Lesley Manville and Anthony Fabian on Mrs. Harris goes to Paris
If only there was a way to bottle the magic that is Lesley Manville, as British housekeeper Mrs. Ada Harris, gazing at a Christian Dior dress. With a single glance, Manville goes straight to the heart of Mrs. Harris goes to Paristhe first big-screen adaptation of Paul Gallico’s best-selling 1958 novel Mrs. ‘Arris goes to Paris, co-adapted and directed by Anthony Fabian. Along with co-stars Isabelle Huppert, Lambert Wilson, Alba Baptista, Lucas Bravo, Ellen Thomas and Jason Isaacs, costume designer Jenny Bevan and the house of Dior itself, Manville and Fabian capture the pinnacle of French couture fashion and the veneration it can cause in those who see it or even, in their wildest dreams, wear it.
The actor and director joined The audiovisual club to discuss this historic collaboration with Dior, how Oscar nominee de Manville ghost yarn the performance served as a useful precursor and the “game of cat and mouse” that cinema ultimately is.
The audiovisual club: So, how did this, I would say, this perfect couple of actor and role come about, between Lesley Manville and Ada Harris?
Lesley Manville: Oh, that’s nice, thank you. They offered it to me and I said yes! Look, I only say yes if I think the script is up to par and the character is interesting and I’d like to play. And many others [reasons]like knowing the period and knowing the clothes because of making ghost yarn, knowing what working life is like, because that’s how I grew up. And being really charmed by Ada, and thinking that I would love to do my version of Ada.
Antoine Fabian: Yeah. I mean, it’s a bit of a Cinderella slipper role. I think it really only fits Lesley’s shoe. But I saw a lot of Lesley’s work before I worked with her and I saw ghost yarn and thought, Wow. And then I saw Mom, the series she made for the BBC. Those two combined, I just knew we’d be in spectacular hands if Lesley said yes.
AVC: Lesley, in terms of understanding the character of Ms. Harris, has ghost yarn help her better appreciate the craftsmanship and sewing details she’s obsessed with?
ML: Admittedly, this film made me absolutely understand the work of sewing, that it is a slow and detailed process. And also the appreciation, just the sheer beauty of a dress that is custom-made, exquisitely made to fit you and you alone, and the wonderful materials and embellishments that are used. And I’ve always liked clothes myself. I appreciate a nice piece of tailoring or a dress just for its sheer aesthetic value. So yes, I had a better understanding. But in a way, Ada looks at all these things, but she doesn’t either. She just goes, Oh, it’s a thing of beauty, and I wish I had that. And why should it be reserved for people like Lady Dant who can afford it? The only thing stopping Ada and that dress is 500 pounds!
A F: I think Ada also has a special appreciation for this dress because she herself is such a deft hand with needle and thread.
A F: So she knows what it’s all about and how hard it is to do it right.
AVC: From the moment Ms. Harris sees the fashion show in the Dior boutique, it becomes apparent that this film uses authentic, period-specific tailoring. How did this collaboration with Dior come about and how did you achieve it?
A F: I knew that involving Dior very early on was essential to making this film. Because, as you say, we wanted to do it authentically and accurately. So I went to see them very, very, very early and told them about it. And of course they knew the story because it’s part of the Dior story; Mrs. ‘Arris goes to Paris has been in the Dior tradition for 50 years. But their main concern was whether we were going to do it at a high enough level to warrant their brand being attached to it? And once we had Lesley and Jenny Bevan and Isabelle Huppert, they were reassured that we were doing it on the right level. And the doors flew open. They have an entire building devoted to their heritage and an archivist in charge of their history. They are very, very proud of their heritage, as they call it. We had a meeting and they asked some brilliant questions: what year is the movie set in? What show do you want to recreate? And they released file after file of all the dresses. There were 250 dresses in each show! It wasn’t like we had around 15 or 20 of them, so we had to sort of select from them. And then we had also decided that it would represent Dior’s production over those 10 years, because it was the 10th anniversary collection. So there would be five or six dresses from an earlier period, and then the main concentration of the Spring-Summer 57 collection, which was very well documented. And then we had to build a journey and a story through the show, which starts with daytime outfits, then cocktail dresses, then evening outfits, and ends with this wedding dress, which Christian Dior has always done in his parades.
AVC: And was there a danger in damaging the clothes? Is there a fear of, I don’t know—
ML: What, spill your coffee on it? Yeah. At lunchtime, we were given these [smocks]- as if we were dressing for surgery, to cover our clothes in case we spilled anything. But they look like porcelain, they look so fragile and beautiful, just gorgeous.
A F: And we were loaned five dresses that were reproductions made by Dior themselves. But the conditions attached to this were that models could not wear makeup near the dress. They couldn’t wear perfume near the dress. They are very fragile objects. And they didn’t want them ruined or torn apart. And they had to be the right size and they couldn’t be changed. So there were a lot of restrictions attached to this loan, but it all worked out.
AVC: Do you both have a favorite scene or moment from the movie?
ML: I love the scene where she is in the workshop having her first dress fitted. I love the way we shot it. And playing this delight is all Ada wanted. She just wanted to put on one of those dresses. And the feeling it gave him was just nice to play. And I was kind of on a catwalk and we did it like kind of a circular, rotating plane. It was very simple, but it was just a good combination of the right camera movements to tell the story at the right time.
A F: It’s hard for me to choose a favorite moment, because there are so many wonderful emotional moments. But I still have a wave of emotion after Ada struggled so much to finally buy her dress and all those obstacles to make it happen. And she walks into the dressing room, and all the seamstresses applaud her. And I don’t know why, but I find it so moving, their appreciation of what she’s accomplished.
AVC: Were there any films or other sources of inspiration that influenced the making of Mrs. Harris goes to Paris?
A F: Yes, 100%. I felt the film was like a musical without the singing or musical numbers. So my inspirations were mostly musicals and particularly from the 50s and 60s. So I looked my lovely lady, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Funny head. Funny head surprised me because it was shot around the same time as this movie, but it’s incredibly modern. And that was very important because I wanted to create something that was both true to the times, but also fresh and modern. These were the inspirations.
AVC: Finally, I’m always curious about the chemistry between an actor and a director, especially if they’re working together for the first time. In your opinion, what makes an ideal collaboration?
ML: Directors come in all shapes and sizes, really. And you just have to dive in, really. Unless I’m working with directors that I’ve worked with before, obviously, you can never really know what it’s going to be like. So you can imagine how things might be, but really, you never really know until you’re on the floor and trying to get to grips with things. It is therefore a risk for both parties. Tony doesn’t know if I’m going to be someone who doesn’t come prepared or someone who’s very prepared and overthinking and then very stubborn. It’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse game, but you get there eventually.
A F: Yeah. Each actor has a different way of working. And as a director, you have to try to find the right frequency to be able to work with this performer. But I’d say there’s a pretty simple formula for doing a good job: you create the best script possible, and then you cast Lesley Manville.
ML: [Laughs] Well, isn’t that nice?