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Lesley Manville on being evil in Citadel and what drives her after so many decades in the business

'My job is to convince people that I can be somebody that I am not'

Priyanka Roy  Published 09.05.23, 07:40 AM
Lesley Manville

Lesley Manville Sourced by the correspondent

Lesley Manville is someone I hugely admire and getting to speak to the British actor is an opportunity that, for me, has ‘jackpot’ written all over it! Starting out in her teens, the BAFTA, Laurence Olivier Award and Academy Award nominee has crafted a prolific career across the mediums of cinema, TV and theatre, and has also been honoured with the CBE, the highest-ranking Order of the British Empire award (excluding a knighthood/damehood).

Manville has played a variety of roles in her illustrious career, her most successful collaborations being with film-maker Mike Leigh. And now the 67-year-old actor plays the chillingly evil Dahlia Archer, the chief antagonist, in Prime Video’s tentpole spy series Citadel, which is front lined by Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jonas.

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Over a cross-continental Zoom call, The Telegraph chatted with Manville on being spectacularly wicked in Citadel, how she warmed to Priyanka instantly and why she ‘must get a little bit more of India in her’.

You have done evil before, but you are spectacularly wicked in Citadel. Has it been fun?

I did enjoy it. You pick parts because you want to play a character and I did enjoy playing Dahlia. But it doesn’t always mean that the process of playing a character ends up as good as it turned out on Citadel. And that was because I had a great team — Joe Russo (who functions as executive producer on the series, with brother Anthony) is a fantastic director and I felt that the collaboration between us and how he chose to shoot the scenes with Dahlia was really very exciting. He had a lot to play with. Her (Dahlia’s) speeches may be short, but there is a sort of theatricality to them. Joe was able to shoot them in a way that served the menacing tone of her character and the words she had to say.

So yes, it’s a great character to play, but as I mentioned earlier, a great character doesn’t always mean that you have a great time doing it. However, I really, really loved the experience of filming Citadel because I felt that I was in very, very good hands.

I hope Dahlia is not anything like you, but did you tap into any part of yourself to play her?

My job is to convince people that I can be somebody that I am not. That is what interests me about my job... to get into the skin and bones of somebody else. Dahlia is clearly a powerful, autonomous, single-minded woman and I am pretty sorted myself and I like to make my own rules. But, obviously, I don’t go around shooting people! (Laughs) Or having people tortured... I draw the line at that (smiles).

Purely as a viewer, are you a fan of the high-octane, high-stakes spy genre?

It’s not something that I have watched a lot of in the past. But I do like a good thriller. The wonderful thing about Citadel is that every aspect of it is so well executed. Costumes, hair and make-up, scripts, shooting... the CGI work is quite out of this world.

So I am warming to it (the genre). It’s not the kind of thing that I necessarily gravitate to as a viewer, but having made Citadel and been on that side of it, I am certainly enjoying watching the series.

What largely happens with titles in this genre is that storytelling is sacrificed at the altar of style, spectacle and sass. Citadel is different in that regard. What is it about the writing that leapt out at you when you first heard it?

You are absolutely right. It can be a rather empty, vacuous genre. It has to be backed up by a really good script and with good acting and direction. Otherwise, it’s just a sequence of events, fights and special effects... which is not the experience that you want.

I could see from the way it was written that Citadel was meaty... it has something to say. And, of course, I was impressed by the cast involved, which included actors that I have admired. I also felt that I could bring something to this.

And as I told you earlier, I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed the whole process and how brilliant it was to work with Jo Russo. He got what I was doing with Dahlia and he supported that idea of mine in a cinematography kind of way.

(L-R) Stanley Tucci, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Richard Madden and Lesley Manville at the London premiere of Citadel

(L-R) Stanley Tucci, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Richard Madden and Lesley Manville at the London premiere of Citadel

What has it been like working with Priyanka Chopra Jonas who plays the central character of Nadia Sinh?

What a spectacular lady, and what a performer! You all must be extremely proud of her. She has achieved so much and I liked her hugely. We warmed to each other very quickly when we first met. I am full of admiration for her. She’s a fantastic lady... and what a beauty as well!

It’s been five decades for you in the business of acting. What still drives you?

Playing different characters, really, And that’s key for me because I could get bored if I was just a ‘personality actor’ who played themselves all the time. Lots of people do that and they are brilliant at it, but that’s not something that is particularly my thing.

In my youth, I spent a lot of time in theatre, and continue to do a lot of work there. And there is no doubt about the fact that you learn more doing a play than anything else. Because of my extensive work with the director Mike Leigh (the duo have made eight films together so far), I have played a huge variety of characters. That’s what gets me up in the morning... playing different people — from a sweet character like Mrs Harris in Mrs Harris Goes to Paris (2022) to the horrible Dahlia Archer. Just mixing it up... that’s what keeps me interested. I could get bored very quickly if I play the same person all the time. But I don’t.

You had once said that what you do as an actor in front of the camera is a sum total of your experiences off it. Is there anything that you do in life, any aspect of it, that contributes vastly to you as an actor?

Well, I think it almost happens without you knowing it. If you are open and receptive to the world and you don’t create a rarefied existence for yourself or set yourself apart from the rest of the human race and are always interacting with and observing other people... then you automatically have an antenna of sorts. I have always been alert to people and human conditions and emotional situations and how people behave and react or just observe others, which is not something that one can consciously go about doing. Subconsciously, I am always absorbing things. Ultimately, that’s my job... to look at life, to look at characters as accurately as I can, depict them and tell their stories.

Have you been to India?

No, I haven’t! I did a stopover in Bombay once a long, long time ago. I am a bit ashamed to say that I haven’t been to India, especially when lots of my friends have. And they talk about it so much. One really can’t go to India for just two weeks... you need a year, really! I haven’t visited yet and I hope to put that right one of these days. Maybe I could be invited to do a film there... then that would be a very good reason to go there!

Have you watched anything coming out of India recently?

I do know that you make more films than any other country in the world, don’t you? I do think I need to get a little bit more of ‘India’ in my life in general!

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