen like? How often was it changed? Did we remember the smell of the father’s tobacco? This is a real painstaking protest. Protest! (laughter) Process.
So the character you first thought of is just a honing point to come back to all the time, so that you’re not just making something up for the sake of it. Everything relates. Everything is organic. I should emphasize that we are not recreating that person, we are inventing a new person.
MC Hemingway said anything you omit that you know about is still in the writing and its quality will show. But when a writer omits things he doesn’t know, then the holes show in his writing.
BB Yes, that’s the process. When you’re doing an improvisation, people think actors are making things up as they go along. In fact, we’re not making anything up at all. We’re simply acting and reacting as that character would do in any given situation. And that’s the way Mike Leigh works—all those things that you don’t see in the film are the things which make those people breathe. He’s a genius, in my opinion. He does not leave a single stone unturned. He sounds like a task master, which he is rather. But he’s got the most wonderful sense of humor. He can destroy an improvisation by just bursting out with laughter. You have a laugh working with him. He’s such a perceptive, clever, lucid man.
MC He starts out with characters on the edge, and makes them come together. It’s like an explanation of how we live, isn’t it? He has a loving way of looking at life.
BB Oh, he absolutely loves those people. But he is the only one who is privy to all the facts, all the strands. Here’s an example—You saw in the film that Cynthia hadn’t seen Morris, her brother, in a couple of years. He hadn’t even had her up to see his new house. She lives in a working class neighborhood and works a factory job. And she truly believes that he’s got the Life of Riley—wonderful happy home life, a thriving business, beautiful wife … She adores Morris. Their mother died when she was only ten and Morris was six, and she almost loves him like a mother loves a son. And she’s so happy that he’s happy because she’s such a generous person. But at the same time, she’s got a heavy sadness because he’s excluded her from his life. So that first time in the bedroom, when he comes to visit after so many years, it just crushes her. She says, “Give us a cuddle, Morris.” She wants some of the happiness to wash off onto her. And she genuinely believes that he’s happy, and glad for him. It’s not until I saw the film in the cinema, and that look on his face—that pain! It broke my heart. Cynthia had got it so wrong!
MC I think Cynthia is a wonderful role model because she’s almost resentful of her brother’s success on some levels. She’s had tragedy and she’s living through it.
BB Even when she was a very little girl, she was helping people. She’s very, very generous. She has a talent for it. Even hanging out in the street as a child, she’d look after somebody’s baby or she’d do someone’s shopping. The tragedy, when you meet her in the film, is that she’s got all this generous concern but nobody wants it, least of all her daughter Roxanne.
MC That terrible scene about contraception.
BB (laughter) It makes me roar when I watch it.
MC It’s an absolute joy at the end when she’s making tea for her daughters in the garden, which is very much like the end of Mike Leigh’s earlier film, Life is Sweet.
BB It was very hard work making Secrets and Lies. It was a nightmare, to be honest. You live the character for the duration of six, seven months, then film it for three months. Of course once you’re filming, you’re recreating, it’s much simpler. It’s purely an acting job. You’re recreating what happened in the improvisation. Some of those improvisations were so painfully, emotionally draining. But of course once we’re in front of the camera we know exactly what we’re going to do. There’s no surprise from anyone. A script from the improvisations is written down. The actors don’t see it, but it’s needed for the technicians to do rehearsals. They’re doing conventional filmmaking and it has to be absolutely precise.
MC It’s strange because I generally prefer film to theater. I prefer things to be understated rather than overstated. And yet, in Mike Leigh’s films there is this element of theatricality to the characters. They’re large, almost exaggerated. It’s as if you took the individual instruments from an orchestra—they sound a bit odd on their own. But together, they’re the sum of their parts. They blend into this big production. And that’s how I’ve always thought of Mike Leigh films. And yet, I don’t know who I’m talking to, Cynthia or you, because the character was so …
BB Oh, she’s much nicer than I am. (laughter)
MC She seemed like a product of you.
BB You feel like you know her because you’ve spent two evenings with her. I’m nothing like her, except that I’m 5’2” with brown eyes.
MC And you’ve got the same voice.
BB And yeah, my body’s the same. But certainly my vocabulary is better than hers. And my accent’s different than hers.
