Sometimes all it takes is one movie to immortalize an actor or actress for all time, and in the case of Jessica Harper, she has two: her 1974 screen debut in Brian De Palma’s cult classic, Phantom of the Paradise, and her lead role as dancer Suzy Bannion in Italian horror auteur Dario Argento’s 1977 genre classic, Suspiria.
Harper has a solid legacy of other work behind her as well, including roles in movies such as Stardust Memories, My Favorite Year and Safe, plus appearances on TV series like It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Tales from the Crypt and Crossing Jordan. She’s also written a dozen children’s books and recorded seven albums of children’s music. But to a certain audience, she’ll always be Phoenix in Phantom and Suzy in Suspiria, and with good reason: both are fantastic and Harper shines in them.
So it was only right that director Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name) ask her to appear in his long-developing remake of Suspiria, in which she plays Anke, a German woman who is the wife of one of the film’s main characters, Dr. Josef Klemperer. Klemperer is played by Lutz Ebersdorf, who is in turn played by Tilda Swinton, who also plays Madame Blanc, director of the Markos dance academy, and Helena Markos herself, the leader of the coven of witches that the academy is a front for.
That means that Harper has once again found herself immersed in the cauldron of feminine power and enigmatic terror that fueled the Suspiria she starred in more than 40 years ago and the one that is just about to spread its bloodstained shadow over theaters nationwide (it jumps from limited to wide release this Friday). Having admired her work in both Suspiria and Phantom (as well as the Rocky Horror Picture Show quasi-sequel, Shock Treatment), it was our distinct pleasure to sit down with Harper recently in Los Angeles.
Den of Geek: How has Suspiria come in and out of your life over the years?
Jessica Harper: Oh my gosh, as you know it’s been 40 years. With the advent of social media I started to become aware just how far its reach was. In the beginning it was kind of quiet. Now its opened up. Nothing much seemed to be happening at first. As you know, it gathered so much steam over the years. Then I started to hear — my nephew said, “Oh, all my college buddies, they have the Suspiria posters.” It’s screening here, it’s screening there, people are seeing the new Blu-Ray version, and now they’re seeing the 35mm version.
It’s just grown so experientially in terms of its exposure and people’s enthusiasm over the years. It’s been incredible to see that, as I started to see it again through social media, as people started to contact me and post endless pictures from the movie and so on and so forth. It just has now this incredible life, which is really wonderful to see.
It’s so interesting how that happens with certain films — in your case with both Suspiria and Phantom of the Paradise. What do think Suspiria owes that to?
Well, it’s a good question with movies like Suspiria and Phantom. Why do particular movies just hook the public imagination the way they do and endure for so many decades? I don’t know that I can answer that question, really. I think if we knew that we’d be making more movies like this. It’s just a magical combination of elements that just strikes a chord and continues to so for a very long time.
When this new version came on your radar, what was your initial reaction about it?
Well I’ve been hearing rumors of a remake for a very long time. With various elements attached. It was only when I heard that Luca was attached that I thought a) that it would actually happen and b) that it would be incredibly interesting. I was really excited about it actually.
Did he approach you about joining in?
Yeah. He called me. He and David (Kajganich), the screenwriter, they thought it would be fun obviously to have me in it, just to connect it to the original. They thought about what part I could play. They found this part of Anke, and it just seemed kind of perfect, except for the fact that I had to speak German, which they weren’t at all sure that would be a possibility.
Luca called me, first he pitched me the role and said, “Do you wanna play this cameo?” and I just said, “It’s OK, yes. The answer is yes. I’m happy to do it.” An offer from Luca was a miracle. I was very happy to do it, obviously. Then he asked me if I could speak German and I said, “Oh yeah, that’s not a problem.” And then I went to the Berlitz School and learned to speak German (laughs). I was totally excited about it, really excited, again, because it was Luca. I wouldn’t necessarily be as convinced if it were another director. With him I knew it was gonna be an interesting application of his skill to the story.
He brings a kind of intimacy and emotional power that’s in all his films. Would you agree with that?
