In Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s biopic of the British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), the artist finds true love late in life in Sophia Booth, the no nonsense landlady of his seaside retreat in Margate. Leigh also found love later in life with Marion Bailey, 63, the veteran actress who portrays Mrs. Booth. Timothy Spall’s take on the eccentric artist nabbed him the best actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and since then, Oscar-watchers also have been buzzing about Bailey’s portrayal of earthy Mrs. Booth, who does not let losing two husbands keep her from opening her big heart one more time to the often surly Turner.

After Cannes, critics and awards prognosticators started mentioning not just Timothy Spall’s name, but your own. How does it feel to be part of the Oscar chatter at this stage of your career?

You can’t take too much notice of all that because you are setting yourself up for disappointment, but it’s obviously very exciting. And it has to be said, for a woman of my age, that’s pretty rare and very exciting and wonderful, isn’t it? It’s unusual, and I say, “Bring it on.” There’s an audience out there that wants to see love affairs between older people and the life that goes on. It’s more acceptable for guys to get old and craggy and become wonderful character actors as they get older, but women aren’t allowed to get old and craggy in the same way. It’s about time for that, really.

Was there much material available to you in researching this real-life character?

No, and what there was was slightly contradictory. Some biographers didn’t like her very much and found it slightly embarrassing that the great man had been with a woman who was illiterate, and working class, and apparently rather garrulous. But other people said she sort of saved him, and was very warm and looked after him. Obviously Mike (Leigh) and I decided to go with that option of her as a warm, good person who did look after him.

Marion Bailey and Timothy Spall
Bailey and Turner portray a silver romance in Mike Leigh’s biopic of painter J.M.W. Turner.

Mrs. Booth seems pretty good at seeing the man beneath a very rumpled exterior.

I think she could see the human being, but I think she must have had some instinct about the art as well. She wasn’t literate, but maybe if it was these days, and she was living the life of a modern woman, she might have gone to art school.

Writer/director Leigh makes a practice of developing the script through improvisation with the actors. How does that work?

Once the camera rolls it is scripted, but as an actor you never see the script written down. You start with a completely blank sheet of paper, as it were. The lovely thing is when you arrive on the set with Mike, because of the way you’ve worked, that sort of preparation, it’s much more relaxing than the usual thing of arriving on set and thinking, “I don’t really know why they cast me, or what they want, and I hope when I open my mouth they’re pleased with the way I’m doing it.”

You’ve had a long professional collaboration with Leigh, including the films Meantime, All or Nothing and Vera Drake. How long have you been romantically involved?

We’ve been together for a few years. It did take us a long time to get ’round to it. (Laughs.) We met back in 1979. I was doing a little fringe theater job with (director Adrian Shergold) who said he had this friend, Mike Leigh, and he had this way of improvising things. He said, “You should come and do this play with me, and we’ll improvise it like Mike does.” Mike came to see that play and that was when we first met. About two years after that we first worked together (on the West End theater play Goosepimples) and I took to (the improvisation) like a duck to water. It was a fabulous way of working.

Mrs. Booth had a first name, Sophia, but she was usually called Mrs. Booth.

That was kind of the thing when you read novels of the period, when you read Dickens, the Georgian era. What was interesting about the film is that it slides from Georgian England into Victorian England. Georgian England was very radical, there were all these new revolutionary ideas, and I think women had more freedom than they did later on. In Victorian England, people were told they should discourage their wives from reading because it would lead them into all sorts of devilish wickedness. I did a feminist play at the National Theatre over Christmas called Blurred Lines, inspired by a book by a young feminist. I read this book and I thought it was great, but, hey, I read this book in the 1980s, by someone else, and we’re still having to fight this fight.

Where are we now?

For every two steps forward, it seems we take one and a half back. Young girls, when they pose for their selfies, and with their friends, and the way they dress, it almost seems as if they have to aspire to a style that is a bit of a soft porn star. We’re having another little backlash somehow.

Photograph and video of Bailey photographed by Mark Mann

Below, Bailey discusses Mrs. Booth in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner:

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