THE FACE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - SANDY GE­ORGE meets BRENDA BLETHYN Ac­tor

BRENDA Blethyn is a neat lit­tle pack­age phys­i­cally but she packs a punch: a punch­line, that is. She con­stantly tells anec­dotes about her act­ing ca­reer or grow­ing up in Rams­gate, Kent. She can’t help find­ing hu­mour in ev­ery­thing, she says, and blames her par­ents.

‘‘ We had very, very lit­tle when we were kids grow­ing up but mum and dad, es­pe­cially mum, would al­ways find some­thing to laugh at,’’ says Blethyn, the last of nine chil­dren. ‘‘ Once I was late meet­ing her. ‘ I’m ever so sorry, Mum, but a group of peo­ple stopped me for my au­to­graph and a pho­to­graph,’ I said. ‘ Cor, isn’t that mar­vel­lous, who did they think you were, then?’ she replied.’’

Blethyn is a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to Aus­tralia, lately due to her star­ring role in the Aus­tralian film Club­land, which opened on Thurs­day and goes into US cine­mas next week.

Blethyn plays Jean Dwight, who works in a fac­tory can­teen by day and en­ter­tains RSL club pa­trons by night with a pat­ter full of bawdy jokes. The English ac­tor’s nat­u­ral abil­ity for the en­ter­tain­ing quip makes her seem per­fect for the role, so it is sur­pris­ing to hear her say it was her most chal­leng­ing yet on film.

‘‘ It re­quired me to do stand- up com­edy and if you’re not used to do­ing that it can be hard to con­vince an au­di­ence,’’ Blethyn says. ‘‘ I had to work hard to get into the mind- set. And as well as the quick- fire repar­tee, there was the singing.’’

One rea­son peo­ple leave Club­land smil­ing is be­cause it ends with Jean belt­ing out Nut­bush City Lim­its with the ex- hus­band she blames for derail­ing her ca­reer. ( Blethyn has been in a re­la­tion­ship with art di­rec­tor Michael May­hew for decades but tells any­one will­ing to lis­ten that Frankie J. Holden, who plays her ex, would be an ex­cel­lent catch.) Blethyn sang with Kevin Spacey in Be­yond the Sea, the biopic of singer Bobby Darin, but has rarely sung pro­fes­sion­ally.

‘‘ I kept say­ing to Cherie Nowlan [ Club­land ’ s di­rec­tor], ‘ You know I can’t sing, don’t you?’, and she would say, ‘ Yes, you can, I’ve heard you’, and I’d say, ‘ Read my lips, I can’t sing’,’’ says Blethyn who, against the wishes of the sound team, in­sisted on hear­ing the first record­ing. ‘‘ It was ter­ri­ble, but it meant any in­hi­bi­tions went out the win­dow and I just let rip.’’

Brenda Anne Bot­tle was born in 1946, nine months af­ter World War II ended. She had an ex­tra fin­ger and the doc­tor who re­moved it said he was sure she would turn out to be a film star. ‘‘ If he knew I was go­ing to be a sec­re­tary he prob­a­bly would have left it there,’’ she likes to joke, be­cause she was first em­ployed as an of­fice worker. She mar­ried young — the name Blethyn came from her hus­band — but the union didn’t last once he fell for some­one else.

Af­ter get­ting in­volved in ama­teur theatre and study­ing at the Guild­ford School of Act­ing, Blethyn was on the Lon­don stage by the mid1970s. She never dreamed she would have an in­ter­na­tional film ca­reer, she says, but that all changed af­ter she agreed to play Cyn­thia Rose Pur­ley in Mike Leigh’s 1996 film Se­crets & Lies.

Her per­for­mance as a work­ing- class wo­man who gets the shock of her life when she dis­cov­ers the daugh­ter she adopted out years ear­lier is black won many awards, in­clud­ing a Golden Globe, the best ac­tress prize at the Cannes film fes­ti­val and an Os­car nom­i­na­tion.

Blethyn’s film roles since then in­clude the loud- mouthed, man- eat­ing Mari Hoff in Lit­tle Voice, the dope- grow­ing widow in Sav­ing Grace and the an­noy­ing Mrs Ben­net in the 2005 ver­sion of Pride & Prej­u­dice .

