Lesley Manville Talks ‘Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris’ And Her Own Aspirational Fashion Items


In Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Ada Harris seems like a role Lesley Manville was born to play.

The comedy-drama sees the acclaimed actress turn out a delightful and heartfelt performance as a widowed cleaning lady in 1950s London with a dream of owning a Dior dress. She falls madly in love with a couture gown, but the path to making it hers takes her on a journey she wasn’t expecting.

I caught up with Manville to discuss the film, her love of fashion and personal Ada Harris-esque moment, and the bond she formed with co-star Isabelle Huppert.

Simon Thompson: I remember seeing the book this is based on when I was growing up. Were you aware of it?

Lesley Manville: No, not at all. When I first became aware of it, I thought, ‘Oh, what a fantastic title.’ I didn’t know the book at all, but I read it and then read the script and said yes. It came to me as an offer, so it was nice to read it, knowing it was mine if I wanted it. It does kind of fall into a category of the type of character I wanted to play. I did the series Mum, and she was a lovely lady, but that was quite some time ago, and in between that, I’ve done a lot of not-so-pleasant women. Not that I would ever do a job as a career move, but here was this lovely script and character, and I thought it would be very nice to do a movie where I’m playing somebody that people haven’t seen me play before in a film.

Thompson: How did your heritage and experience playing working-class women in Mike Leigh movies and other work influence this? Did it make it easier to find Ada Harris?

Manville: Yes, but also, it is in my bones. That was the life I knew because I had working-class parents. In a way, it’s been more of a stretch when I’m playing someone like Princess Margaret in The Crown because I had absolutely no knowledge of that life. I knew Ada’s life. I was a baby in the 50s, but I understood that world. I’d done quite a bit of research about the 50s before I even came to Mrs. Harris because of doing Phantom Thread, so I knew all about clothes couture. I also did a Mike Leigh play at the National Theatre about nine years ago called Grief, about a brother and sister living together, set in the 50s. So, I knew a lot about the society then and about English culture in postwar Britain.

Thompson: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris feels like a companion piece to Phantom Thread. Did you get that feeling?

Manville: Definitely, and you can even say there are echoes of Cyril, who I play in Phantom Thread in Isabelle Huppert’s character in Mrs. Harris, the Madame of the House of Dior. There are definite echoes. Phantom Thread is principally an examination of this strange brother and sister pairing and the women that come into this triangle. It’s a real kind of weird observation, and you do not have any working-class characters. So Mrs. Harris becomes something else, mainly because Ada is so vocal about the things going wrong at the House of Dior that she’s willing to be very outspoken about it. She is being political, although she doesn’t think of it that way. She’s just being honest when she sees things happening that are not right, and she wants to empower people and, I suppose, ultimately changes them for the better, and that goes for Isabel’s character as well.


Thompson: I want to talk to you about your work with Isabelle Huppert because the scenes you have together are something else. I could watch you two together all day. How did you find working with each other? The tension and chemistry are perfect.

Manville: Working with her was easy, and I hope she felt the same about me. You just knew you were in safe hands; you knew you were in interesting hands. I think we’ve played many similar roles on stage as well. I think she’s done quite a lot of Chekhov and Ibsen, not that that necessarily helps, but it’s thrilling to be in such good company. I knew she would never do a duff take; it will always be fascinating, so I absolutely adored working with her.

Thompson: Was she on a professional wish list of people that you wanted to work with?

Manville: Definitely, and we were talking afterward about wanting to do a play together. Whether that will happen or what the play would be, I don’t know, but we’d love to do it. She definitely has been on the bucket list. She’s also got such style, which appeals to me because we both love clothes.

Thompson: Ada’s aspirational item is a Dior dress. When you started your career, what was your aspirational purchase? Was there something that would be a special thing for you or would be a mark of achievement?

Manville: It was definitely a mark of achievement because I started earning money when I was 16. My first job was a musical, I made £30 a week, which was a lot then, and I bought some things for my mum and dad that I just wanted to get, some little things that they couldn’t afford for themselves, but I did buy myself two dresses. I still have them to this day, and thankfully, I still fit into them. They were both vintage antique dresses. One was £30, and the other was a bit more, but they’re stunning, beautiful dresses. I wasn’t buying them for an occasion. Sometimes you look at things and just want them in your life. If I see a fantastic pair of shoes and buy them, I sort of want them on the bedside table to look at. That’s not weird. A lot of people do that.

Thompson: Without spoiling anything, the dress Ada receives almost becomes a character or symbol you can root for and empathize with. Did you feel that?

Manville: No, I think you’re right. I did feel that. It’s much more than just a dress because Ada’s made it that for herself. It’s the cherry on the cake. This is what she aspires to. I think you’re right that the dress becomes this symbol and this character in itself but let’s not give too much away.

Thompson: Originally coming from the UK, I loved hearing some of the classic colloquialisms and phrases such as something going “tits up.” What do you think American audiences will make of those?

Manville: I think I adlibbed a lot of those. Gordon Bennett, Stone the crows, there are lots of them. They had to be of the period, though. I can’t remember which ones there are now, but I know the Americans will be like, ‘What? Gordon Bennett? Who’s that?’

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is in theaters now.


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