April 12, 2019 Interview – Jessica Harper
Some people are just born with artistic inclinations, and as a result, are immediately drawn to the flame of creativity. Often a desire impossible to resist, in the case of Jessica Harper, she not only had the yearning at a young age, but the talent that would take her great heights. Traditionally a theater actress, by 1973 she nabbed her first role in a feature film, Brain De Palma’s Academy Award nominated Phantom of the Paradise.
A impressive start for a young actress, within a few years Harper was cast in the role of a lifetime, taking on the lead in Dario Argento’s 1977 iconic film Suspiria. Continuing to work through the decades in both film and television, she also has diversified with outlets including songwriting, book writing, and more recently the launch of her memoir-esque podcast Winnetka. A compelling individual full of passion and intrigue, Harper recently sat down to chat about her career as an actress, her love for music, plus much more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in film and television for over forty years. Starring in many features over the decades, briefly tell us, what initially inspired you to pursue a career as an actress?
Jessica Harper – I’d always been interested in it in some way or another. I was a modern dancer when I was in high school, then I went into painting, then I went on to be a graphic artist for a while, but I wanted to do something that seemed like more fun. (Laughs) So when I got into college I joined a theater class, started doing that, and I fell in love with it. That’s when I discovered I can also sing, which is very helpful for someone in the theater. I eventually got a job in musical theater which got my career started.
Cryptic Rock – Very interesting. From there you would go on to do film. One of your first roles was in the Brain De Palma 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise. What was that early experience like for you?
Jessica Harper – It was thrilling because it was my first movie. I had been working in theater in New York and working at Off-Broadway shows. One of those Off-Broadway shows became a big hit in New York, and a lot of people saw it, including Brain De Palma. Brian asked me to come an audition based on my appearance in that show. I went and sang for Paul Williams, who you may did the score for that movie. Then I got to fly out to LA and do a screen test, which was pretty magical. Then I got the role, which was even more magical!
The experience of doing it, as I said, was thrilling because it was the first time I had ever done a movie. It was Brian De Palma, who was a wonderful, very creative director. I worked with William Finley and Paul Williams who were amazing and creative actors. I also got to sing some beautiful songs in that movie as well. It was a great gift and great way to start what ended up being a rather long career.
Cryptic Rock – That is a great beginning! A few years later you were cast as the lead in the now classic film, Suspiria. How did the role come about for you, and what was it like working with Dario Argento?
Jessica Harper – That came about because Dario actually saw the De Palma film, Phantom of the Paradise. I guess he felt, based on that performance, I would be right for his project Suspiria. I met with him in Los Angeles and I was told he was this brilliant director; sort of Alfred Hitchcock of Italy. I took the role and he was great. Dario was brilliant and had a very strong vision of what he wanted to create and it ended up being quite groundbreaking in the genre of Horror movies. He had a style that many directors have said they emulated afterwards because it was so unusual and quite breathtaking, actually.
Dario was lovely to work with, in fact, the whole crew were fantastic to work with. Of course I also had a chance to work with the movie icon Joan Bennett which was thrilling! She had such an incredible résumé of movies dating back the ’30s and ’40s. It was all around a great experience.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds like something quite memorable. Suspiria is one of those films that people still speak about all these years later. It is not for everyone, but it still catches everyone’s eye. Stylistically unique to any other Horror film ever made, during the creative process, did you sense this was going to be a different kind of movie?
Jessica Harper – Yes, definitely. You could tell because of the way the art direction, which was beautiful. The lighting design, per Dario’s instruction, was gorgeous; you could tell it would be gorgeous to look at. The costume designer also had a big part in that, he was phenomenal. The entire crew was, including hair and makeup. I just knew all the elements were definitely there to create something that would be gorgeous and interesting. That is definitely is what happened.
Cryptic Rock – Most certainly. Beyond acting, you also done your share of songwriting. Has music something you have always been passionate about, or did it come after the acting?
Jessica Harper – I really always had a passion for it, but I really got into it, as singer, when I was in college. What followed that was, I started doing some songwriting, which ended up turning into something when I wrote some songs for Bette Midler among other people. I wrote a lot of songs for myself as well; I’ve written 7 albums of music for children. Now in my new podcast, Winnetka, I have a lot of original music that I wrote and incorporate into the show.
Cryptic Rock – Very interesting. Tell us a little about the podcast. What does it entail?
