‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ Star Lesley Manville on Playing Against Type and Wearing Dior Dresses

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As the title character of “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” Lesley Manville charms nearly everyone she encounters: homeless men on the streets of Paris, the heads of the Dior fashion house (including Christian Dior himself), models, dressmakers and racehorse track operators. Even the more snobbish people she encounters eventually find themselves taken in by Ada, a kindhearted but tough English cleaning lady who — following the devastating news that her missing-in-action husband has been declared dead by the British army — makes it her life’s mission to acquire a Dior dress and live out her dreams of glamour.

For people who know Manville best from her Oscar-nominated work on 2017’s “Phantom Thread,” where she played cynical and tough-minded fashion house manager Cyril, seeing Manville as the outsider in the world of high fashion may initially feel like a bit of an in-joke. But Manville makes it easy to forget all her past roles with the film, bringing a lovely sense of dignity and longing to Ada’s seemingly frivolous pursuit of a dress that gives the frothy film some grounding. For the veteran actor, the film is the start for a busy few months with many projects ahead — not the least of which including Netflix’s blockbuster series “The Crown,” which will have her replace Helena Bonham Carter in the role of Princess Margaret.

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Over a cup of coffee, Manville spoke to Variety ahead of the film’s theatrical release on July 15 about what drew her to the part of Mrs. Harris and filming in Budapest, and teased a bit about what fans of “The Crown” can expect of her personal Princess Margaret.

Were you a fan of the original “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris” book before you were cast?

No, I didn’t know the book, actually. I got involved with the project through a phone call from my dear friend, Rima Horton, who is 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 those two like it, it’s got to be good.” A lot of my career, there were several phone calls to Alan along the way. We’d worked together a few times, and I would always run things past him. He gave very good advice on things. So the fact that he liked it was a good starting point. And Rima, she had a small hand in it, she was going to be executive producing. And she said, “Look, they’re very interested in you. So I think it’s going to come your way.” And it did. So I read it, and then I read the novel. And I was in, basically.

What was it about the part that drew you in?

It was a very nice contrasting character to play with some of the characters I’ve been playing who were, let’s just say in a kind of blanket way, not as nice as Ada. And I thought it’d be very good for me to be seen doing something that’s a little lighter. And that puts me at the forefront of what is hopefully going to be a major film. All of those reasons, you kind of weigh up the creative potential of a part and what the package looks like. I’m not wishing to sound crude, but the package is an important part of it: the script, the director, who’s going to be on board, who’s going to be distributing it. All of those things are important. So it all kind of came together, and was a job that I really wanted to do.

It’s funny you say the character is different from your previous roles. Before this film, you were in “Phantom Thread,” which is also a film about high fashion, and your character in that is the head of a fashion house. Here, you’re the outsider.

That is my career reason for living, really, I don’t want to just keep repeating the same type of roles. It keeps me happy. I have a range, I like to flex that muscle. And of course, if you’re playing Cyril, who’s kind of the Isabel Huppert character of “Phantom Thread,” Ada is incredibly different on all sorts of levels. It was a bit of a no brainer, really.

For the film to work, the characters need to be charmed by Ada. What is it about her that makes the people she encounters drawn to her?

She’s very open and she doesn’t self-edit, depending on the company that she’s in. She goes to the House of Dior in Paris, and she’s still Ada Harris. That’s what charms everybody, that she’s not pretending to be something that she isn’t. She’s not like all those other women at the fashion show who are unemotional and rigid and analytical about the clothes that they’re looking at. She’s very open and candid.

The film begins with her finally confirming her husband’s death after years of it being in question. How do you think that change affected her mindset, because it’s after that she really latches on to wanting a Dior dress?

I mean, I think she sort of knows, he’s been lost in action for seven years. But it’s never been confirmed. But I’m sure having that definitive news is a very different set of emotions. And you’re right, that is the point in which she feels that she’s free to do as she wants, but it coincides with her seeing this dress that the not very pleasant woman she works for owns. And I think she just starts to think, “Well, all that separates me from that dress is 500 pounds.” And that’s when the film becomes really, really lovely, because she gets the money and she goes to Paris. But I don’t think she would have done that in case Eddie came back at any point. And now that she knows that he isn’t coming back for certain, she’s admirably moving forward with her life. And that’s what’s lovely about her.

