I’ll never forget the first time I saw Lesley Manville onscreen. It was a dreadful January day, and I desperately needed to go to the movies. I hadn’t seen a trailer or heard much about Mike Leigh’s new film, Another Year, but the time worked with my schedule, so I decided to give it a go. For the next two hours, I was utterly transfixed by the virtuoso performances, but none more than Manville in her remarkable turn as Mary. She was captivating–capturing what made this character devastating while never turning her into a parody. Manville’s performance in Another Year led me to her earlier collaborations with Leigh, like Secrets and Lies and Topsy-Turvy, who became one of my favorite working directors.
Interview: Director Anthony Fabian on magical realism and the importance of pursuing your dreams in ‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’
Manville continued to impress audiences and critics on-stage in London and off-Broadway in New York, tackling complicated women like Helene Alving in Ibsen’s Ghosts (she won the Olivier Award for Best Actress) and Mary Tyrone in O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. While a mainstay on the London stage, she finally got the recognition she deserved when she played the behind-the-scenes master of The House of Woodcock and sister to Daniel Day-Lewis’ fastidious fashion designer, Reynolds, in Phantom Thread. She earned her first Academy Award nomination for the role and proved that she’s one of the few performers who can hold Paul Thomas Anderson’s extreme close-ups.
‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris’ review: Lesley Manville returns to the world of 1950s couture fashion in an enchanting modern-day fairytale of self-discovery (and that dress you need to have)
In her latest film, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Manville pivots away from these complicated women she’s known for playing. She enchants audiences as Ada Harris, a working-class woman who defies the odds and travels to Paris in search of the Dior couture gown of her dreams. I was thrilled to speak with Manville over Zoom about her beautiful performance in the movie, her return to the world of ‘50s fashion in film, and her favorite costume from the movie.
Lesley Manville: Hello, Sophia, Hello.
Sophia Ciminello: Hi! Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Lesley. I have to tell you I really admire your work and I’m so excited to talk to you about your new movie.
LM: Thank you! Oh good, well that’s a good start (laughs).
SC: Congratulations on Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. I saw it yesterday and absolutely loved it. I thought it was delightful.
LM: Oh good, it is a delightful film isn’t it? It’s a really pure, unadulterated, joyous film.
SC: It really is. So, what drew you to this project and to the role of Ada Harris specifically?
LM: Well, you always start with a script, you know, hopefully, it’s good writing, and then you’ve got a chance and a half of doing something good with it. I was ready to do a character like her again, which I’d not done for a while. And when I say “a character like her,” I mean just somebody good and likable as opposed to some of the badasses I’ve been playing (laughs).
SC: (laughs) Of course.
LM: So I was sort of keen to do that and so, let’s not shirk away from it, a big leading role in a movie. I mean obviously I did lots of leading roles on television and onstage, but in the movies I’ve made, most particularly, I’m not talking so much about the British movies, although this is a British movie, it’ll have an American director behind it. It’s very good for me to be up front in a film that’s going to have this kind of release.
SC: Definitely. And when I think of you as an actress, I think of your range, but also of your ability to play these very complicated, often devastating women like Mary in Another Year…
LM: Oh, gosh, yes.
SC: And Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
LM: Oh my god (laughs) yes.
SC: Right? (laughs). So, you play these very heavy roles and Ada, of course, has her own challenges and hardships, but how nice was it to play a character like her? What does your process look like for playing this more joyful, warm character?
LM: I understand where you’re coming from, and it’s a natural query. You’d think Mary Tyrone would be a much more complex thing to grapple with. I suppose, on some levels, that’s true because Mrs. Harris doesn’t have the same kind of label that Mary Tyrone has. You know Mary has a lot of problems that are drug-related, but you’ve still got to create somebody who is fully rounded, and the audience can hook into them and what’s going on in their head and heart in the same way as somebody who’s very complicated. So, the job is kind of the same, really. It’s just that the end result is different because they’re different women altogether.
And also, I think there’s a kind of understanding that if you’re doing a film that’s so joyous and lovely as Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, the shooting of it must just be joyous and lovely and that’s not necessarily the case. I mean, it was an incredibly happy shoot, but the hard work to get that right, to get the tone, you’ve got to get all of the actors coming in at the right level, so you don’t watch the film and think, “oh well they look like they’re in a different movie,” but you’re all hitting the ground running at the same speed. Those things are still difficult to achieve, whatever your material.
SC: I can definitely see that, and there’s a magical element, a musicality to the movie that presents other challenges, I’m sure.
LM: Yeah, definitely, and you want to avoid being saccharine at all costs. So my job, in a way, was to make her as believable as possible and let the sort of magical side of it take care of itself. You do a scene where you’ve got Ada being fitted for a dress at the House of Dior in Paris. I mean, that’s magical in itself because the audience is invested in where Ada’s come from, what she’s had to sacrifice, and what she’s had to do to get to the point where she’s even in Paris, let alone getting fitted for a Dior dress. So, the magic kind of gets taken care of for you.
SC: Absolutely. Just being in the House of Dior and seeing that through Ada’s eyes felt magical.
LM: Yeah, exactly.
SC: And you’re no stranger to the world of ‘50s fashion houses in film…
LM: No, quite a different angle though in Phantom Thread (laughs).
