Spotlight On

by Nancy Rosati     

Harriet HarrisAs one of todayís most versatile actresses, Harriet Harris is equally at home in the theatre, on film, or on TV. She played Maggie Cutler opposite Nathan Lane in the recent Roundabout production of The Man Who Came to Dinner and all of the female roles in Paul Rudnickís Jeffrey, Off Broadway and in Los Angeles. Television audiences have seen her in numerous productions, including The Five Mrs. Buchanans, Ally McBeal and in her recurring role as Bebe Glazer, the no-nonsense agent on Frasier. Her recent movie credits include Nurse Betty and Mrs. Jankis in last yearís thriller Memento.

This season Harriet is taking on a new challenge - musical comedy. She currently plays villainous Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie at the Marquis Theatre. Harriet has already received the Drama Desk Award for Featured Actress in a Musical, and is currently one of the nominees in a tight race for the Featured Actress Tony Award.

I met Harriet in her dressing room at the Marquis Theatre, less than a week after opening night and before she learned of her nominations.

Nancy Rosati:  Where did you grow up?

Harriet Harris:  In Fort Worth, Texas. Thereís a lot of indigenous theater there now, but when I was growing up, the only place to see anything was the Casa MaŮana Theatre that Billy Rose started. That burned down and the community wanted a theater again so they commissioned Buckminster Fuller to build this big geodesic dome, which was theater in the round. Thatís where I grew up watching musicals. It was so exciting and itís something Iíd never been able to do until now. When I was little I thought, ďWhat could be more fun than that? What could be more exciting than theater?Ē

NR:  Then you went to Juilliard and you were only 18. What was that like?

HH:  I think I didnít know any better. Coming from Texas, I didnít think that many people wanted to be actors. Everybody wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. There were only about three people that I knew who wanted to be actors, and none of them seriously wanted to do it. I was the only person, so I thought that was great because I didnít want to have to be competitive. (laughs)

NR:  (laughing) You didnít want to be competitive so you picked Juilliard?

HH:  One of my godmothers told my mother that if I was going to do this, I might as well do it right. Apparently this was a good place to go so I auditioned for it. I got in and that made things very simple. I had a perfectly awful grade point average so I donít know where else I would have been accepted. I was lucky.

NR:  Since you really didnít know what to expect, were you ready for it?

HH:  Iím glad I went so young. Had I known more about the world, I think I would have gotten less out of the school. You have to change the way you talk, you change the way you walk. Itís all in an effort to be able to be more of a chameleon ultimately, but people who are in their twenties really have an identity by the time theyíre in that school. I just didnít care. It was all sort of make-believe to me. I didnít care if I sounded like me or like somebody else. It just didnít matter to me. I thought, ďWhatever I can do that will make me a better actor, I will do.Ē A lot of people have said that the training at Juilliard prepares you to be a terrific actor but sometimes it robs you of individuality.

I loved Juilliard. I had big problems sometimes when I was there but I really do think that we were well trained. We left able to do just about anything we wanted to - (laughing) outside of musical comedy of course!

NR:  Youíve done film, theater, and TV. Where did you start? What did you go into right after school?

HH:  I went to a company that was founded by John Houseman and Margot Harley called The Acting Company. Margot still runs it today. The very first Acting Company was the first graduating class from Juilliard. They wanted to keep the group together. Now, years later, itís people from training schools all over the country and people whoíve had careers and are interested in touring. I thought it was a great opportunity and it was very worthwhile.

NR:  You also work on Frasier from time to time. Doing a show like that must be an incredible experience.

HH:  It is fun. Theyíre very smart and very funny. As a group they get along incredibly well together. After all these years, they have pretty much the same sensibility of how theyíre going to go about doing something. In fact, theyíve had that from the first year. They were very well suited to each other and I think a lot of that has to do with Jeff Greenberg who cast it. Heís just brilliant.

NR:  Are you going to do any more episodes?

HH:  Iím here in New York now. I only do them once or twice a year. I wonít be doing one this year.

NR:  I know youíve done other TV shows. Do you have a favorite?

HH:  Any time youíre working it is fun. Some jobs are more fun than others. Frasier is fun to do because until recently one of my best friends was writing on the show. Iíve done a lot of plays with David Pierce. I knew Kelsey (Grammar) from Juilliard. John (Mahoney) and I did a play together in Chicago. Peri (Gilpin) I knew from a long time ago. Jane (Leeves) is really the only person Iíd never met and sheís great.

