Miss Baptista Goes to Paris
By Jay S. Jacobs
“You dare to follow your dreams, Mrs. Harris. Bravo.”
This statement was made in the charming film Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris by Natasha, a gorgeous Paris model who is the face of the 1950s Paris fashion House of Dior. She has befriended the lead character in the film, a British housecleaner who has put together enough money to live out her fantasy, to purchase an haute couture outfit from the famous fashion house.
Alba Baptista plays the fashion model Natasha, and Baptista dares to follow her dreams, too. The 25-year-old Portuguese actress has been working in film, mostly in her hometown of Lisbon since she was a teen. However, just in the last few years, her talent has jettisoned her into the international spotlight.
Baptista is the star and title character of the popular Netflix adventure series Warrior Nun, which debuted in 2020, with a second season coming later this year. Based on a magna series of the same title, Baptista straddles the line between kick-ass action hero and sweet, innocent bystander in the supernatural mayhem swirling around her. (She is, after all, a warrior and a nun…)
Now, Baptista has been tapped to play a substantial and very different kind role in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, based on the 1958 novel by Paul Gallico (the novel was actually called Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.) This highly anticipated film co-stars the likes of Lesley Manville as the title character, Isabelle Huppert as the head of Dior’s business and Jason Isaacs. The book is rather beloved and has been filmed a few times previously – most notably in 1992 with Angela Lansbury in the lead role.
However, since she is a rather young woman, this older story had evaded Baptista until she became a part of it.
“I was not familiar with the novel,” Baptista admitted. “Once I met with the director, he specifically asked me not to read it because the script developed its own traits.”
That director was Anthony Fabian, who also adapted the screenplay. Fabian has made several documentaries over the years, as well as the previous features Skin and Louder than Words. He was very happy to have found Baptista for the role of Natasha, the beautiful and kind model who was the face of the House of Dior, but who frankly would rather be doing something else with her life.
“Alba was a real discovery for me,” said Fabian. “She was somebody who was proposed by the casting directors, both the French and the British casting director. I wanted somebody who wasn’t French and wasn’t English. Because we were in COVID, I couldn’t reach too far outside of Europe for who that might be. So I said, ‘Look, why can’t she be Latina, or Italian, or something… a little bit different?’”
Baptista certainly was different.
“They came up with Alba, who is half-Portuguese, half-Brazilian, and who had just burst on the scene with Warrior Nun. From the moment of our first conversation, I just knew she had all of the qualities of this character, because she is very uncertain in some ways. She also is so exquisitely beautiful, and she is extremely well-read and bookish. She said to me that she was thinking of taking some time off from acting to study philosophy, so that was just an insane coincidence with the character.”
That is because in the screenplay, Natasha may have looked like she has this glamorous, exciting life, but she’d rather just be at home reading a book of philosophy and following her dreams, which are not necessarily about fashion.
In fact, in many ways Natasha and Mrs. Harris are very similar to each other, even though you would not think so on first glance. People look at them, and they think that they understand who they are, but they’re really actually a lot more complex than they appear on the surface.
That dichotomy fascinated Baptista about the role. She explained, “I think precisely that duality, that contradiction of enjoying the creative process of her work – but then struggling with the exposition of it all – is something that I found very appealing and that I could relate to in a certain extent. That was the most exciting thing to explore for me.”
And the toughest part?
“The most challenging part was probably the runway scene and finding the confidence that I certainly don’t have within myself of portraying these dresses as they deserve to be portrayed,” Baptista laughed.
The runway scene she is discussing is a centerpiece of the film, in which Mrs. Harris finally makes it to Paris and is able – with much resistance from the head of Dior – to sit in on a fashion show at the famous boutique. This scene has many models daintily sashaying through the room, showing off the wares for a ravenous clientele.
“We had a choreographer on site. But we shot it as an actual runway, so it was more stressful than I could have ever imagined,” Baptista laughed. “I could never model. It’s just the anxiety of having to rush, putting on a very expensive dress and then walking down the runway and going back. As soon as you close the curtains, it’s chaotic. Taking out the dress, changing the makeup look two minutes before having to go out again. So, that was intense.”
So much of the film is about fashion and about how that can empower a person just finding the perfect dress. Were there any particular dresses that appealed to Baptista?
