THEATERMANIA: What drew you to The Beauty Queen of Leenane?
JULIE HARRIS: You open up the daily newspaper and see: "Woman murdered and her daughter did it," and your jaw drops. When I saw it [Beauty Queen] in New York, there was no curtain. You came in, saw this set, and thought, "This is the last stop in my life. This is where I might die." It's so horrible, so graceless without hope. Then the play began, and people screamed with laughter. McDonagh has woven that ingredient of humor in such way that you have to laugh. But it's stark tragedy. I love the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. Gip Hoppe and Jeff Zinn are heroic. They do enormously wonderful work in the face of terrible odds, but they have survived.
TM: When did you first know you were an actress?
HARRIS: I was about 13 or 14. I was weaned on stage plays. My mother and father were great fans of the theater and movies. I saw all the important New York plays that came through Detroit. I saw Katherine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Maurice Evans, Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen, and Jose Ferrer. I saw Raymond Massey and Ruth Gordon in Sherwood's Abe Lincoln in Illinois. The season I came to New York, I saw Laurette Taylor and Lee J. Cobb. Those performances galvanized me. When I see great theater, I say, "I want to do that." I want to be part of that, even if I just sweep the stage or call, "Half-hour please, Miss Jones."
TM: Did you study acting?
HARRIS: I studied for three summers at a wonderful place called Perry Mansfield. Merce Cunningham taught dance. When I graduated from high school, I went to the Yale Drama School for one year. Then I studied at the Actor's Studio with Mr. Kazan and Mr. Strasberg.
TM: Was there one teacher who had the most influence on you?
HARRIS: Charlotte Perry of Perry Mansfield, Mr. Kazan, Mr. Strasberg, Harold Clurman, and Iris Warren, who was a voice coach for Stratford, Ontario, when I did Juliet in Canada. She was an extraordinary woman. She used to tell you things like, "If you can't find the way to read a line, whisper it to yourself." My great friend Charles Nelson Reilly is always teaching me. Charlie says, "You take it from here...just start here." [She points to the breakfast table.] This is our play. This is the beginning of our play. [She points to objects on the table.] What is that? Here's the butter, here is my grapefruit juice, and this is the play. Do you understand what I am saying?
TM: Yes, I do.
HARRIS: You don't go any further than this moment right now--and it leads you into everything. Like Mark Twain said, "I get these people together and they tell me what they want to do." You never ever stop learning. It's a process that goes on and on and on. You have to be curious about life, curious about everything. I'm re-learning The Belle of Amherst. I'm going to tour it next fall. I'm finding new moments, things I never did in the original production. I'm learning all the time.