Harriet Harris is one of those “Ohhh, yeah, she’s that actress” type of actresses. The kind whose face is recognizable, if not the name.
Known for her star turns as Machiavellian agent Bebe Glazer (on “Frasier”) and revenge-bent Felicia Tilman (“Desperate Housewives”), the Tony-winning character actor is now in the Off-Broadway revival of Horton Foote’s “The Roads to Home,” a compelling look at three women in 1920s Houston. Amid gossip, churchgoin’ and picture shows, Vonnie (Harris) and her two friends are there for each other when reliable men — or sanity, even — seem in short supply. Foote’s homespun appeal (the Pulitzer Prize-winner is known for the screenplays “The Trip to Bountiful” and “To Kill a Mockingbird”) is on display here. The play, co-starring Hallie Foote (the playwright’s daughter) and Matt Sullivan (Harris’ real-life partner) opens Wednesday as a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre and runs through Nov. 6.
Harris, 61, a Texas native now living in Los Angeles, sat down with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio at a Greenwich Village coffee shop.
So — first things first. You have . . . parrots?
I didn’t think I’d get out of the house today. My parrot was clinging to my finger and just didn’t want to let me go. I have two — a little Conure and an African Grey. They contribute a lot to life, but . . . it’s not like a dog or cat. They don’t intend to fit in with your life. They really think the opposite is true. Though usually they’re cooperative. He knew I was getting ready to go. He said, “Harriet’s gotta go to work, gotta go to work.”
Wow. How long have you had them?
I’ve had the Grey for 19 years and the little Conure for 17.
So . . . 19 years ago . . .
What was I thinking? [She bursts out laughing.] Growing up in Texas, my godmother had a parrot. And my grandmother had one whose antics were legendary. I think there’s a certain predisposition for birds in my family.
This play is set in Texas. Does it feel like going home?
Very much so. I’m from Fort Worth . . . where problems in life — all you have to do is look at them, take your time, talk it out, try to make the best of it. There’s a lot of accommodation for one’s flaws in Texas, at least when I grew up. I’m not saying there’s a tolerance for all behavior, or it’s a utopia, but it was important to listen to people. In early Texas, you really only had your neighbors, so you better know ’em, and learn to love ’em.
Flaws and all . . .
Yes. In New York, there’s a tolerance for many things, but it’s fast-paced and there’s a lot of crossing-the-street. [She pretends to see someone in front of her.] Sorta like, “Ohhh, I see that comin’ and don’t wanna go near it.” But in this play . . . [She peers forward.] You wanna know more.
What’s so satisfying about a Horton Foote play?
I love the way people get to know each other in a scene. A lot of times, modern plays are just about one person getting what they want, and everybody else is extraneous. Or an impediment. [She gets sarcastic.] I play that part a lot. The obstacle.
Your partner is in this show. How long have you been together?
So he predates the parrots.
Yes! He was on board with the parrots. That was a big test. This is maybe our sixth play together. We met doing . . . “Maaaacbeeeeeth.”
You tend to play these outsize characters. Are you outsize?
Not at all.
So where does that conniving side come from?
Everybody’s got it in them. The idea that you’ll do anything — that’s fun to play and not get punished for it. I went to acting school [Juilliard] because another godmother said to my mother, “You gotta face it — Harriet’s not gonna get anywhere being shy.” I’m introverted. Had I been incredibly rich or beautiful, it might not have mattered. That’s why I love being an actress. It’s opened me up to things I might not have investigated — being able to look at somebody else’s point-of-view and not reject it.
I guess that’s what this play’s about. I love the whole experience of seeing it. You’re not on Broadway, in hectic Times Square. You get to the Cherry Lane Theatre by walking down a quiet, tree-lined street in Greenwich Village. It’s like walking into a different time.
You’re right. Matt and I walked home the other night and thought, “This is such a lovely part of the city.” If I could live anyplace here, I’d live in the Village. But I caaaaaan’t. [She laughs.]
Yeah, it’s expensive. But you could find a little place. For the parrots.
Yes, I could find them an apartment. Then we could commute to them.