UPDATE, JANUARY 27: Rosemary Harris clarifies that she said “misty-eyed” not “mystified” regarding the film Tea With Mussolini and seeing the role go to Judi Dench. It’s corrected, below.
EXCLUSIVE: In November I began these conversations with artists who have deep roots on both coasts with Bradley Cooper, receiving parallel plaudits for his leading roles in American Sniper, on screen, and The Elephant Man, on Broadway. It seems apt to conclude it with Rosemary Harris, 47 years Cooper’s senior and an actress whose life in the theater, film and television has few parallels in the breadth and stature of the work. For bookends, you would be hard-pressed to find an odder juxtaposition than her major-movie debut opposite Stewart Granger, Peter Ustinov and Elizabeth Taylor in MGM’s 1954 period extravaganza Beau Brummell and her recently-concluded run in an astringently elegant off-Broadway production of Tom Stoppard’s time-traveling Indian Ink, a variant meditation, to be sure, on the inconstant glories of the British Empire.
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Harris has nine Tony nominations to her credit and one win, in 1966 for her performance as Eleanor Of Aquitaine, the imprisoned conscience-wife of Robert Preston’s King Henry II in the world premiere of James Goldman’s The Lion In Winter. (The Oscar-winning film adaptation two years later starred Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn.) No less an admirer than playwright Arthur Miller told New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow that Harris’ performance of Kate Keller in a London staging of his All My Sons was revelatory: “She created an ambience there that you could cut with a knife,” Miller recalled. “It was quite wonderful.”
Against all this is the truism that more people know her as Aunt May Parker, benevolent guardian of Peter Parker and his superpower alternate self in the three Spider-Man films from 2002-2007, than for all her six-plus decades of work combined. And that May’s imparted wisdom—I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride—probably supercedes any pithy phrase by Shakespeare, let alone Arthur Miller, in the public’s knowledge of this self-effacing, self-challenging actress for all seasons.
We spoke one evening during her run in Indian Ink. She had a few weeks left in the run before returning to the cabin in the woods near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she lives with the writer John Ehle, her husband since 1967 and the father of their daughter, the actress Jennifer Ehle. Harris had been cast in a recurring role in The Money, David Milch’s series that HBO nixed last March after seeing the pilot.
JEREMY GERARD: Is this your first Stoppard play?
ROSEMARY HARRIS: I believe it is. You know, I get mixed up because my daughter has been in two. No, I haven’t done one, but I’ve always wanted to. I’ve seen all his plays.
GERARD: Do you have a favorite?
HARRIS: Well, I didn’t always understood them. I think like a lot of people, Arcadia was the most accessible.
GERARD: Arcadia and Indian Ink both take place concurrently in two different time frames, though Arcadia is set in a single place while your play is set in both colonial India and contemporary London.
HARRIS: Yes, I can still see Arcadia in my mind’s eye, that beautiful Georgian room and the actors’ moving through it. I loved that idea. And [Indian Ink director] Carey [Perloff] has sort of adopted that for Indian Ink, which seems to bother nobody. I think in the original English production, India was one side and England was on the other and never the twain shall meet. I went with my sister because we had our early childhood in India, and we loved it. But I don’t think it was as imaginative as this one, where it all blends together.
GERARD: For the same company, the Roundabout Theatre, you were in Athol Fugard’s The Road To Mecca, with Carla Gugino and Jim Dale not long ago on Broadway. You played an older woman living alone in the South African Karoo who has begun creating weird, whimsical sculptures that frighten the local townspeople. She’s visited by her niece, a young school teacher, and by the local priest, who believes the statues are blasphemous but who also is in love with her. In the original 1988 off-Broadway production, they were played by Yvonne Bryceland, Amy Irving and the playwright himself.
HARRIS: I love the play. I loved doing it. It seemed to go in a flash and I never felt tired when it was over because you felt so much adrenaline. I did see the earlier production, and of course when you see a play you sort of identify with somebody your own age, so I don’t really remember Yvonne, because I identified with Amy. So when I came to play my part I go, Why didn’t I pay more attention?
GERARD: How did it all get started for you?
HARRIS: I never dreamt that I’d ever even be in a movie, although I did get a film quite early on, a Hollywood extravaganza with Stewart Granger and Peter Ustinov and Elizabeth Taylor. That was Beau Brummell. And that was really a wonderful experience. I did a lot of stock before I even went to drama school. I sort of went in the back door of drama school and I had joined in a stock company to get my experience. We went to Margate and East Lawn, and then Bedford, a different play every week, two performances every night. I had all that before I even went to drama school.
GERARD: British actors move freely among theater, television and film, because everything is centrally located around London. Was that true of your generation? It’s only recently that it’s begun to be true in the U.S. as well.
HARRIS: The British until about maybe 30 years ago always thought of film as a sort of poor relation. Theatre was the thing, especially classical theatre. You had to know your Shakespeare and your Shaw and your Sheridan and all that. I had a year at RADA [the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art]. Theatre is really in my genes. I always say that I’ve grown little flaps on a stage and I’ve got these little gills that open, because on the stage I’m in my element and I’m like a fish that’s come out when I’m on land, which is filming. I’m never quite as comfortable as I am on the stage.
