Upon meeting Miss Harriet Harris, it’s hard to believe she’s the same woman who starred as Desperate Housewives‘ eight-fingered crazy lady, Felicia Tilman, or Frasier’s overly dramatic agent Bebe Glazer.
Harris is the complete opposite — quiet, composed, humble. But thankfully for us, she continues to choose characters that we love to hate and absolutely nails the quirky, eccentric, and yes, even down-right weird roles.
That’s no different with her latest character. In Hay Fever, now playing at the Guthrie, Harris plays Judith Bliss, a recently retired actress who has difficulties letting go of the limelight.
“She’s really larger than life,” Harris said. “She probably retired too early because she doesn’t know what to do with herself when she’s not acting. She acts in front of her husband, in front of her children, she really can’t understand life unless she puts it into the context of it being a play. Anything that comes up, she thinks, ‘how would this scene be played,’ and then she acts her part.”
Harris said Bliss is a woman that feels like “the best thing she has to offer are these huge emotions, and that’s her gift to the world.”
Still, her family loves her and is just as selfish, and just as eccentric, as she is. The real fun is when there are guests invade the Bliss world and that’s where Hay Fever comes in.
“When strangers come into it, they’re in this sort of tempest and they’re rather unworthly little craft, perhaps, to be on such big waves and yet they all make it back just fine but they think, ‘Oh, I’m not going out without my life jacket next time,'” Harris said.
Playing that kind of character — a selfish host, at times unaware woman — is a bit of a stretch for Harris.
“I’m pretty quiet,” she said. “I don’t try to be a better friend than other people. When I get up the nerve to have house guests, I’m the sort of person that makes sure I have everything that that person’s going to like and fix the guest room like they would like. And these people are completely opposite of that. It’s ‘What are you going to do for me, as a guest?'”
It’s the kind of character she said she really enjoys playing — and one she’s proved over the years, suits her well.
“It’s a great release,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to stamp one’s foot and shake one’s fist and say, ‘Oh, but I matter. Everything should be my way.’ That’s not the way my family thought that one should behave in life.”
But after time, playing these roles has helped Harris break out of her own shell, she said, and be forced, at times, to move out of her comfort zone.
“In the context of being in theater, I think it has helped me overcome a certain amount of shyness too, because you do have to stand up for yourself, but you don’t have to go and be selfish,” she said. “But it is healthy, I think, in my own life.”
Looking back, Harris said being a part of immensely popular shows like Desperate Housewives and Frasier was a true blessing, but also a bit of a surprise.
“It’s interesting at the time, you don’t realize that these are going to be the things you’re going to be known for or recognized for,” she said. “So that’s tremendous, that they were both a lot of fun to do and the characters were so fun. … That it was very popular was very surprising because you just never know what’s going to capture someone’s imagination or not.”
Beyond TV and the stage, Harris has been in a few films, like Monster-In-Law, Memento and Nurse Betty. But she admits, if anything, that’s the one area she’s love to do more in.
“I think it’d be interesting to do more film, I’ve done very little of that, really, and I admire a lot of film actors,” Harris said. “I think it would be something that I have not done so much of that I could say, I know exactly how I would approach something.”
Still, with several theater credits to her name and a Tony Award under her belt, Harris says she has plenty to be thankful for in her career and is excited to be back on stage. And back to the Guthrie.
Harris previously performed at the Guthrie in The Glass Menagerie in 2006, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1985, Cyrano de Bergerac in 1985 and 1984’s Tartuffe.
“I love it, I’m thrilled to be here and I’m extremely fond of Joe Dowling, and I knew that when they offered this job … I didn’t know the director — I like Chris Luscombe a lot — but I knew that he and Joe were close and that Joe figured this was going to be a really fun job so I’m thrilled he thought of me,” she said.
And another bonus, spending time on stage with her love.
“I got to be here with my sweetheart, Matt Sullivan, who plays the diplomat in the show,” she said. “I love working with him. So that’s a wonderful thing to get to come back and share this experience with him.”
Between the cast, the incredible set that emphasizes the eccentricities of the characters and the incredible fun had on stage, Hay Fever is truly fun show about family that any family can enjoy — and even relate to, Harris said.
“I know that people have lots of bills to pay but if you have any extra income and they want to put it toward having a really good time, I would say this is a wonderful thing to do,” she said. “It’s really, really a wonderful production.”
Hay Fever runs through April 22 at the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Tickets start at $29 and are available at the Guthrie’s website.