‘‘ An Amer­i­can ac­tress once asked me, af­ter Lit­tle Voice, how I get th­ese fan­tas­tic roles. ‘ Let’s put it this way,’ I said to her, ‘ if you were of­fered Mari, would you have done it?’ She thought about it and then said, ‘ You know what, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be­cause I have such an im­age to main­tain.’ ’’

Blethyn says she is de­void of am­bi­tion, doesn’t care if she is of­fered leads or sup­port­ing roles and does ev­ery­thing to the best of her abil­ity.

It is an at­ti­tude that helps keep her in work. Blethyn has re­cently had roles in the com­ing fea­ture adap­ta­tion of Ian McEwan’s novel Atone­ment; the docu­d­rama Mys­te­ri­ous Crea­tures, about a cou­ple deal­ing with a daugh­ter with Asperger’s syn­drome; and an am­bi­tious minis­eries retelling of Leo Tol­stoy’s War and Peace.

She will be back in Aus­tralia later in the year to tour with Si­grid Thorn­ton — each will per­form a mono­logue from Alan Ben­nett’s play Talk­ing Heads — but hopes first to squeeze in a Bri­tish film, The Call­ing, set in her home town.

She will have to drop out if pro­duc­tion doesn’t start soon be­cause she com­mit­ted to a theatre tour 18 months ago and is not the type to ‘‘ mess peo­ple about’’.

Blethyn knew pro­ducer Rose­mary Blight — they worked to­gether on In the Win­ter Dark — be­fore sign­ing on for Club­land. She did not know Nowlan but they got on like a house on fire and Blethyn now uses ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to sing Nowlan’s praises.

‘‘ I am a work­ing- class girl and I have to feel that I have the di­rec­tor’s to­tal con­fi­dence for me to be creative,’’ Blethyn says. ‘‘ Oth­er­wise I try and sec­ond guess what they want all the time and spend all my ef­fort try­ing to work that out in­stead of just do­ing the part.

‘‘ Cherie had ex­pe­ri­enced ac­tors such as me, Re­becca Gib­ney, Frankie J. Holden and a slew of re­ally young sparkling fresh tal­ent, and she gave us all the same kind of re­spect and space to be creative. At the same time you knew she was com­pletely and to­tally on top of it all and un­der­stood the world.’’ Then she grins: ‘‘ She would spoil some takes be­cause she would burst out laugh­ing.’’

Club­land screen­writer Keith Thompson has lived in Aus­tralia for many years but grew up in Dover, near Rams­gate. The char­ac­ter of Jean was based on his mother, who had a dance band, but he al­ways en­vis­aged Blethyn in the role.

The ac­tor didn’t know that when she first read the script five years ago: ‘‘ I got that in­for­ma­tion later and it was like get­ting an elec­tric shock, it was so flat­ter­ing.’’

Some movie­go­ers will judge Jean very harshly for how she copes or, more ac­cu­rately, doesn’t cope, when the eldest of her two sons ac­quires a girl­friend. Blethyn doesn’t have chil­dren but, judg­ing by how quickly she leaps to Jean’s defence and how adamantly she pro­claims she is a good mother, you would think she does.

‘‘ She only wants what’s best for her son, and in his pre­vi­ous re­la­tion­ships his heart was bro­ken and his busi­ness suf­fered,’’ in­sists Blethyn, adding that ac­tors must never judge or think they are above their char­ac­ters. ‘‘ Some­one asked: ‘ Was Jean jeal­ous?’ Ab­so­lutely not . . . She feels the car­ni­val has passed her by but she doesn’t re­sent her boys for that.’’

Blethyn thought the pub­lish­ers were kid­ding when they first ap­proached her about writ­ing a mem­oir, pub­lished as Mixed Fan­cies. She agreed to but, af­ter two years, hadn’t writ­ten a word and of­fered to send the money back.

‘‘ But I loved writ­ing it in the end be­cause it was ther­a­peu­tic,’’ she says. ‘‘ You learn things you didn’t know be­fore. The more you think about things, the greater you un­der­stand them.’’

David Stratton’s re­view of Club­land

Pic­ture: Bob Fin­layson

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