What was it like getting into wardrobe for this film? Those dresses are gorgeous.

The Dior gowns are copies of the originals so everything’s accurate. That’s just lovely because those clothes make you feel something. I love clothes myself, I can’t deny that I love putting on a nice frock and they were really beautiful, beautiful dresses. But the costume designer Jenny [Beavan] was brilliant in getting Ada’s look as Ada the cleaner look. The little touches of her embellishing her own clothes, embellishing her hat with little flowers and things. It was very true of that time because you’d come out of the war and fashion was not available in the same degree that it had been and it was expensive and fabric wasn’t available. It wasn’t just food that was rationed, everything was rationed. So Ada makes her own daytime clothes as cheerful as she possibly can. And Jenny was brilliant with all of those little touches here and there that helped me get Ada on the go.

If I understand correctly, you shot this film in Budapest, not Paris. What was that experience like?

We did have one day in Paris, that scene when Natasha [Alba Baptista] drives Ada around in her little red sports car. And that really was Paris because we needed the Eiffel Tower and all of that. It was very tricky to shoot that without seeing the 21st century underneath. But they shot it very cleverly at an angle so that you saw our faces and up and then did a bit of CGI. So yeah, we did most of it in Budapest apart for a couple of days in London. Budapest is a beautiful city. And it really does look like old Paris. Architecturally, they’re very similar. We were in the middle of COVID, and it was difficult, we couldn’t go out as much as we wanted to. But I had a lovely apartment to live in and I would get people around and we tested all the time, so we were in a little bit of a bubble. Apart from the challenges of COVID, it was a glorious time.

In the film, there are two or three mentions of Princess Margaret, who you’re portraying in “The Crown.” I know she had an existing relationship with Dior. I’m assuming those mentions were just coincidences?

Oh God, yes. You wouldn’t put that in for an in-joke. It was already there before I was going to play Princess Margaret. Ada refers to her once when she’s having her costume fitting. I think she says something like, “What I like about her, she’s a little bit naughty.” It has become obviously a little bit of a nod, nod, wink wink moment, because “There you go, I’m playing her.” So yeah, it’s nice. But I think people would think we’ve put it in deliberately, which of course we haven’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 anyone who knew Margaret in her real life?

No, I haven’t. I mean, obviously, I’ve watched Vanessa and Helena play the roles. And what a fantastic baton to be passed on from the two of them, because they were just wonderful. I knew I was going to do it for a good couple of years before we started, so I just read all the books and let it kind of sink in. 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 that you have. And you just love what Vanessa and Helena did. Who didn’t? And who wouldn’t mind playing her at a very different time of her life? It’s a quieter life she’s having when I’m playing her, because I’m playing her in the last 15 years of her life. It took a different turn. But of course, everything that those two actresses did, I filtered in. They showed that wonderful, wild, gorgeous, chaotic, naughty side of her so beautifully. And I just absorbed all of that and I’m playing a woman who has been that person and is now contemplating a different phase of her life.

You have a ton of projects coming out in the near future. There’s this film, there’s “The Crown,” there’s the “Dangerous Liaisons” show, a few other things. What was it like shooting all of this back to back to back?

I hear what you’re saying. But the truth is, I’m just a bit more in the public eye now. I have always worked pretty constantly, really. But now I do junkets like this. Post “Phantom Thread,” I’m doing things at a slightly different level. And my responsibility is to do a lot more press and publicize the things I’m in. That’s just a kind of shift in that area. But I’m not doing any more work than I’ve ever done, really. It’s being shouted about a bit more, because I’m a bit more well known now.

There are three other “Mrs. Harris” novels. Are there any plans to do a sequel? Is that something you want to do?

Yeah, I think they would like to do to do some more of the books. I mean, “Mrs. Harris Goes to New York,” “Mrs. Harris becomes an MP.” But I think sensibly, they’re gonna say, “Well, let’s see how this first one does.” And go from there, which is very logical in film language. They’re not going to commit now to doing a film, if we don’t have you know, good reviews and good box office from from this one. I mean, that’s just business, isn’t it? But of course I’d be interested.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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