The New York Critic: Interviews

Steve Capra's Interview with Julie Harris
March first, 1997

Julie Harris is indisputably the belle of American theater. She's received more Tony Awards than any other actor - six, starting with her performance as Sally Bowles in I Am A Camera in 1952, and on through The Lark, Forty Carats, The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, The Belle of Amherst and The Gin Game. Her great achievement has been to expose the complex mechanisms of the heart without ever seeming to be performing. Steve Capra met her on Cape Cod .

SC: You mentioned that you work every afternoon on The Gin Game. Where will that be produced?

JH: In New York City - The Lyceum Theater. It's the American Actors Repertory Theater, Tony Randall's theater. We open there for previews April eighth, and April twentieth is the official opening, and then we run ten weeks.

SC: Would you tell us something about how you discipline yourself to do so much work? You've done three shows in the past four months?

JH: This is my third play since the summer. I did the play by Leon Katz, Sonya, at Purchase, New York - and that was a big part. And then I did two television movies, Allen Foster and The Christmas Tree. Those were interesting parts... I mean, they weren't just tiny little things. So I had to study for those. And, as I was finishing The Christmas Tree, I had to study The Road To Mecca- and that is a very big part, I mean... it had arias. It had three big arias. So, I had to study very hard for that. Then, when that play closed, I was beginning to have to learn The Gin Game. I find it very hard to learn a part while I'm doing another, but I had to try to start because I had so very little time. I've just had two and a half weeks to learn The Gin Game.

SC: And it's an enormous role.

JH: It's a lot to do. So, I've got ten pages more to learn - in four or five days. I think I can do it. I like to learn the lines of a play before rehearsals start. If I have to carry the book in the rehearsal, I find that confining. If I know the lines, then I can start to learn the part, so to speak - not the memorization, but learn what she's doing, what she's feeling, where she's moving, and so on...

SC: In terms of analysis, do you use substitution, in the sense that some of us are taught to substitute a person from our lives for other characters?

JH: Well, I don't know if it's substitution... I think it's a feeling of empathy with the person. I mean, Fonzia - Fonzia Dorcy is the lady I'm playing in The Gin Game- is seventy-one years old. I'm seventy-one years old, and very fortunate to feel, after studying this play, that I'm not in an old age home, that I'm not on welfare, and it is a very trying for anybody to be I those circumstances - to be dependent on someone else for their well-being. I can understand that. I mean, I have a lot of sympathy for that. So, I don't have to go very far to feel what she's feeling. I very deeply sympathize with people who have to go to an old age home. "The Gin Game" is called a 'tragi-comedy'. It's screamingly funny one minute, but painfully sad the next.

SC: Yes, I remember seeing it years ago.

JH: And it's an extraordinary play. And I've spoken to Mr. Coburn - Don Coburn, who wrote the play - and he's coming to the rehearsal period, which I find very exciting. We even made a suggestion to him about... You see, Charles Durning is playing opposite me - he's playing Weller Martin - and Charlie happens to be a very beautiful ballroom dancer. And in the old age home, there's a lot of activities going on. They have songfests and magicians, and dancing classes. I suggested to Charles Nelson Reilly, who's directing the play, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a moment when Charlie and I could dance to the music that's going on in the old age home?" And Mr. Colburn said "Oh, no, no... the play has been out in the world for twenty years, and I don't see any advantage of writing something new for it." But as a writer, as a creative person, he started thinking about it, and got excited about the idea, and has written us a new scene. So, we're going to work on it. If it doesn't work to his satisfaction, we won't use it, but if it does, we will. We're all very excited about it because it's a wonderful scene. He's found the perfect piece of music, Take This Waltz by Leonard Cohen. You know Leonard Cohen? It's quite a poignant piece of music... So, we're looking forward to that.

SC: You've worked with Mr. Reilly a lot, haven't you? [Among the plays on which Miss Harris and Mr. Reilly collaborated was The Belle of Amherst.]

JH: Yes, I have, and I adore him. He's a great director.