Directors don’t usually turn to Lesley Manville for light and bright. “People think of me as playing difficult women who are struggling or tormented in some way,” the Brighton-born actress, 66, said in a recent interview. The spiky, unhappy Mary in Another Year, desperately searching for some meaning to her life. The magnificently icy Cyril in Phantom Thread – the calmer she gets, the more terrifying she is. Joan in Ordinary Love, gently peeling back layers of pain.
But in the new film Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, based on a well-loved novel by Paul Gallico, Manville plays Ada, a cleaning woman in 1957 London who is all heart, but has quietly given up on her own. Until she spies a Christian Dior confection in the closet of a client and vows to own a piece of that beauty for herself.
Through steady, cheery perseverance, Ada overcomes all obstacles, wins over the haughty Dior gatekeeper (Isabelle Huppert, playing the kind of role Manville herself usually takes), and makes the lives of all she meets a bit brighter. In other hands, Ada may have felt twee, but Manville grounds her with such grit and humour that you root for her. Ahead of Mrs. Harris’s theatrical release July 15, The Globe and Mail spoke with the actress about refashioning career expectations.
Was it a relief, playing a lighter character?
The workday is tough, whether you’re playing Ada or a psychopath. But it was nice to play someone who is unashamedly good, and for the most part of the film, happy.
Where do you and Ada overlap, and where did you discover her?
I love clothes. So I very much understand her pure, undiluted desire for this dress that’s such a thing of beauty. I understood that type of woman; she’s who I grew up with. My parents were working class. [Her father was a taxi driver, her mother a homemaker.] Ada is all give, isn’t she? She’s considerate, loving, warm, do anything for anybody. I’m a bit like her [laughs], but she goes a step or two further.
She’s routinely underestimated. Could you relate to that?
I don’t feel that, no. But I’m very vocal. It’s the women who are not quite as vocal, who are quietly feeling, ‘My body’s not in such good shape anymore, my hair is going gray.’ Maybe they’re in a bored relationship, or don’t have one. But if you really look at her, Mrs. Harris is leading an independent life. She has no children, her husband has died, she’s living on her own, she’s got a close friend and you get the feeling she’s pretty good.
She does call herself an “invisible woman,” though.
I’m glad the film goes there. Don’t push me into a corner just because I’m over 60. I’ve been lucky enough to do some great dramas recently, where I’m playing my age, but women who are still sexually active, involved. We’ve got to start saying, “Don’t think because you’re over 50 you don’t want to have a romantic or sexual life anymore.” That’s ludicrous. It’s important to start showing women of our age being sexual.
Those dramas you mentioned include playing Princess Margaret in The Crown, and a new series version of Dangerous Liaisons, which imagines the early years of Merteuil and Valmont, before they grew into the sexual gameplayers of Choderlos de Laclos’s novel and Christopher Hampton’s play. You play Genevieve de Merteuil, a role model for the younger character. What spin did you find for them?
The Margaret you’re going to see, at that stage of her life, was lonely. She was entering a period where she was resigned to supporting her sister. It came at a price for her. She’s a sixty-something woman who’s feeling the pain of not having a partner or really a big purpose. Privately, she and the Queen have a close relationship, probably the closest relationship each of them has. You’ll see a different side to her.
As for Merteuil, I was in the original London stage production in 1985, playing the young girl, Cecile, and Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman were Merteuil and Valmont. In this one, I’m playing a different Merteuil who eventually hands over her title. She was delicious to play. She’s tormented, in a loveless marriage. She’s wanting to be loud and active about her disquiet. She’s not in a period, a climate, where she can be, so she takes other steps.
What do you hope people take away from Mrs. Harris?
Joy. And a feeling that there’s nothing wrong with wanting something that may seem out of reach.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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