SC: Yes, exactly! When I was watching Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, I kept thinking, how would Cyril respond if Ada showed up at the House of Woodcock?
LM: (laughs) I live my life by that. I always say, “what would Cyril do?”
SC: (laughs) Honestly, me too.
LM: Somebody asked me today if Cyril would’ve been tolerant of Ada showing up at the couture house, and I didn’t know the answer to that, really. I’m probably a little out of touch with Cyril these days. I’d have to hone in on her again, and I’m not sure I want to go there, really. (laughs).
SC: That is completely fair.
LM: I mean, they’re very different people, Ada and Cyril, but both appreciative of beautiful fashion.
SC: And did researching for Phantom Thread, even though it was in a fictional couture house, help you prepare for this role?
LM: Oh, yeah. Definitely. I knew I was going to be doing Phantom Thread for a good six, seven, eight months before we started shooting, so you know, in that time, I just absorbed that couture of the ’50s and that great wave of design that was coming out of lots of couture houses, but particularly Dior. Because he created what he called “the new look,” and the world had just come out of the war. There was definitely a feeling that you wanted something for the sake of its pure beauty. So, I knew a lot about the fashion of that period. Through other projects I’ve done, I also knew quite a lot about the social history of that time, culturally what was going on, and just the climate really in London coming out of a horrendous war. So, yeah, I was well-equipped, and on another level, my background was working-class, so I understand that inherently. So there was a lot that I felt equipped to do in playing Ada.
SC: Thinking about your background, were there any women who you tapped into for her characterization or her look?
LM: Not so much in that sense, but my mother certainly loved a good dress, and my mum really looked amazing. Well, she looked amazing any day, but when she’d put a ’50s frock on/‘60s frock on, she looked fantastic. She didn’t dress up a lot, but when she did, it was a thing, and yeah, so I understood through her that kind of feeling of just loving a piece of clothing because it makes you feel something and does something for you. And I think clothes do that. They certainly do that for me.
SC: For me as well. I feel like that’s a very relatable part of the film.
SC: And I was really struck by how Ada’s happiness isn’t just about the dress. Can you talk a bit about her journey to Paris and how experiences there and the journey itself were important to the character?
LM: Well, I think she’s quite shocked by what she sees at The House of Dior. You know, she sees a lot of inequality, and she finds a lot of quite unhappy workers because they’re not getting what they should be getting. And it’s not a kind of militant act or anything as strong as that, but she’s so inherently honest that she can’t really bear it when she sees people being put upon that she actively goes and does something about it.
But you know, just the journey in itself to get to Paris for her is extraordinary. She’s never been on a plane; she’s never left the country. She honestly imagines that she can take her empty suitcase, which she does, to bring the dress back home with her. She thinks she can go there, pick the dress up off a rail and come home the same day! She doesn’t take her toothbrush with her or anything. So there’s a wonderful naivete about it. She just thinks, “well, I can’t stay here for a week. Who’s going to do my cleaning jobs? I’m going to go back and not have any jobs.” But lots of people pull their weight to help her. So yeah, she pushes through, and she’s not going to be beaten down.
SC: Right. She is such a fierce character, I think. I just love that scene when she’s on the plane for the first time.
LM: Right, and there are things that certain people stop being in awe of. The simple thing of looking out of the window of a plane and seeing Paris beneath you. You know, to somebody who has done that journey lots of times, you stop looking, you stop seeing, and she’s seeing everything with fresh, joyous eyes. It’s wonderful to her. And then, of course, she gets to Paris, and there’s all this garbage lying around because there’s a strike on. Even the men she meets at the train station, glugging back their bottles of wine and the bread, there’s something really lovely about it for her because it’s all culturally unfamiliar.
SC: And that’s why I enjoyed this character so much and think so many people who watch this movie will connect to her. Most people who watch this movie may have never made that journey to Paris before and can experience that wonder with her.
LM: Yeah, yeah and the lovely scene when she walks around the atelier and just looking at all the ribbons. There’s a couple of beautiful shops in London that sell ribbons and braiding. I could spend a day in there! It’s just being in that world and she just loves it. She’s like a kid in a toy shop. It’s delightful.
SC: That’s what makes it very sweet. I completely agree with you about those little shops, by the way. The last question that I have for you is about Ada’s costumes. We all know the feeling when you see one item of clothing that you have to have. If you could pick one of your costumes from the movie to take home with you, what would you take?
LM: Well, they already very kindly gave me Ada’s hat (laughs)…
SC: Oh, that’s great.
LM: I wanted that, you know, as a keepsake. But if I was to have one of the dresses, I’d have the gown that she’s first fitted in. It’s just lovely, and it’s very me. It’s just beautiful, and I really really love it. And you could wear it now, you could absolutely wear it now.
SC: Yeah, absolutely. It’s classic. When I saw that one, I thought it was so beautiful, and I just loved the color.
LM: Oh I know, it’s just gorgeous.
SC: Well, thank you so much again for speaking with me today. Good luck with everything with the film, and congratulations again on Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris!
LM: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Focus Features will release Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris on July 15 only in theaters.
Photo: Liam Daniel / 2021 Ada Films Ltd – Harris Squared Kft