NR:  How about Paul Rudnick?

HH:  I love him.

NR:  The story is that he wrote a lot of the roles in Jeffrey for you.

HH:  Yes. I was doing a play with Chris Ashley, who directed Jeffrey. When Paul had the first reading they asked me to come in and read these three parts and it worked out really well. Then Paul told me he was going to write more parts for me. When I was offered it, I just thought, ďThis is irresistible. I have to do this.Ē

NR:  Recently you also did Rude Entertainment with Paul. Whatís he like to work with?

HH:  Heís so funny. Heís very sweet. Heíll try to discover whatís funny about you and make changes in your character. When we were doing Rude Entertainment he would bring in all these new scenes and we would talk about them. A lot of things that I would suggest, or somebody else would suggest, would either be in the play, or Paul would think of a funnier version of what we had suggested. He does that a lot. Heís so funny that heís not threatened by anybody elseís ideas. Either he says, ďYes, thatís the best thingĒ or he says, ďYeah, and we could do this....Ē I think the more and more work heís done, the more confident he is about listening to othersí ideas.

The Man Who Came to Dinner
With Byron Jennings in
The Man Who Came to Dinner

Photo: Joan Marcus

NR:  You also worked with Nathan Lane in The Man Who Came to Dinner. What was that like?

HH:  Heís wonderful. He was so sweet to me and so generous. I thought he was great in the play. It was a joy to watch him work. This isnít news to anybody but he really is brilliantly funny. Heís funny in rehearsal, heís funny as heís making remarks about things. Heís just a deeply comic person. Itís fascinating and wonderful to watch how he thinks and works. Heís such a craftsperson. Some things he works on and refines and some things, the very first time you see them, you donít understand how they can possibly get any better. Sometimes they maintain that very high level, and sometimes he exceeds himself. Heís so quick and so witty. Itís really fun to be around him.

NR:  People started giving him a hard time near the end of The Producers when he was having vocal problems.

HH:  I saw him do that and he was spectacular. I was so thrilled with his performance. I couldnít believe how good he was. I donít think that people were intended to do that role eight times a week. If anybody could do it, Nathan would be the person, so I donít know if it can be done.

NR:  Now Brad (Oscar) gets a chance to find out.

HH:  I bet heís going to be terrific because he was so good in his other part, but I think itís very different when you create something. Just getting this show up [Thoroughly Modern Millie], which is such a joy to do, is such hard work to rehearse it and get it to the point where youíre open. Youíre exhausted. When you open, youíre so thrilled, particularly when itís going well, which (knock wood) so far this show is. Youíre so grateful to have the opportunity and so grateful to have a job. Everybodyís so wonderful but it doesnít mean that youíre not really tired and really scared and really nervous. (laughs) Itís that whole anxiety about, ďIs the soufflť going to fall, when itís taken months and months to get it ready?Ē

NR:  Itís taken this show a long time to get here. I know you werenít in the company the entire time.

HH:  No. I did one of the first readings. My friend Edward Hibbert did one of the readings too, playing my part, or what might have been his part. When Edward and I were in Los Angeles doing Jeffrey, Richard Morris, who wrote the original screenplay for Millie, came to see Jeffrey. He suggested to Dick (Scanlan) that I might be the right person to play Mrs. Meers. That was how it began. I did the very first workshop around five or six years ago and that was really, really fun. At that point, I enjoyed it so much that I hoped it would happen but it didnít pan out. All these years later Iím getting to do it and Iím thrilled.

Millie Francis Jue, Harriet Harris and Ken Leung
in Thoroughly Modern Millie

Photo: Joan Marcus

NR:  Youíre not generally a singer, but now youíre standing there, center stage, belting away. What is that like?

HH:  It was terrifying - just the idea. I kept thinking, ďSomeoneís going to tell me to forget it - youíre not going to be able to do the songs.Ē But my gosh, you canít be in a musical and not sing! That would just be horrible. People were very nice and I kept saying, ďDonít you want me to go to a coach?Ē They said, ďNo, you sound great. Donít worry about it.Ē I think now that weíre open Iíll go get a teacher. In order to get another job doing this kind of thing, I think I should probably be better trained. This was just lucky. Itís a good thing I didnít have to audition for it!

NR:  You got a love letter from John Simon the other day.

HH:  Well, thatís nice.

NR:  You didnít read it?

HH:  No.

