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Stage Queen Julie Harris

Five-time Tony-winner Julie Harris takes centerstage in The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. Lynda Sturner speaks with her about theater at its very best.

Julie Harris
Julie Harris has received five Tony Awards, the most ever won by a performer. She won for playing Sally Bowles in John van Druten's I Am a Camera, St. Joan in Jean Anouilh's The Lark, Forty Carats, Mary Todd Lincoln in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln by James Prideaux, and Emily Dickinson in William Luce's The Belle of Amherst. Harris repeated her Broadway role in The Member of the Wedding on film, and her other movie roles include East of Eden, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Harper, Housesitter, and A Lift to Heaven. She appeared for seven years as Lilimae Clements on the CBS series Knots Landing, and her notable television appearances have brought her nine Emmy Award nominations. From May 24 to June 18 Harris will star in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Martin McDonagh's very dark comic tale, at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

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.
TM: When you act you inhabit a part completely. How do you get there?

HARRIS: The playwright has given you the structure, the outline, the words that expose feelings.

TM: What do you look for in a director?

HARRIS: That they light the fire under you. I've been spoiled with some great directors. Charles Nelson Reilly--that's the ultimate, that's Mt. Everest, because not only is he extraordinarily intuitive, but he makes the experience of finding the story together fun.

TM: What was it like working with Harold Clurman?

HARRIS: Harold was wonderful. He would whip everybody up to fever pitch before you began the first rehearsal. You read the play and then he'd talk about it. Then you'd read it again, and he would talk, talk, and talk for two or three days at least. I wish he would stop talking and let us do it. By that time you were so whipped to a frenzy that you wanted to reach the story, you wanted to encompass it. He knew so much about theater.

TM: Do you know when you're beginning a play how it's going to go? Do you ever say this play is destined to...?

HARRIS: I think we all knew that with The Member of the Wedding. With a play like that, you didn't care if anybody else liked it. You just knew how special it was.

TM: Was it a different experience making the movie after doing the play?

HARRIS: It was my first movie and I was still giving a stage performance, and Fred Zinnemann had to constantly bring me down.

TM: What were rehearsals for the play like?

HARRIS: There was a great Life magazine photographer, Ruth Orkin. She was assigned to take pictures of me the opening day of The Member of the Wedding. She was there from the time I got up in the morning until I came back home and washed the makeup off my legs in my tub in my coldwater flat. Her daughter recently sent me those pictures. There was a shot of Ethel Waters, Brandon DeWilde, and myself taking a curtain call. It made me cry. Ethel is there with her little fur around her throat and Brandon in his little white suit and me. I'm the last one. They're all gone now.

TM: What was opening night like?

HARRIS: I didn't think I was particularly good that night, but the audience didn't know the difference. When the curtain came up for the curtain call, the audience sounded like the roar of the ocean. We were standing on the shore and the ocean was coming over us. I thought, oh my God, they embraced this play. That was in this picture. The three of us standing there like, "What's that noise? What's that sound?" I can tell you great moments that I have seen that will make it live for you. How the world stopped when Laurette Taylor smiled and laughed and sang. I didn't know where I was when the curtain came down. I said, "I never want to leave this theater." That's why I see things like Nicholas Nickelby and Roy Dotrice doing his one-man show, Brief Lives, seven times. I never can get enough. I took Charles Nelson Reilly, who doesn't like to go to the theater, to Nicholas Nickelby, and when the play was over he said, "Can we go again?" I said, "We can go everyday if you want." At it's very best, the theater is a balm for hurt minds. It unites us as human beings, gives us a home, brings us together. You say: That's what it means to be alive, to be human, to feel your heart beat. That's what it means. Theater does that.

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