PLAYBILL ON-LINE's BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Julie Harris

PLAYBILL ON-LINE's BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Julie Harris It's not easy to get a Tony nomination, as Nicole Kidman, Lea DeLaria and the supporting cast of The Iceman Cometh will certainly attest. These odds make Julie Harris' achievement all the more extraordinary: ten Tony nominations in her career -- not to mention five Tony victories.
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Photo by Photo by Aubrey Reuben

It's not easy to get a Tony nomination, as Nicole Kidman, Lea DeLaria and the supporting cast of The Iceman Cometh will certainly attest. These odds make Julie Harris' achievement all the more extraordinary: ten Tony nominations in her career -- not to mention five Tony victories.

Harris' Broadway credits include The Belle of Amherst and Lucifer's Child. She recently finished up the Broadway national tour of The Gin Game opposite Charles Durning, and come autumn, the actress is expected to start work on Scent of the Roses, a Broadway or off-Broadway-bound South African drama that Harris first performed in Seattle in summer 1998. Between the two, Harris is starring in a new play by Claudia Allen, Winter, a comedy-drama about an elderly man (Mike Nussbaum) who loses his wife and finds himself drawn once more to an old flame (Harris).

PBOL: With its aging protagonists, the plot of Winter sounds like it has some similarities to The Gin Game. Why follow one so closely upon the other?
Julie Harris: I love Claudia Allen's plays; she's a wonderful playwright. I've been reading her plays more than ten years. And she's from Michigan and I am, too. When we did The Gin Game in Chicago this past fall, I did a reading of Winter for the backers at Victory Gardens Theatre. We had the same cast then [including co-star Mike Nussbaum]. It's strange that Winter comes after The Gin Game in that it has old people growing old and helpless, and coping with that, but it's a different play entirely. The play's the thing for me. I'm excited, though I do wish we had a little more rehearsal time.

PBOL: Since we're on the subject of new projects, what's the latest on Scent of the Roses?
JH: We did that in Seattle last summer. I'm told Arthur Cantor wants to produce it in the fall. I've heard we go into rehearsal in September and open in October, but at this point nothing's really firmed up; I haven't signed anything.
The play is very beautiful, though, a remarkable story. It deals with the problems that came in the wake of apartheid ending in South Africa.

PBOL: It's great to hear that you're fully recovered from that fall you took backstage in Stamford in February [signing her name on a backstage autograph wall]. I sure hope that's the worst theatre moment you've ever endured. Can you remember the funniest?
JH: When we were doing The Belle of Amherst in Seattle, I had a petticoat under my dress. It was fastened with a snap, not a hook. The snap became undone, and I soon realized I was having difficulty walking. I looked down, and my petticoat was around my ankles. I looked at the audience, I lifted my dress to fasten it and I said, `What a faux pas!' PBOL: So one piece of acting advice you'd give is `always check your snaps, buttons and hooks!' Any other bits of wisdom offered to you along the way?
JH: My great acting teacher Charlotte Perry -- she taught at Mansfield Theatre Workshop and directed people like Charles Durning and Dustin Hoffman.. She told me to get enough sleep.

PBOL: After all these decades of performances, is there any character you look back on and -- putting aside the age difference -- you wish you could do again?
JH: Well, starting September 2000 I am going back on tour again with The Belle of Amherst, with original producer Don Gregory doing it again, but to really do again... probably Frankie, in Member of the Wedding. I love that play, and in Frankie, I never felt I was really up to that part completely. If I could transform myself to be 16 (well, the character was actually 12), and could again work with Ethel Waters and Brandon DeWilde, that would be the one.

PBOL: Okay, we've put it off long enough. Speaking as a Tony deca nominee, any thoughts on this year's laurels?

JH: Well, this year we have Judi Dench and Zoe Wanamaker. I haven't seen Amy's View but I adore Judi Dench. I have her picture up on my wall. But I saw Wanamaker, and that's a prize performance. I think they should give two prizes this year. And Elizabeth Franz [nominated for Featured Actress in Death of a Salesman] should be in the leading category as well.

PBOL: Were there any Tonys you won, that you felt were undeserved and any where you felt, yeah, this one was mine from the start?
JH: I never said anything like, `this is my year.' Most actors don't think that way. The Belle of Amherst was an extraordinary play for me, but I didn't feel I should win. Or when I won for Forty Carats. I considered that a kind of a bright, funny, charming play but not remarkable. That I would win a Tony took me by surprise...
Nevertheless, I think awards are good for the theatre, just as the Oscars are good for the movie business. I'd rather not think there's a `best,' just a lot of remarkable performances.

-- By David Lefkowitz