NR:  He called you a ďcomic genius.Ē

HH:  Somebody told me that. People call you all sorts of things at different times in your life. (laughs) You never know. You canít get stuck on any of them. I think we got a whole bunch of good reviews and Iím real happy about that. Itís a great show and a great cast.

NR:  Are you thinking about possible Tony nominations?

HH:  I donít know. We were doing the cast recording the other day and I just thought, ďI canít believe Iím in this situation.Ē I canít believe Iím in a Broadway musical. I canít believe that Iím doing a cast album like I used to listen to when I was a little kid. Itís just absurd. My gosh, Iím going to be able to send this to my niece and sheíll be able to put it on her CD player and listen to her aunt in this musical.

I donít know whatís going to happen. I think itís great that the show got so many Outer Critics Circle nominations. If we get some nominations, itís great, but even without them, there are 1600 people who stand every night. This is wonderful. If there are other things that come ... I certainly think Sutton (Foster) will get a nomination. I think the show should get one. I have no idea how any of that works. I wish the ensemble was eligible for a nomination. Theyíre fabulous.

NR:  Tell me about previews. I understand you were making a lot of changes.

HH:  My song changed SIX TIMES! The melody changed, the lyrics changed. There were many versions.

NR:  It has to be difficult rehearsing new things all day and then trying to do them before an audience at night.

HH:  There was one day when they changed the song. I was supposed to do it that night and it was brand new. I went up. What are you going to do? Itís embarrassing but itís not like I had a chance to rehearse it. Itís not like it sank in overnight, but it was necessary for them to see it, to see if they were on the right track with it. Even though I went up in it, they said, ďThat was great. Weíre closer.Ē I thought, ďWeíre closer???Ē I was terrified.

NR:  Plus you were probably exhausted.

HH:  Yeah, but it sounds so contrary to complain about being tired when youíve got the coolest job there is. I feel like all of us here have the absolute best job we could possibly have, and possibly the best job we may ever have. This is such a fun show, but it really is like staying up all night after a party. You are tired the next day. Just because it was a great time, it doesnít mean you donít pay for it someway, but it really is fabulously fun.

NR:  Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about Memento. The concept of that film is so fascinating. Can you tell me a bit about doing it?

HH:  I only worked two days on it and I was astonished by it. It was so peculiar reading the screenplay that it really did tax you. My reaction was that if it was a play, it would be excruciating, but as a movie, itís going to be fascinating because of the point of view. I like that movie as much as any other movie Iíve seen in the past five or six years. I was so proud to be part of it.

I thought Chris (Nolan) just did an amazing job. Heís a wonderful director. Heís really fun to work for and very clear. It was very low budget so we couldnít do a lot of takes. We pretty much got whatever he used in two or three takes. One of the scenes that Stephen Tobolowsky and I did, Chris said, ďI should have written this but I didnít have a chance to get around to it. This is the idea. Why donít you all do something and show me?Ē So, we did this thing and he said, ďYeah. Thatís what I would have wanted anyway.Ē I donít want to make it sound like we wrote a scene - it was all Chris. He gave us the idea and the scenario. I thought Guy (Pearce) was just stunning. Heís so talented.

NR:  Anything you havenít done? It doesnít seem like it.

HH:  Oh yeah, there are tons of things. There are lots of different kinds of parts Iíd like to do. Until recently, I havenít been right for them, and suddenly I am. I think when I was a younger actress, I worked a lot, but I had to play really eccentric parts. (laughing) Now that Iím older Iím playing really eccentric parts again but theyíre more fun. The Six Feet Under episode I got to do just a little while ago was wonderful because she was a very off-centered woman. I like playing people that have problems. My friend Lisa Banes in California likes to play heroes. Weíll read things and Iíll say, ďOh, Lisa, this is so your part.Ē Sheíll say, ďHarriet, look at this. This is such a loser. You should play her.Ē Of course I always think, ďLisa, youíre right. This is a great part!Ē Then she sighs and says, ďThink of what youíll have to wear.Ē I think those parts are the most interesting. It would probably be good for me to play a hero although ... (laughs) I donít think I have one in me!

NR:  Hopefully youíll be in this show for quite awhile and you wonít have to worry about that just yet.

HH:  I hope so. I love this. Thanks so much.

I wish Harriet the best of luck with her Tony nomination. Her scenes as Mrs. Meers are clearly audience favorites in an extremely impressive musical debut. Itís hard to imagine anything this woman canít do.

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