Harriet Harris was nursing a sick parrot on an unseasonably warm fall day. “I think no one should have parrots!” she joked from her New York City apartment during a recent phone conversation. “We have a little space heater on in here and it’s horrifying!”
Harris, known to television audiences as Frasier Crane’s manipulative agent, Bebe Glazer on Frasier and the slippery Felicia Tilman on Desperate Housewives, is also a familiar face to New York theatergoers. She was the Evil Stepmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and recently, was featured in the musical comedy It Shoulda Been You. She scooped up a Drama Desk and Tony Award in 2002 for her role as Mrs. Meers, a nasty white slaver owner in the long running hit musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie.
The Texas native has donned the mantle of malevolence for many roles, but she couldn’t be more soft spoken and genteel as a human being. She’s currently starring in the late Horton Foote’s quiet and beautifully acted play, The Roads to Home. Set in 1920s Houston, the play explores the intimate, day to day conversations between three women and the men in their lives. Michael Wilson, who was Foote’s longtime collaborator, directs Primary Stages’ critically acclaimed production.
In addition to discussing her two parrots (which she has owned for 19 years), the bi-coastal actor talked to Manhattan Digest about her native state, the significance of Horton Foote’s work and sharing the stage with her real-life sweetheart.
MD: You’re originally from Texas. How did that inform your work in this show?
HH: (Laughs) I am a Texan but no one ever thinks of me as a conventional Texan. I was thrilled when Michael offered me the part. When I read it, I learned that my character was from Louisiana, so again, I am from the outside! Texas is known to be rowdy and loud but when I think of Fort Worth (and I do often) the times I think about are the quiet moments with very dear friends. They are very sweet and particular memories oriented around relationships. Foote talks a great deal about loneliness in this play as well and depicts how one can be in a community and still feel waves of loneliness. It isn’t a blame or a flaw, it’s just the human condition.
MD: Given the time period of the 1920s, do you think that any of these women have an assertive or feminist side?
HH: It wasn’t that much earlier than 1924 that women were able to vote. Very few women were in the workplace or had their own money unless they inherited it. So, there were no real economic decisions made by them. They really needed to provide a home for the person providing for them. It didn’t make them less than, but it wasn’t a choice. It’s just the way it was. These women only know the world through their husbands and their friendships. It’s a different life for modern people to understand.
MD: Let’s talk about how couples work on and off-stage. Your significant other, Matt Sullivan, is in this play with you. What is that dynamic like?
HH: I was so happy that we were going to do this together. We’ve worked together 7 or 8 times and he’s such a wonderful actor. It’s a great thing to do a play with someone you know and love well. Matt and I have been together for over 20 years so we know how each other works. It’s fun to spend time doing the show and walking to and from the Cherry Lane Theater.
MD: How do you deal with off-stage conflict during the run of a show? Is that ever interjected into the performance?
HH: Oh no! You deal with that off-stage. There is something about being onstage with someone that makes you so dependent upon them. If you’re irritated or angry at your fellow performer, I would just encourage anybody to clear things up before stepping onstage. Just clear it up!
MD: What’s next for you?
HH: Well, I was so happy that we got an extension because I just love doing this show. If a second extension doesn’t happen, then I’ll look for work in California.
MD: Are there any roles on your wish list?
HH: There are tons! A lot of them I’ve done in my own mind and think ‘Oh! I was so good!’ (laughs).
MD: Any talk of a Frasier reunion?
HH: I don’t think so. Those writers are so fantastic, but I think that they felt they said everything they needed to say. If they ever did and Kelsey (Grammer) were interested, they’d have to block the date 2 or 3 years in advance because everyone is scattered.
The Roads to Home is currently playing Off Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theater (38 Commerce Street) through November 27th. For tickets and more information visit http://primarystages.org/shows/current-season/the-roads-to-home.