Joan Collins was in my class at RADA and I was looking at the [year]book the other day. She’s wonderful. She says, we all went for our end of year criticism from the school director, Sir Kenneth Barnes, who said to her her, “Joan, you have a very pleasant personality and very charming presence, but your voice is weak. And if you don’t watch it, it’ll be films for you, which would be a pity.”
GERARD: For years I’ve wanted to ask you about Sunshine, the extraordinary film by Istvan Szabo that you made in 1999 with Ralph Fiennes and your daughter Jennifer. It’s the story of a Hungarian-Jewish family from the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the fall of Communism. Fiennes plays the patriarch in each of several generations of the family and you play the matriarch and, later, your grown granddaughter. It’s a tough, harrowing film. The Times’s A.O Scott wrote that “the film leaves you with a sense of quiet, chastened grace, as embodied by the older Valerie, played by Ms. Harris…’She was the only one of us who had the gift of breathing freely,’ her troubled grandson remarks, and Sunshine, at last, honors that gift.” It was not a commercially successful movie.
HARRIS: No, and I thought Istvan did a wonderful job. And Ralph never got the credit that he should have done because it was such a complicated thing for him to do, play these three generations. I was disappointed it didn’t do better, but it didn’t have Hollywood backing. And then The Pianist came along, and that suddenly got all the attention. But I think it’s an incredible piece. I only came in on Jennifer’s coattails—if she had turned it down, I’m not sure Istvan would have offered it to me. But once Jennifer had agreed he then wanted to see me, and realized that we did have a sort of resemblance, you know.
GERARD: How long did it take to shoot?
HARRIS: About four months I suppose. I only had one little regret. Some of the filming was in July and it conflicted with one day of the film of Tea With Mussolini, which I had been asked to do. Because of that one day of filming, [director Franco] Zeffirelli said, “I’m sorry, we don’t quite know what our schedule is and I can’t really agree to that.” So I had to give up, and Judi Dench got the part. I was always a little misty-eyed about it because Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith were such great friends of mine. But I wouldn’t have given up Sunshine for anything.
GERARD: Did that have anything to do with your earlier experience with the TV miniseries The Holocaust with Fritz Weaver and Meryl Streep?
HARRIS: The Holocaust was the most memorable experience filming because it was important and it wasn’t entertainment. It was history. It was unbearably real at times. You forgot it was a film. Because the history of it all is so recent, you know, you couldn’t believe that you were there and it happened in such a short time earlier. Somebody sent us some photographs of Fritz and I the other day. Oh, it all came flapping back. There’s a picture of me saying goodbye to him when he was getting on the train, and oh, it’s still painful. It filmed in Vienna and also in Berlin. And we spent a day at Mauthausen [the concentration camp in northern Austria].
George Rose and Meryl and I and Fritz, we’d all huddle together when we came back from filming and meet in the bar and just sort of sit there. And I really didn’t like Vienna at all, and I thought everybody had grim faces. Maybe six years later, I did The Boys From Brazil with Sir Laurence [Olivier], and it was a whole different Vienna. It was, suddenly I had snow flakes on my eye lashes and it was the Viennese opera and sachers and because I was coming from a happy place, it seemed a happier city.
GERARD: What about some fun films?
HARRIS: Yeah, what about some fun films!
GERARD: Not The Boys from Brazil, I imagine.
HARRIS: No, not The Boys From Brazil. Well, one of the happiest films, although it never turned out to be very successful, was A Flea In Her Ear, which we made in Paris with Rex [Harrison], and my best friend Rachel Roberts, who happened to be married to Rex.
It wasn’t really successful because Jacques Charon directed it and he’d never directed a film before. And Rex wasn’t at his happiest. The story’s about a little lawyer’s clerk who is always wanting to be a number 10 but he’s really only a number 6, and then he finds he can’t really service his wife any more and he explains it like when you’re going through the customs and you have nothing to declare. This was not Rex’s image, and he wasn’t about to play anybody who had nothing to declare.
GERARD: Not far from where you are doing Indian Ink is a revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, another play with which you have a deep connection. You played Agnes opposite George Grizzard, in a legendary Broadway revival in 1996; those roles today are being played by Glenn Close and John Lithgow. How has Broadway changed in your own experience?
HARRIS: People were talking about prices the other day. Richard Burton was a dear friend of mine and he was doing Time Remembered with Helen Hayes and Susan Strasberg, and it was a hot ticket. I wanted to see it, and Richard offered me his house seats. I went to pay for them and nearly fainted because they wanted nine dollars! I’d never paid more than four. Hard to believe.
GERARD: That was around 1958, if I remember correctly, and it was the great Morosco Theatre. Three decades later it would be torn down, with the theater named for Miss Hayes, to make way for the hideous Marriott Marquis Hotel. Also hard to believe. Later, you starred in two productions of The Royal Family, the first with the legendary Eva Le Galliene. So—do you think about retiring?
HARRIS: I don’t realize I miss the theater until I’m back in it again and then realize, Oh, yes, I love this. I don’t know how many more plays I’ll be able to do, but I do love being on the stage and I hope this won’t be the end. Of course, I really do like being home in Winston-Salem and being a homemaker. It’s far too big of a house for us and we should have downsized 10 years ago but we kind of missed the boat on that. I think we may have to go out of it feet first. I heard John on the phone the other day saying, “Never marry an actress who’s still acting when she’s nearly 90. This is my life. My wife works nights.”
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