Lesley Manville, 66, who received her first Oscar nomination at age 62, now stars in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, the feel-good hit of the summer, and looks forward to playing Princess Margaret on the Netflix series The Crown (Nov. 4). She tells AARP about midlife success and her exciting new role.
You play Mrs. Ada Harris, a widowed British cleaning lady who scrimps and saves to fulfill her dream of owning a Dior “frock,” as nobody in France calls haute couture. It’s only a dress, but what does it mean to her?
She romanticized Paris, though when she gets there, she sees all this rubbish on the streets — the garbage collectors are on strike — so the bubble is burst a bit. But when she gets inside the house of Dior, the magic is all there. And it’s just like a kid in a sweet shop. There’s an innocence and a freshness about her, nothing like the very solid and stuffy woman she sits next to at the fashion shows.
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Besides Ada’s collision with a different nation and the upper class, she faces ageist comments, like the young narcissist who tells Ada, “You’re so lucky you don’t have to worry about what you look like anymore!”
Ada is quite the feminist, really. She does feel the pinch of how people deal with you once you’ve reached a certain age. And she doesn’t like it. She doesn’t want to be the invisible woman; she wants to be regarded properly for the woman that she is. And another young character, Natasha [Alba Baptista], appreciates her fully for what’s inside, as opposed to just what’s on the outside.
A Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre star in your 20s, you became a major movie and TV star in your 60s. What was it like the night you got your first Oscar nomination, for stealing 2017’s The Phantom Thread from Daniel Day-Lewis, 62, playing his icy sister?
When I was nominated, Gary Oldman [her ex-husband] won for Darkest Hour. Our son, Alfie Oldman [a cameraman for Hugh Grant’s Patrick Melrose miniseries], was very happy that night. He’s one of the rare few who’s had both his parents Oscar nominated the same year. After the ceremony, we got together with his half brothers, with Gary and his wife, Gisele, and my sister Diana, so it was really lovely. A historic moment, you know. Now Alfie’s grown, so I’m very free to pursue this amazing tidal wave of career that I’m on. All of these age barriers being broken down is just a positive.
Yet ageism remains rampant. Since 2000, the average age of Britain’s prestigious BAFTA TV award winners fell from 52 to 32. So you’ve joined the Acting Your Age Campaign, advocating equal roles for grownup women and men.
There are lots of interesting stories to be told about women of my age. I’ve had a distinguished career, and now it’s peppered with a lot more success, but let’s get a bit more such roles to go around.
Older viewers rescued the movies by making Top Gun: Maverick and Elvis hits, and 39 percent of the streaming audience is over 50 — for the first time grownups watch more streaming shows than younger folks do. Is our demographic flexing its muscles at last?
Yes, especially in the last 10 years, with films targeted to a female liberated audience — Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren and Annette Bening, these wonderful actresses who are showing no signs of wanting to stop, telling stories about women who age. It really annoys me when there’s an assumption that once you’re over 50, well, we mustn’t show those people being interested in a sex life or romance. I mean, nonsense! It’s just insulting. It amazes me how long it’s taken for women to get where they are — from kings having our heads chopped off to the suffragettes fighting for the vote — to get to a point where we didn’t tie our bodies up in corsets anymore. You know, everything seems to take women forever. And the journey is certainly not over. But it’s been bloody hard getting here. I’m benefiting from centuries of women just saying we’ve had enough, and I think the film industry is acknowledging that.
Mrs. Harris is brilliantly, evocatively set in the 1950s. America was prosperous by then, but Britain was still on food rationing, long after the war ended. One 1960s rock star said the Stones and Beatles were skinny because they were malnourished. Yet Mrs. Harris hints at more hopeful times to come, right?
It was a period of recovery. People think the war finished and suddenly you could eat eggs and bacon again. You wouldn’t have any access to fabrics to make clothes. It was the decade that led into the liberation of the ’60s, a passing from a decade of pain and grief and difficulty and then handing the baton of wildness and happiness to the ’60s.
And Mrs. Harris, an independent woman who makes her own living, represents a new feminine independence.
The ’50s woman was starting to think, Well, hang on a minute here. I’ve done jobs that a man classically has done. But I’m still also the one who’s running the house and bringing up the kids and doing all the domestic duties. So women started to see that they were quite put upon but also what they were capable of, and that getting out of the house was something they could do.
What’s coming up that’s got you excited to play?
Magpie Murders, a series on PBS; Disclaimer, with Cate Blanchett and Kevin Kline. And then, of course, I’ve got The Crown coming up. I play Princess Margaret.
Mrs. Harris would be so thrilled!
Harris says how much she likes Princess Margaret in the film, which is a complete coincidence. I love the fact that I’m playing the lovely London cleaning lady Ada Harris and the highest of the high British aristocracy.
Don’t you think Mrs. Harris has a bit of a mischievous glint in her eyes, like the scandalous princess?
Oh, definitely. That’s what makes her so watchable. Mrs. Harris is very twinkly; she’s got a great sense of humor. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. And she’s a little fighter, you know.
Do you have any plans to retire?
I couldn’t think of anything worse. I don’t know what I’d do with my days. I don’t know how I’d use my brain. I’ve got 30-year-old friends who get more exhausted than I do.
Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.