Jessica Harper – The podcast is a memoir. It is about growing up in Winnetka, Illinois; that is where the title comes from. It is my hometown, a suburb of Chicago. It’s about growing up there in the ’50s -’60s and what it was like growing up there in Eisenhower’s post-war middle America. It tells some about my father who had PTSD after World War II. It also tells some about the struggles of growing up in a big family; there was 6 kids, 2 sets of twins.
Then there is this cultural revolution in the ’60s, so there are all these cultural events the podcast points to. More importantly, it’s a very personal story about growing up in that era and the relations with my siblings and parents in that context. Woven through the whole story is, as I say, my original music, so it’s quite musical in addition to just being a memoir.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds very compelling. It sounds like a living autobiography.
Jessica Harper – Exactly. I found this was unique in the podcast landscape. I hadn’t seen anything like it and it just seemed like a really interesting format for a memoir. That intrigued me and it was really interesting to create.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds like it. This is also free for people to check out, correct?
Jessica Harper – Yes, people can find it wherever they like to get their podcasts, or they can go to our website winnetkapodcast.com.
Cryptic Rock – Excellent. Beyond movies, music, and the podcast, you also have written several children books, as well as a cookbook. As a creative outlet, how would you compare writing to music and acting?
Jessica Harper – I love writing. It’s just an activity I really enjoy, it’s like a puzzle trying to figure out the best way to tell a particular story. It’s similar to acting in a sense. The thing I love about acting is, figuring out the puzzle of the best to say the words and how to detail a performance. There’s always some puzzle like that in whatever artistic endeavor you undertake, and that’s what I most enjoy. I’ll do almost anything artistic if it presents a challenge like that.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds exciting. So what attracted you to writing children’s music and literature?
Jessica Harper – I had small children at that time. When my children were young I was very involved in being a mother; very involved in reading to books to them and listening to music that was kid friendly for them. Then I started creating my own, partially because I was so involved in their lives. They did some things with me; they have been on several of my recordings. Most of the inspiration for 2 of the books, are my daughter’s Elizabeth and Nora. One of my books is called Nora’s Room and another one is called Lizzy’s dos and don’ts. It was a way to be more involved in their lives.
Cryptic Rock – That’s great, there is nothing like sharing a story with your children. It’s a great feeling to share stories and music with them. You recently had a role in the 2018 remake of Suspiria. That in mind, would you consider taking on any other roles in the future?
Jessica Harper – Yes. I’m doing something right now for television, which is kind of fabulous. I can’t talk about it much, it is still under wraps. It is a show Apple is producing for their new network, which they will be talking about extensively in the near future. There will be a lot of press about their new streaming endeavor. This show I’m working on will be their first show, I believe. I am up in Canada right now shooting it. It is really a fantastic show and I hope to do more.
Cryptic Rock – That is wonderful to hear and something to look forward to. Doing your share of television, ranging from one-off roles to recurring roles, how would you compare working in television to film?
Jessica Harper – Television general shoots much faster, film can be a very slow process. Some would argue you get more detail when you do film, because you do have a little bit more time. As you know, there is so much great television right now that I don’t think any of it suffers from a quick, high pressure schedule. The show I am working on for Apple right now looks gorgeous; the costumes and sets are just amazing. I think it’s getting to be that TV has approached, or in some ways, surpassed the quality you normally see in film.
Cryptic Rock – Very true, there is so much great material produced by television nowadays. Last question. If you are a fan of Horror and Sci-Fi films, do you have any favorites?
Jessica Harper – I would claim that the Wizard of Oz is a Horror movie. (Laughs) That was the first movie I ever saw when I was about 5 and it scared the bejesus out of me. I had nightmares for weeks, and I thought, I don’t want to see scary movies like that.
To be honest, I didn’t go to many Horror movies in my lifetime, because I didn’t want to pay to be terrified. Now I see it differently and I really appreciate a movie like Get Out (2017) or Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, where directors take the Horror genre and expand the boundaries, making it into something fantastic. I have sort of recovered from my fear of fear. Now I’m really getting interested in the genre.
Cryptic Rock – It is interesting you say that. A film like 1984’s The NeverEnding Story has a lot of terrifying imagery in it for children of a certain age.
Jessica Harper – I never saw that, but there is a lot terrifying imagery in something like Grimm’s fairy tales that kids are exposed to, that maybe traumatized them more than we understand. There is so many things, of course there is Bambi (1942), whose mother gets killed. All this stuff that we think of as benign, because it’s either animated or aimed toward children, but if you look at it closely, it’s pretty terrifying.