It’s hard to imagine anyone but Brenda Blethyn in the role of Jean, the larger-than-life mother in the dysfunctional-family comedy opening today, “Introducing the Dwights.”
When she’s not sabotaging her nearly grown sons’ romantic relationships in a desperate attempt to keep them at home, she’s trying to resurrect her career as a stand-up comedienne — using the same eye-rollingly naughty material that barely worked more than two decades ago.
The starring role calls for hysterics and heart in equal measure, so it’s no surprise that screenwriter Keith Thompson wrote the character with Miss Blethyn in mind. At least, it’s no surprise to anyone but the actress herself.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t know when I read it,” the 61-year-old actress says by telephone from New York. “I’m kind of glad I didn’t know. It would have been too much responsibility.” She didn’t find out until after she read — and loved — the script.
The actress wouldn’t make her big screen debut until 1990 (with “The Witches”) and got her big break when she was almost 50, in another Mike Leigh film, 1996’s “Secrets & Lies.” She played a working-class white woman who discovers that the daughter she gave up for adoption decades before is black.
She earned her first Oscar nomination for the film and won just about every other major best actress prize that year, including at the Golden Globes, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and Cannes.
Many actresses complain that the quantity and quality of roles dry up as they get older. But Miss Blethyn is still in her prime, working steadily since she became a star.
“Fortunately, I haven’t had a problem. But I don’t have any ego about the size of the roles I play,” she says matter-of-factly. “ ’Beyond the Sea,’ that was a little tiny part. ‘On a Clear Day,’ that was a tiny bit. I liked the roles, so I did it.”
Audiences will see her again later this year in “Atonement,” the much anticipated film based on Ian McEwan’s heartbreakingly tragic novel. “If you blink, you’ll miss me,” she laughs. “I play Grace Turner, the mother of the part played by James McAvoy.”
(For those curious about the film, Miss Blethyn says, “I’ve only seen a little bit of it, and it looks absolutely, astonishingly good.” She played alongside “Atonement” star Keira Knightley in 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice.” In that film, Miss Blethyn says, “She’s a girl. In ‘Atonement,’ in the little bit I saw, she’s a woman.”)
Miss Blethyn says she makes her career choices based on “the quality of the script, first and foremost,” and she’s more eager than most in her profession to talk about the character she’s played and the journey all the characters make through the course of a film.
She contributed directly to that journey in “Secrets & Lies” — Mr. Leigh is a famous fan of improvisation. While “Introducing the Dwights” already had a script, there are lines written by Miss Blethyn herself — in those hilariously out-of-date stand-up routines.
The actress adds, “It always helps to improvise around a scene even if none of the words are changed because it helps you get into a scene and it links scenes, tells you what happened between this one and that one.”
It seems she can’t stop improvising. Relishing her roles, she even imagines three damaged women she’s played sitting in a room together, Jean from “Dwights” trying to “shepherd” Cynthia from “Secrets & Lies” and Mari from “Little Voice.”