As the title character of “Mrs. Harris goes to Paris” Lesley Manville enchants almost everyone she meets: homeless men on the streets of Paris, the bosses of the fashion house Dior (including Christian Dior himself), models, seamstresses and racetrack operators. Even the more snobbish people she meets are eventually taken in by Ada, a kind-hearted but tough English cleaning lady who – after the devastating news that her missing husband has been pronounced dead by the British Army – makes it her life’s work to dress from Dior and live their glamor dreams.
For people who know Manville best from her Oscar-nominated work in 2017’s Phantom Thread, in which she played the cynical and uncompromising fashion house executive Cyril, it might initially feel a bit like Manville as an outsider in the world of fashion Haute couture to see a joke. But Manville makes it easy to forget all of her previous roles with the film, lending a lovely sense of dignity and longing to Ada’s seemingly frivolous pursuit of a dress that gives the frothy film some foundation. For the veteran actor, the film marks the beginning of a busy few months with many projects ahead – not least including Netflix’s blockbuster series.The crown‘, replacing Helena Bonham Carter in the role of Princess Margaret.
Manville spoke to him over a cup of coffee diversity ahead of the film’s theatrical release on July 15 about what drew her to the role of Mrs Harris and filming in Budapest, and teased a bit about what The Crown fans can expect from their very own Princess Margaret.
Were you a fan of the original Mrs. Arris Goes to Paris book before you were cast?
No, I actually didn’t know the book. I became involved in the project through a phone call from my dear friend Rima Horton, Alan Rickman’s widow. Alan and Rima have been friends of mine for many, many, many decades. Alan had read the script and was very interested in it. And so was Rima, and I thought, “If they both like it, it must be good.” Over the course of my career, there have been several phone calls with Alan. We had worked together a couple of times and I always pushed things past him. He gave very good advice on things. So the fact that he liked it was a good place to start. And Rima, she had a small part in it, she was going to be executive producer. And she said, ‘Look, they care a lot about you. So I think it’ll come your way.” And it did. So I read it and then I read the novel. And I was basically there.
What attracted you to the role?
It was a very nice contrasting character to play with some of the characters I’ve played who, let’s say broadly, weren’t as nice as Ada. And I thought it would be very good for me to be seen, to do something that’s a little bit easier. And that puts me at the forefront of what will hopefully be a big movie. For all of these reasons, you weigh the creative potential of a part and what the package looks like. I don’t want to sound rude, but the package is an important part of it: the script, the director who’s going to be on board, who’s going to distribute it. All of these things are important. So it all came together and it was a job I really wanted to do.
It’s funny that you say the character is different from your previous roles. Before this film, you were in Phantom Thread, a film about high fashion, and your role in it is the head of a fashion house. Here you are the outsider.
That’s my professional reason for living, really, I don’t want to repeat the same type of roles over and over again. it keeps me happy I’ve got a reach, I like flexing that muscle. And of course, when you’re playing Cyril, who’s sort of an Isabel Huppert character from Phantom Thread, Ada is incredibly different on all sorts of levels. It really was child’s play.
In order for the film to work, the characters need to be charmed by Ada. What about her draws the people she meets towards her?
She is very open and does not edit herself depending on the company she works for. She goes to the House of Dior in Paris, and she’s still Ada Harris. That’s what charms everyone, that she doesn’t pretend to be something she’s not. She’s not like all the other women at the runway show who are emotionless and rigid and analytical about the clothes they’re looking at. She is very open and honest.
The film begins with her finally confirming her husband’s death after years of being questioned. How do you think this change has affected her mindset, because after that she really wants a Dior dress?
I mean, I think she sort of knows, he’s been around for seven years. But it was never confirmed. But I’m sure having this definitive news is a whole different kind of emotion. And you’re right, that’s the point where she feels like she can do whatever she wants, but it coincides with seeing this dress that the not very pleasant woman owns, for the she works. And I think she’s starting to think, ‘Well, all that’s keeping me from this dress is £500.’ And then the film becomes really, really nice because she gets the money and she goes to Paris. But I don’t think she would have done that if Eddie had ever come back. And now that she knows he’s not coming back for sure, she’s admiringly moving on with her life. And that’s the beauty of her.