“Yes, I was very lucky because I got to wear four, one of them being an original and the three of them being replicas of Dior dresses from the 50s,” Baptista recalled. “I think my favorite one might have been the Porto Rico one that was from the summer collection of 1954 Dior runway. That was just a very fun dress. It made me feel cheeky.”
However, the film was not only accurate when it came to the fashion show. The entire House of Dior from the 1950s was recreated exactingly for the film. In fact, it was a thrill for her to experience that, as well as just the special je ne sais quoi of Paris in the 1950s.
“It was a dream,” Baptista said. “It was the first experience I’ve ever had of letting myself be immersed within the universe of a movie set that they’ve created. The sets were very realistic. They were a perfect replica of the Dior House at the time from seeing all the pictures. It was an honor to have shot in that scenario.”
It was also an honor for Baptista to be part of such an esteemed cast. She spent much of her time on camera with Lesley Mansville and loved the experience.
“She’s a vision of an actress,” Baptista gushed. “She’s what every actress dreams to become one day. She’s certainly the most selfless, confident giving actress I’ve ever worked with.”
Baptista did not get as much time interacting with Isabelle Huppert, but still working with her was a huge thrill.
“Learning doesn’t only come from doing actual scenes together,” Baptista said. “Observation is also a key element, and I observed her a lot. She taught me from a distance, how to be more confident with my own choices and instincts. She’s just a very assertive actress and she knows exactly what’s best, not only for her, but for the project itself, which does come from a selfless point of view. That was inspirational. That was a big turning point for me that developed into a great lesson.”
And Natasha spent much of her time when she wasn’t with Mrs. Harris with the Dior bookkeeper Andre, played by Lucas Bravo of Emily in Paris.
“We were the youngsters of the cast, so we kind of were always insecure,” Baptista laughed. “It was good to have someone by your side where you feel that you’re going through this battle together. That was a lovely process as well.”
So, now, Baptista is getting used to the whole thing, with Mrs. Harris getting released and the second season of Warrior Nun on the way. Of course, she couldn’t let on any spoilers, but she did give a little taste of what to expect from season two.
“A lot more fighting. A lot more blood. More superpowers, which I think was something that they were asking for,” Baptista laughed. “I think overall, the team certainly heard the fans and has adapted onto the fans’ desires.”
Not bad for an actress who is only on her third English-language role. (She also had a small role in Fatima in 2020.) Not that it is much of a stretch for Baptista, like many Europeans she is fluid in several languages (five, to be exact…). She speaks fluid English, with a flawless American accent. In Mrs. Harris she also spoke quite a bit in French. And of course most of her earlier roles were in her native Portuguese.
However, she does acknowledge that acting in different languages can affect the way that she performs.
“I think it does subconsciously influence your instincts, yes,” Baptista said. “I haven’t quite figured out why. But I think it has something to do with the phonetics of it all. The musicality of each language brings a different instinct, not only from your acting, but body language. That’s really a millimetric difference but a curious one.”
Speaking of curious things, much of the time that Baptista’s career has been on the fast track has coincided with the time that the world in general has slowed down, due to the pandemic. In fact, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris was filmed completely during the pandemic in late 2020 and early 2021, and of course that affected the filmmaking process.
“It wasn’t as social as a film set usually is,” Baptista said. “There was just not a lot of opportunity to connect with the crew, which usually is the best scenario possible because everyone’s on the same boat and we’re all relying on each other. In this movie set, the actors were very separated from the crew. We weren’t allowed to hang out after set, although we kind of did. But yes, it was different but very special, nonetheless.”
The state of the world is one of the main reasons why feel-good entertainment like Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is so important right now, after the experience that the world’s gone through in the last couple of years. Life has been crazy, and Baptista feels the movie may just be a cure for people.
“We just need comfort, don’t we?” Baptista said. “We need to remind ourselves that it’s not all dark and hopeless. This movie brings precisely that. It’s a film about inner strength and determination and hope, with a lot of beautiful dresses along the way. It’s a lovely thing to be able to zone out from your life worries and just feel good.”
And to dare to follow your dreams, Miss Baptista. Bravo.
Copyright ©2022 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 13, 2022.
Photos #1-5 © 2021 Dávid Lukács/Ada Films Ltd – Harris Squared Kft. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.
Photo #6 © 2020. Courtesy of Netflix. All rights reserved.