Artwork by CATMUNS
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC This week the Cinedelphia Film Festival will be screening both Suspiria and Phantom of the Paradise for SOLD OUT screenings, hosted by the wide-eyed star of both films, Jessica Harper. Phantom was Jessica’s first starring role and it led to leading roles in such iconic films as Suspiria, Pennies from Heaven, Shock Treatment and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. Phawker got a few moments last week to chat with Jessica in anticipation for her appearances and we discussed not only the two films that are usually at the forefront of most fan’s minds, but also her career since that has evolved into her singing for a much different audience rather than the crowd at The Paradise – children. We also touch on her upcoming memoir Winnetka, which she has been releasing snippets from on her blog in podcast form.
PHAWKER: You had an amazing one-two punch at the start of your career with Suspiria and Phantom which are both screening at the Cinedelphia Film Fest, did you have any idea both of these films would be having these renascences almost 40 years later?
JESSICA HARPER: Oh God no! It didn’t even occur to me. You never know what the life of a movie is going to be. If I had, had to pick from the movies that I had been involved with, which one was most likely to still have a heartbeat 40 years later I’m not sure I would have picked those; although I love them both dearly. But having been in Woody Allen movies, and a Steve Martin film Pennies From Heaven, and My Favorite Year, these other movies I would have guessed would have had a longer life, but you never know.
PHAWKER: In Phantom, you’re not only acting, but singing and dancing as well. That being your first big role, what was the audition process like for that film?
JESSICA HARPER: Oh that was like a Hollywood movie in and of itself, the audition process. I was in an off Broadway play which was a musical and Brian saw it and asked me to come sing for Paul Williams; to see if I might be able to do this role. This is in New York, and I went into an office and sang a Karen Carpenter’s song, sort of appropriately and Paul Williams liked my singing. Then they asked me to fly out to Hollywood to do a screen test. This to me was flabbergasting, because I was very young, fresh out of Illinois and had seen this in movies — you know Judy Garland and people like that, auditioning and doing screen tests. So anyway, it was also daunting because my competition was Linda Ronstadt and a rock star at the time named Mama Lion. So I didn’t expect this to really go anywhere. So they flew me out to California and the put me the Chateau Marmont and I went to the screen test and this is where I black out, [laughs] I don’t remember what happened. But I do remember, being back in New York and getting a phone call from Brian saying that I had gotten the part and it was just an incredible rush. It was an incredible moment I was so excited, needless to say.
JESSICA HARPER: There are so many good songs in the movie. I mean I love singing “Old Souls,” that I got to sing. But also when William Finley is singing Faust and playing on the piano. Even Upholstery is a really great song, there are so many great songs.
PHAWKER: I read somewhere that Dario Argento cast you for Suspiria based on Phantom, what was that like going from working with De Palma in the states to working with Argento in Italy? Both directors are known for being less than friendly to actors and I am always fascinated when I hear what it was like when American actors in the 70s would go to work on an Italian productions?
JESSICA HARPER: They were known for being less than friendly, but I had a really good experience with both directors. Brian was very smart, very funny, and he has a very precise vision. I think sometimes directors get a reputation like that because they are really emphatic that they want to realize the vision that they have. Dario was an incredible gentleman, and he was really lovely and supportive, complimentary and took great care of me in that movie. So I have nothing but kind things to say about either of them.
It was a very different experience in Italy. At the time, I don’t know if this is still the case because they had such a broad and international audience in Italian cinema, they didn’t do much live sound recording. This was because everything was going to be looped anyway. So um, that was weird. Because you know, you would be doing a scene, and someone would be building a set over there with hammers. So that was an unusual thing, also there was very little English spoken, which I love that because I actually learned to speak Italian. It’s just a different film culture over there than it was over here, but not that different actually in my experience.
PHAWKER: You’ve done more than your fair share of interviews about Suspiria so I have to ask what’s the one thing that you remember most about filming Suspira or comes to mind when someone brings it up that no one ever asks about?
JESSICA HARPER: Well most people want to hear about the hair-raising run through the hallway in the last section of the movie, or worms falling on my head in the middle of the movie; something like that. I think my favorite part of the filming was the people, the Italian crew. They were just really fun, really supportive and really professional. The makeup artists, were the best I ever worked with and the costume designer was brilliant. I just really enjoyed the atmosphere, I really enjoyed speaking Italian, I loved going out to dinner with Joan Bennett, that was really fun! (Laughs) Just being there, since I was there for four months filming. It was just an altogether enjoyable experience; except for that food poisoning I got one time.
PHAWKER: What did you get food poisoning from?
JESSICA HARPER: It was never really established, but I think it was from eating some street food and it didn’t go well.
PHAWKER: So in a genre known for exploitation in both films you managed to portray a rather strong female protagonist, was that important for you as an actress when you chose roles?
JESSICA HARPER: Yeah I mean, as any actor does I think you like to play strong characters, with character traits you wish you had yourself. (Laughs) Strength of character and all of those good things, so I always responded to roles that were on the powerful side.
PHAWKER: What inspired the move to writing, you’ve written children’s books and even a cookbook, under the guise of the Crabby Cook?
JESSICA HARPER: What happened was I had two children, kind of back to back, two daughters. So I spent a lot more time not working as an actor than working in the early years of their childhood. I wrote songs for children. I made seven albums of I guess you would call it “Family Music” and from those songs I wrote I created stories and from those stories I created picture books. I ended up with seven or eight picture books, published by Putnam. Then I wrote a series for older kids, as my kids got older I sort of adjusted what I was doing to suit their age. I wrote some books for children that were readers sort of ages seven and eight, another series of books for them. Then again as they got older I just made a collection of stories about them in life and the trials of feeding a family of very picky eaters called The Crabby Cook. Its more of a memoir than a cookbook, the recipes are meant for busy people to get through the day and feed their family. So they are quite simple in other words. So the trajectory of what I did at the time really mirrors the growth of my children.
PHAWKER: I think you were ahead of the game with The Crabby Cook, there seems to a plethora of cooking shows/cook books aimed at people who don’t have a lot of time to prepare meals, but still want to cook for their family.
JESSICA HARPER: You know it was all about my agenda. How few ingredients can I get or use to make a descent recipe. They are very short recipes, quick, fast and often appealing to people who as I say are very picky, my children and not too mention my husband who is even pickier than they are.
PHAWKER: Finally, you blog pretty regularly, and you’re even getting into podcasting for an upcoming project. I loved the humor and perspective in the piece you just released about your 20th birthday.
JESSICA HARPER: That is part of the content I’ve been working on now for two years. Having written for children, my children and other children for some time now, I am now writing about my own childhood. So I wrote a memoir, which is only in audio format. It will be released as a podcast and its title is Winnetka. On my blog I just started posting the smaller stories, individual stories are incorporated in this podcast. So the piece you heard was a two minute excerpt from the memoir. So you will be seeing more of those on the blog and they will all be audio rather than written.