The two English-language projects in the Portuguese actor Alba Baptista’s catalogue couldn’t be more different. There’s the 2020 Netflix series Warrior Nun, starring Baptista as the titular sister who one day wakes up with superpowers. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, on the other hand, required her to practice gracefully showcasing Christian Dior haute couture. And for the 25-year-old actor, the most challenging task was decidedly the latter.
“I was so insecure about doing the dresses justice—for me to be wearing them rather than them wearing me,” she says of portraying a Christian Dior muse named Natasha in the film. “They should be represented as beautifully as the models did back in the ’50s. It’s a big responsibility, and it’s harder than it looks.” Such gowns are exactly what bring Mrs. Harris to Paris in the utterly charming movie, which released earlier this summer. And despite knowing the titular cleaning lady—who is played by Lesley Manville—for all of 10 minutes, Natasha decides she won’t rest until Mrs. Harris’s dream comes true. (Baptista has never remotely desired to be a model, though perhaps she could have, even at 5’3”; despite having traveled from Vancouver to Seattle to New York within the past 24 hours, she looks almost as glamorous in Dior couture in person as she does on screen.)
With Mrs. Harris, Baptista was able to put some of her fluency in no fewer than five languages to use. Born in Lisbon, she attended a German school in Portugal that fully lived up to the country’s regimented stereotype. “It was a really strict school that gave us a lot of discipline,” she says. “And consequently, you had to be spotless with your languages—very, very on point.” She has yet to showcase her German and Spanish skills professionally, but the mysterious film that she wrapped 24 hours prior—produced by a noted actor-slash-producer—will showcase her French.
Baptista realized she wanted to be an actor around 15. She succeeded, working steadily in Portugal in series such as A Criação and the telenovelas A Impostora and Jogo Duplo. Then, in 2020, came the Netflix series Warrior Nun, making for her first English-language role. (Season 2 is on its way.) It wasn’t until then that Baptista realized how much she had left to learn—not about actual acting, but everything that comes with it when you’re in Hollywood. Back home, doing press was a rare event. But the idea that Netflix would do things similarly is laughable. “Publicity is not really a thing in Portugal,” she says. “I thought I knew what press was, especially from looking at interviews with these big stars online. But once you’re in it, it’s a completely different experience—10-minute interviews constantly, for days and days.”
When I tell Baptista that another Portuguese up-and-comer, Daniela Melchior, told me the same thing last year, her face lights up: The Suicide Squad star is among the young actors from back home with whom she’s formed a sort of support network. “It can be very isolating to try to make it outside of your own country,” Baptista says. “We’ve never worked together, but we always send congratulations messages and ask each other for advice.”
Throughout the filming of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Baptista developed a somewhat similar relationship with Manville and Isabelle Huppert. (The latter plays the snooty, imposingly chic Parisian who can’t fathom why the staff would let someone like Mrs. Harris even feet away from the atelier’s front doors.) “They both gave me lessons that I’ll carry with me throughout my whole career,” Baptista says of the two industry veterans. “As a young actor, it’s very easy to silence your voice and do what you’re told. Isabelle was just the most confident actress that I’ve witnessed on set, so observing her taught me how to be confident in my choices and instincts.” As for Manville, Baptista reports that she’s just as kind hearted, generous, and optimistic as the character she portrays: “I’ve had many moments of sharing my insecurities with Lesley and her being like, ‘Nope, you’ve got to brighten up. Life is good—look at it through this lens instead.”
Baptista has taken that advice to heart. Now that the mysterious high-profile film she’s next starring in has wrapped, the actor is determined to balance making it with living life to the fullest. “I need to recenter and reprioritize my passions outside of acting—hiking, doing yoga, going to the beach,” she says. “It’s not just a preference. It’s a necessity to practice presence and be able to take on another role.”