What was it like getting into the dressing room for this film? These dresses are beautiful.
The Dior dresses are copies of the originals, so everything is correct. That’s just beautiful because these dresses make you feel something. I love dresses myself, I can’t deny that I love putting on a beautiful dress and they were really beautiful, beautiful dresses. But the costume designer Jenny [Beavan] was brilliant at getting Ada’s look as Ada, the cleaner look. The little touches she used to embellish her own clothes, embellished her hat with little flowers and things. That was very true at the time because you were coming out of the war and fashion wasn’t as readily available as it used to be and it was expensive and fabric wasn’t available. Not only was food rationed, everything was rationed. So Ada sews her own day clothes as happily as possible. And Jenny was brilliant with all those little touches here and there that helped me get Ada on her toes.
If I understand correctly, you shot this film in Budapest, not in Paris. How was this experience?
We had a day in Paris, this scene when Natasha [Alba Baptista] Ada drives around in her little red sports car. And that was really Paris because we needed the Eiffel Tower and all that. It was very difficult to shoot without seeing the 21st century underneath. But they very cleverly shot it at an angle so you could see our faces and above and then did a bit of CGI. So yes we did most of it in Budapest apart from a few days in London. Budapest is a beautiful city. And it really looks like old Paris. Architecturally they are very similar. We were in the middle of COVID and it was difficult, we couldn’t go out as much as we wanted. But I had a nice apartment to live in and I was bringing people around and we were testing all the time so we were in a little bubble. COVID challenges aside, it was a glorious time.
There are two or three references in the film to Princess Margaret portraying her in The Crown. I know she had an existing relationship with Dior. I assume those mentions were just coincidences?
Oh god yes. You wouldn’t take that for an inside joke. It was there before I wanted to play Princess Margaret. Ada approaches her once when she has her costume fitting. I think she says something like, “What I like about her is that she’s a little cheeky.” It’s obviously turned into a little bit of a nod, nod, wink, wink because, “There you go, I’m playing her. “ So yeah, it’s nice. But I think people would think we built it in on purpose, which of course we don’t, you wouldn’t do things like that.
On the subject of Princess Margaret, did you speak to Helena Bonham Carter or Vanessa Kirby for your performance? Or someone who knew Margaret in her real life?
No I haven’t. I mean, obviously I watched Vanessa and Helena play the roles. And what a fantastic baton to pass on from the two of them because they were just wonderful. I knew I was going to do this for a few years before we started, so I just read all the books and kind of sucked. But you know, at the end of the day it’s a drama and it’s a script and it’s not a documentary. You work with the script material you have. And you just love what Vanessa and Helena have done. Who does not? And who wouldn’t mind playing her at a completely different time in their lives? She has a quieter life when I play her because I play her for the last 15 years of her life. It took a different turn. But of course I recorded everything these two actresses did. You showed that wonderful, wild, beautiful, messy, naughty side of her so beautifully. And I just absorbed all of that and I play a woman who was that person and now she’s thinking about a different phase in her life.
They have a lot of projects coming out in the near future. There’s this movie, there’s The Crown, there’s the show Dangerous Liaisons, a few other things. What was it like filming all that back to back?
i hear what you say But the truth is, I’m a little bit more in the public eye now. I’ve actually always worked pretty consistently. But now I’m making junkets like this. After Phantom Thread I do things on a slightly different level. And my responsibility is to do a lot more press and to get the word out about the things that I’m into. It’s just kind of a shift in this area. But I’m not doing any more work than I ever have, really. There’s a little more shouting about it because I’m a little better known now.
There are three other “Mrs. Harris” novels. Are there any plans for a sequel? Do you want to do that?
Yes, I think they would like to do more of the books. I mean, “Mrs. Harris is going to New York,’ ‘Mrs. Harris becomes MP.” But I think reasonably they’re going to say, “Well, let’s see how this first one fares.” And go from there, which is very logical in film language. They’re not going to commit to making a film now if we don’t get good reviews and good box office from this one. I mean, this is just business, isn’t it? But of course I would be interested.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.