MC Yes, but there must be characteristics of you in her to have brought her out like that.
BB Well, if Mike Leigh has got a germ of an idea, he employs people to act in it who would have some knowledge of that garden. It will either be a vegetable or a flower garden. So if it’s going to be a flower garden he’s going to pick some pansies and chrysanthemums. He’s not going to pick carrots and turnips. I’m from a working-class background, so I’m familiar with that way of life. Nobody in my family is like those people, but I know the struggles they have. I’m aware of them and have been privy to them.
MC I don’t mean in terms of history, it’s the way you pause and frown when you think. Cynthia did exactly the same sort of things.
BB Maybe I simply can’t see that my traits are the same as hers. My experiences in life are completely different than hers, yet I recognize her or I wouldn’t have been able to play the part convincingly.
MC In the film Cynthia had the kind of role that urged things on. The audience is behind her all the way, like wanting her to ring up Hortense, the daughter she put up for adoption.
BB Well, that simply came about out of her deep feeling of guilt, the terrible fear and panic in that initial phone call from Hortense. The child rearing its head, when nobody knew about it. And she was so upset when she went to the hospital to have the baby that she couldn’t look at the child, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to give it up. She had no choice. I mean that terrible, terrible fear that she went through makes her chuck up at the sink. And then, her guilt that here’s this girl that she was responsible for bringing into the world, and all the girl is asking is to meet her. It’s the least she can do. So when she sees this black girl standing there, the relief that there’s obviously been a mistake—but it was coupled with disappointment. But then you could ask yourself, what would her reaction have been if Hortense had phoned on an ordinary evening when Cynthia hadn’t been pushed over and called a slag by her other daughter. She was just at rock bottom.
MC Not only did it make it believable, but it made it forgivable and real. There was nothing euphemistic about any of the characters.
BB I’m glad you thought it was real. That was our job, to convince you of that. Because of course once you’re in front of the camera, which is the only thing you see, it’s simply an acting job. You know, say, a light blows, you’ve got to do it again. So you do it again. And if we’ve convinced you to the point where you think that the characters are real, that’s pretty pleasing. We must have done it rather well.
MC It’s also allowing it to be real, which must come from some personal empathy for what you’re doing. A belief in what you’re doing. You kept calling people sweetheart. Where did you come up with that? How did that fit in with your character?
BB Just to be pedantic for a moment, I didn’t call people sweetheart, Cynthia did. She just uses terms of endearment for everyone, even strangers. It’s a shortcut. It’s also regional.
MC Do you ever get nervous or paranoid working in this way?
BB Yes, sometimes. You just don’t know at the beginning who your character is going to be. There’s no script as I said, and you don’t know what the story is, and neither do you know how you are going to feature in the overall scheme of things. No idea. I spent so much time on my own. When Cynthia went to meet her adopted daughter, Hortense, I didn’t know the actress who played her, Marianne Jean-Baptiste. We hadn’t met. There was, prior to making the film, a company call. There were lots of people there and we didn’t see each other. So when this girl approached me in the film and said, “Excuse me, are you Cynthia?” it was genuine.
MC And of course by that time in the film the audience knows that you are mother and daughter.
BB Yes, she’s wonderful company, Marianne—a bunch of tricks. She’s so talented, ritzy, funny.
MC So much “art” about England today is angry and cynical. The English are cynical about each other, especially about class. And that doesn’t come across in the film. It’s not cynical.
BB I was talking to an Australian journalist the other day, on the telephone, and we talked about Cynthia’s always saying sweetheart, and he said, “Oh do you do that as your party piece now? Say sweetheart? I bet you have terrific parties.” I said, “No, I don’t. I wouldn’t do it. I’ve got too much respect for Cynthia. I wouldn’t make fun of her. I like her.”
MC I was talking to Fred Zimmerman a while ago, and he said to me that there has to be a sense of resolution in film, and often there isn’t these days. The end of Secrets and Lies is totally mundane, nothing really happens, and yet it’s a triumph. It’s the kind of film that makes you feel better about life, isn’t it? It validates all sides of humanity, not just the supposed good side. And it is that understanding in his films that give them their depth. I wonder what the American audience is going to make of Secrets and Lies. It is a very English film.
