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