Well yeah, particularly in the case of role that I had. I was a big fan of his other films. In particular a fan of his ability to create these intimate, emotional moments between people. In Call Me by Your Name and A Bigger Splash that seemed to be his strong suit. The role that they offered me was just that, that kind of role in the center of the film, this emotional core running through the movie. I knew that was one of his great gifts, was to make that just as good as it could be in the film.
Your scenes are all with “Lutz Ebersdorf.” What was it like working with Tilda under all that makeup? Luca said that some people on the crew never really knew that that was her.
That’s totally believable. I walked on the set and there was this 80-year-old man. It took me a few minutes to realize who it was. Of course when we were shooting, she was that character and spoke in that 80-year-old voice. Then we would sit down and chat between takes. I can’t tell you how strange it was to hear Tilda Swinton’s voice coming out of this 80-year-old man. Because the makeup was so perfect, that was very weird.
Your scenes were filmed in Berlin. Did you get to visit the Academy interiors at all?
I also went to the other site, yeah. A big haunted house on the top of a hill in northern Italy. It was very creepy. I understand it wasn’t easy shooting there for weeks on end. I was only there for a few days. It was really almost like a Disney set. This old abandoned resort hotel. Very, very dark and creepy. They build all the sets within this building. I think it was quite difficult, but it all probably helped with the proper atmosphere for the filming.
What do you remember about the shooting of the original? Where it was shot and what was the atmosphere like on that set?
That was on a big soundstage in Rome. So that was much easier. That’s where all the sets were, obviously. What I found interesting, a little disconcerting, in those days — I’m sure this isn’t the case anymore — in Italy they shot without really being concerned about the sound because mostly everything just got dubbed to be sent to countries around Europe, dubbed into different languages and exported. So you’d be shooting a scene, talking, there’d be somebody hammering and building a new set over there. Dario would play the Goblin soundtrack. That was a different kind of aspect to shooting in those days in Rome.
It was a great experience because the crew, first of all they were just the top of their fields. Dario was a wonderful, masterful director, obviously. Costume designer, hair, all those technicians were fantastic. They were lovely people. I learned to speak Italian. I was there for four months and I learned to speak the language. We just got along very well, this crew. It was really a wonderful shoot. It was like a dream, it was really fun. And also hanging out with Joan Bennett and Alida Valli, these two legendary actresses, was really interesting.
Did Dario ever talk about what the story meant to him?
I can’t say that he really did talk about it that much. It’s very interesting for me now to see the new Suspiria because for me, it sheds new light on things I may not have understood about the story in the original shoot. I think I get a new understanding of what the original movie was about actually, by seeing the new one, which of course takes the story and expands it. It gives it a whole new dimension. I don’t think he explained and I don’t think I fully understood it as well as I do now.
It’s very relevant to a lot of things that are happening right now. Do you get that sense too watching the new one, that it’s very much a movie of its time right now?
There is of course the issue of female power which, needless to say, is very much in the conversation internationally right now. And of course when we shot, that was also a big factor in the original movie, but it wasn’t in the conversation. Both directors love women and respect them and are inclined to make movies that gave women power. But again, as you say, very different times. Suspiria today might stand out in relief because of its connection to what’s going on in the zeitgeist.
You’ve written books and you’ve recorded albums in addition to acting, and now you’re doing a podcast.
The podcast is called “Winnetka,” which is the name of my hometown that I grew up in, in Illinois in Eisenhower, post-war America in the 50s and 60s. It’s a memoir in 10 episodes, and it includes the voices of my family. It’s a memoir where you hear the voices of the characters telling the story. We had a very difficult father growing up. He had PTSD. Then we had of course the 60s, which everybody had a little trouble navigating. A lot of turbulence then in the family and in the culture. Then ultimately we discover a long-held family secret that really impacts our whole notion of who we are as a family, which I’m not telling you. It’s a family saga. I’m gonna start a feed on November 5th at Winnetkapodcast.com. People can go and start to hear bonus material, excerpts and stories from the show. The official episodes will launch in early February.
Suspiria is out now in limited release and expands nationwide on Friday (November 2).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye