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Jessica Harper on Early TV Role, Starring in Two Versions of ‘Suspiria’

Jessica Harper has a key role in the Luca Guadagnino-directed “Suspiria,” which opens Nov. 2. It’s a nod to her work in Dario Argento’s 1977 original, just one of the many cult films she’s starred in. The list also includes “Shock Treatment” (the sequel to “Rocky Horror Picture Show”), Brian De Palma’s rock musical “Phantom of the Paradise,” “My Favorite Year” with Peter O’Toole and “Pennies From Heaven” with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. Harper’s first professional job came as she joined the Broadway cast of “Hair” in 1969, and her first mention in Variety was Jan. 6, 1971, in a story about NBC’s “Super Plastic Elastic Goggles.” This November, Harper will release “Winnetka,” a 10-episode podcast charting her life from infancy until “Hair.” Harper and her husband, Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman, have two daughters.

What do you remember about “Super Plastic Elastic Goggles”?

I think we were in fact wearing goggles, and we sang. But it was just a gig. I was moonlighting from my real job, which was being in the cast of “Hair” on Broadway, the first job I ever got. That was what I would call a seminal experience indeed.

How so?

Let’s just say that backstage at “Hair,” the activities pretty much mirrored what went on onstage. All varieties of sex and drugs. I was a teenager from Illinois, so this was quite an eye-opener for me. Those of us in the cast were considered very cool at that time. We got to appear at giant peace rallies at Madison Square Garden and Shea Stadium.

How did you hear about “Hair” auditions?

My mother, believe it or not. She sent me an article from The New York Times announcing that they were having an open call to replace some of the chorus members. So, I went to a church downtown, and there were 500 hippies lined up and down the block strumming their guitars, drinking coffee and probably smoking weed. I sang “Heartbreak Hotel,” doing my best Elvis imitation, and on that basis they offered me a job. It was an amazing turn of luck.

Did you originally want to be a singer or actress?

I started out at Sarah Lawrence College studying theater, and part of the requisite was that you got up and sang in front of people. I found I actually wasn’t so terrible. I’d always been enchanted by the theater. I thought it looked like so much fun ever since I saw “Bye Bye Birdie.” So, I pursued it. And I had this voice, so that made many more opportunities accessible to me. My first movie, Brian De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise,” was a rock musical that I got on because I could sing. That jump-started my whole film career.

What was auditioning like?

I was pretty terrified. It’s never been a process I cared for. I’ve never ceased to be very nervous auditioning. I think the biggest challenge was when I auditioned for “Phantom of the Paradise.” I got flown out to California to do a screen test and to sing and act on camera. My competition was Linda Ronstadt, in addition to a couple other people. I think I blacked out while I was doing it. It was so intimidating. But the result obviously was positive, so I guess I pulled it off. Sorry, Linda!

Did you have any mentors?

I had a wonderful acting teacher named Mira Rostova, and studying with her really gave me a handle on what to do as an actor. Marlene Dietrich was my first role model. She worked with great confidence and subtlety. I thought that was the way I wanted to behave in film if I were ever lucky enough to do so.

How did you get the role in the first “Suspiria”?

I got hired based on my appearance in the Brian De Palma movie. Dario Argento came and met with me in L.A. I was told that he was the Alfred Hitchcock of Italy, which I found very intriguing.

Do any memories make you smile or even cringe?

There’s a cringe-y one that sticks out in my mind. There’s a scene in the movie, a very creepy, scary scene where I’m in my bedroom brushing my hair and these little white things appear in my hair. And it turns out they’re maggots dropping from the ceiling. Just before we shot that scene, Dario came up to me carrying a bag in his hand. He opened the bag, and I looked in and it was full of squirming maggots.

So they were real?

They were real. But spoiler alert for fans, the so-called maggots that fell from the ceiling were actually white rice. Thank God. They were stunt doubles for the maggots.

What did you think when you heard that Luca Guadagnino was going to remake the film?

I had seen a couple of his movies and I thought, “Wow what an interesting choice for him,” because he’d done these intimate character portraits and now he’s doing this big, scary subject. I just thought, “He’s very brave to undertake something like this, given what he’s known for.” I thought that was so cool of him to attempt this. And he did a fantastic job.

Can you tell me more about who you play?

There’s a central character, a psychiatrist, in the movie who’s lost his wife some 30 years before. But he still mourns her and longs for her and believes that he’s going to see her again. I play her. It’s like an underlying love story throughout and is a very sweet emotional core to this movie.

That sounds more like the “Call Me by Your Name” vein.

Exactly. As I said to Luca, he’s so good at drawing out these emotional moments between people. That’s what we have, the psychiatrist character and me, in the middle of all the witchcraft and other fascinating things that are going on.

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