BB I don’t know. The Americans that we met in Cannes were very enthusiastic about it, loved it. But I haven’t actually seen it yet with a paying crowd, people off the street buying tickets. I have had so many letters from people, people coming out of the woodwork, people I’d forgotten about, letters from strangers as well. I often do anyway from television work or the theater, but from this film I’ve had hundreds of letters. People saying how moved they were and how much they liked everybody in it, how funny and sad it was all at the same time, and that feeling of warmth and optimism that they get from it in the end. That’s really nice. I think, “I was in that.” It’s an important film. Can you imagine, how on earth Mike Leigh ever got off the ground? Going to people and saying, “Oh, um, can you give me a few million? I’d like to make a film please ” “Oh, well let’s read the script.” “There is no script.” “Oh, well, what’s it about?” “I don’t know.” “Then who’s in it?” “Oh, no one you’ve ever heard of …” But there he is, he’s done it! I used to get letters from people who had learned whole sections of his film Grown-Ups. I have a letter from one young boy from Essex who was about 15 or 16, and once a month his whole family dressed up as the characters and re-enacted scenes. And he made lots and lots of little plasticene figures of the characters, photographed them and sent them to me. He said, “This is Dick and Mandy, sitting on the sofa. This is Mr. Butcher.” They were all really well made. All of them like a little scene. There was a picture of himself dressed as Gloria. He said that it would be really wonderful if I could find the time to go down and act out one of the scenes with them. Can you imagine if I were hanging out with my friends and one of them said, “Where are you going?” “Oh, I’m going out to Essex, I have to act out a little bit, be Gloria for the evening.” (laughter) Who knows why people enjoy things so much?
sMC So now you’re acting in Sam Mendes’ production of Habeus Corpus at London’s Donmar Warehouse. What will you be doing when that ends?
BB Well, I’m going to have a rest first of all, a bit of a holiday. And then start on the promotions for the film. And then start work again, I suppose. I’ve got a few scripts at home to read now, film scripts. And I’ve been offered some more theater. West End theater. I’d like to do some more film first off. People say to me, why have you only done four films? Well, I’ve only been offered four … But it was nice doing the Robert Redford film.
MC Who were you in A River Runs Through It?
BB I was Brad Pitt’s mother. I got that because I was in a play in New York and a friend of Redford’s saw me in it—Redford was just about to cast that film—and he said, “Oh, you really need to see this British girl.” The character’s parents are second generation Presbyterian Scots, so being a Brit was fine. When I got there one of the first things Redford said was, “It’s a bit weird. Can you play an American?” I thought, “Oh, I dunno.” So I boned up for a couple of weeks in a local town, Livingston, Montana.
MC What did you do, just hang out and listen to people speak?
BB Yes. I quite enjoy doing accents anyway. I once did this spoof investigative program for BBC Radio Four with Stephen Fry and Tony Robinson. We never knew until we got to the studio which part of the country we were coming from. It was a bit hairy sometimes, especially if it was Northumberland, because that’s one accent I find tricky. So yeah, I boned up on the American accent. When A River Runs Through It opened in New York I was introduced to some journalists by the PR person who said, “Brenda Blethyn is the mother.” They said to me, (imitates an American accent) “Oh gee, you must be real proud of your little boys in this film.” The PR person explained, “No no no. She’s not the real mother, she plays the mother in the film.” Then they said, “What? How can she, she’s English!” So I was quite flattered about that, you know, a little back-handed compliment.
MC What else have you been in?
BB Remember Me, a film that I just finished before doing Habeus Corpus, but that won’t be out yet, and Nick Roeg’s Witches.
MC What’s it like working with Nick Roeg?
BB He’s a very funny man.
MC Is he?
BB A really droll sense of humor. I liked him a lot. We filmed in Cornwall—a big hotel way out on the headland … We were asking each other what our rooms were like. He said he’d only got this tiny little window, sort of up in a turret, and the room suddenly went all dark. When he looked around at the window, this massive seagull had walked along the parapet and was looking in, it completely filled the whole window.
MC Seagulls are bigger than you think, aren’t they?
BB I’ve got a flat in Folkstone, a town on South Coast, and there are huge seagulls there. We saw one fly by once with a Quarter Pounder in its big gob. He’d pinched it from somebody’s picnic …
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee