Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Tess Harper had all but given up on the idea of making a living as an actress when she was cast in Bruce Beresford’s 1983 film, Tender Mercies, but the attention she received in the role of Rosa Lee changed Harper’s career fortunes considerably. Harper has spent her career on a diverse collection of feature films, ranging from Ishtar to No Country For Old Men, and on a variety of TV series, most recently appearing on Breaking Bad and Revenge. She can currently be seen in The Christmas Heart, airing on the Hallmark Channel throughout December (and throughout every December in perpetuity, based on the network’s past track record).
The Christmas Heart (2012)—“Elizabeth”
Tess Harper: She’s a sad mom, but she’s a mom who makes something matter when it hadn’t mattered before. The character is a working-class woman—most of what I play are women who are working-class—and she’s done the best she can, but her son did not turn out well, and… things happen. She ends up signing the donation card and… [Hesitates.] It’s a Christmas gift—or, as I say about Christmas in general, it’s the end of the darkness and the beginning of the light. I mean, that’s the way it is on the calendar. This is that little candle that a gift of donation, being an organ donor, can give the world. So this is about hope in the darkest times.
The A.V. Club: How did you find your way into the film?
TH: They called me and asked me to be in it, simple as that. But, I mean, Patricia Heaton is an executive producer, and it’s a Hallmark movie, and I’ve had a really good time on the Hallmark movies I’ve made in the past. In fact, I did a Hallmark movie last year for Christmas. Their Christmas movies are quite a hit. I hear from people all around the country when I do something on Hallmark. My Facebook friends from high school, they get in touch with me faster because of that. [Laughs.] So it’s great doing them.
AVC: So you enjoy doing sentimental pieces, then?
TH: Well, I don’t play them sentimentally. I just play the person. Sentimentality is up to the music department. [Laughs.] You put in a different piece of music in, and you get something different out of it.
Tender Mercies (1983)—“Rosa Lee”
TH: We don’t have a long enough time for me to tell as much as I could tell. [Laughs.] This was a film where I was living in Dallas and cast in the lead by a man who had come from Australia [director Bruce Beresford] and didn’t know he couldn’t cast his leading lady in Dallas. And it was the best film I ever made. I started at the top and worked my way down.
AVC: What led you into acting in the first place?
TH: I have a degree in theater because… I’m one of these very pale, pasty people who, while everyone else was running around outside, I was either on the front porch with a book in my hand or watching old movies. I fell in love with words first. I love words. And in a lot of ways, I would’ve liked to have been a writer, but I’ve read so many good writers that I was afraid that the fraud police would come to get me for pretending to be a writer. [Laughs.] So I fell in love with words, I went into theater, and then…well, really, I’m better on camera than I am on stage.
The Man In The Moon (1991)—“Abigail Trant”
TH: One of my other favorites! [Laughs.] Abigail Trant is a mom first, and it’s a story about someone looking for a boy. Abigail is the mother of four girls, and her girls are of an age where they’re noticing boys. It’s the first Reese Witherspoon movie, but in addition to being the movie that gave us Reese Witherspoon, it’s also got the wonderful Sam Waterston and Emily Warfield, who is still like a daughter to me. It was a very hot Louisiana summer, and in pregnancy padding, but it was a brilliantly written script by Jenny Wingfield, and the man who directed To Kill A Mockingbird directed The Man In The Moon [Robert Mulligan]. It’s a beautiful, beautiful film. Not enough people saw it, but if anyone has pre-teen or early teenage daughters, I can guarantee you that if you get that from Netflix, they will love you for it.
No Country For Old Men (2007)—“Loretta Bell”
TH: [Sighs.] The Coen brothers. Javier Bardem. Tommy Lee Jones. Josh Brolin. It’s a dream. And it’s a woman who, if Rosa Lee from Tender Mercies had gotten older, if you’d seen her at my age now, she could’ve been Loretta. If she’d had a little more bite to her, she could’ve been Loretta. In fact, I wore the boots that I wore in Tender Mercies in that film.
AVC: That’s pretty impressive.
TH: Well, they hurt a lot. [Laughs.] But I did it!
Revenge (2012)—“Carole Miller”
TH: Oh, well, that’s still pretty new. I don’t know what else is gonna happen to her. I do know, though, that my clothes don’t cost as much as theirs. [Laughs.] It’s definitely one of those guilty-pleasure shows. But it’s nice to be in something that everybody watches.
AVC: Was that an audition situation, or did they come looking for you?
TH: Oh, they offered that one to me. Which was great!
AVC: Had you watched it prior to getting the offer?
TH: I always watch one episode of everything I do, because you never know whether you’re going to need to know it or not.
AVC: Was there any particular moment that made you decide, “Yeah, I’d like to do this”?
TH: Well, mostly, I like to work. [Laughs.] In fact, I looked at all of these beautiful people and I said, “Well, there’s no place for me in all of this.” But it turns out there was. So there you go.
Crash (2009)—“Wendy Olinville”
TH: Wendy was great, and I’m sorry Crash didn’t work. It was also the last thing that Dennis Hopper ever did, so there’s a lot of sadness to that for me, because, I mean, I remember watching him in Giant when he was a teenager! But Wendy was an interesting character, because she was a woman who was trying to get some control over her life and trying to help her son, who obviously had PTSD. Most of my scenes were with Jake [McLaughlin], a young kid who’d been in that soldier movie with Tommy Lee [In The Valley Of Elah]. In fact, he’s coming back to TV, I hear. He’s a wonderful guts actor. No training, just absolutely from the gut. And he’s got the most incredible blue eyes you’ll ever see.
Breaking Bad (2008-2010)—“Mrs. Pinkman”
TH: What an honor to be part of that group. I went in not quite understanding it, and then Bryan Cranston brought in the tape of the first episode, which they’d just finished, and it blew my mind away. I’m just glad I could touch it and can say I was part of it. It’s just historic television. It was an amazing group of people. Vince [Gilligan], the producer, Bryan, Aaron Paul, everyone connected with that show. It was special, and they knew it was special. It was one man’s vision, not a network with 80 million middle-management people saying, “Change little things in there so everything looks like everything else.” Breaking Bad is something that stands out on its own. It’s not like anything else on television.
AVC: So where do you think the Pinkmans went wrong with Jesse?
TH: Like every other middle-class family with a kid who goes off the rails, everybody sits down and tries to do a post-mortem on it, but who knows? Maybe they didn’t. Maybe he just chose poorly. You know, a parent’s job is to say, “This is a road you can go down,” and if the kid says, “I don’t like that road,” then what can you do about it? At some point, it’s about preserving the rest of the family. But, of course, Jesse gets even with his parents. [Cackles.]
AVC: And how did you enjoy being Aaron Paul’s mom?
TH: Oh, I loved every single thing about going out there. It was shot in Albuquerque, and Bryan… One time I came in, when he’d just directed his first episode, and he’d dressed up like Otto Preminger the first day he went in to direct. [Laughs.] This is a group of people who love going to work, and part of being an actor is actually liking being there and being an actor. Because it will tint how you feel about it forever. That people found it and embraced it is just fantastic. I had so little to do with it, but as I said, I touched it. And I got a great coat out of it, one that says Breaking Bad on it. So I was thrilled. Thrilled!
The Jackal (1997)—“The First Lady”
TH: I remember going in and reading for some other character and then asking the director, “Well, who’s gonna do the first lady? Because if you don’t connect to the first lady, then you don’t stay into the plot of the film.” So then he offered me the first lady! And at the time, Hillary [Clinton] was the first lady, and I thought that, being from Arkansas, there was some sort of connection there. The great Albert Wolsky, an Academy Award-winning costumer, helped me put together the character. I also can’t forget that Sidney Poitier jumped on me. To save me! But the fact that Sidney Poitier jumped on me is what really made me want to do the part. [Laughs.]
AVC: A lot of people praise their character’s wardrobe, but you don’t hear a lot of people admitting that a film’s costumer helped them put together their character.
TH: Yes! Albert Wolsky did Crimes Of The Heart with me, too, and if you give over to a great designer… Color is everything. If you look at that scene where the first lady goes up to give her speech, she’s in cream, and everybody else is in shades of gray or black. It’s subtle things that point out your character. In Crimes Of The Heart, it was about finding those horrible shorts. [Laughs.] And the little sockettes that had the pom-poms in the back of them. So you give yourself over to someone like that, and you build nuances that… I mean, no one’s gonna say, “Look at the socks,” but the overall look is saying, “This is a crazy woman” or “This is an irritating woman.” You can lay all of that in with wardrobe. The sad thing about television work now is that you don’t get to sit down and say, “This is where she is. This is her color.” A lot of people don’t get that. And you’re doing things on one day’s notice. We had almost a month to pull together Chick the Stick’s look [Harper’s character in Crimes Of The Heart —ed.]. Right down to her initials in rhinestones on her glasses.
Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land (1983)—“Janet Briggs”
TH: [Monotone.] The…plane…that…could…not…land! [Sighs.] I’ll tell you the most interesting thing about that horrible piece of crap. That was with the Six Million Dollar Man [Lee Majors] and Lauren Hutton, but I met Ray Milland on that set. One morning, Ray Milland came into the costume department, where we’re getting wardrobe, makeup, hair, whatever, and he looks at me and he says, “How old do you think I am?” And I said, “What?” “How old do you think I am?” I said, “Uh, I don’t know, sir. About 70? 75?” He said, “I’m 85! And it’s boring! And I hate it!” The great Ray Milland was in a honey wagon. That’s when I realized that it doesn’t matter who you are, there’ll be a time when you’re back in your honey wagon. Which, if your readers don’t know what that is, it’s a little bitty tiny trailer with a bathroom in it that you wait in ’til you’re called to the set. Most people, once you have one or two titles to your name, you’re not supposed to ever have to go back to honey wagons. But an 85-year-old man, walking up the stairs to a honey wagon, it’ll break your heart. And it’ll happen to all of us.
Chiefs (1983)—“Carrie Lee”
TH: [Screenwriter] Stuart Woods still calls me “Mom.” And so does Stephen Collins. [Laughs.] That was one of those things when they were still making great miniseries. And, okay, maybe it wasn’t a great miniseries, but we were in a little Southern town—I think it was Chester, South Carolina—and I made some friends from that miniseries that I still have now, including Victoria Tennant and Gale Grate. It was Danny Glover’s first appearance on American television. John Goodman, who I’d known in college, it was also one of his first appearances on television. It was a fun summer.
Amityville 3-D (1983)—“Nancy Baxter”
TH: [Screams.] Why are you going there?!? Amityville 3-D! I got minimum wage for Tender Mercies. Minimum scale, and it didn’t open until 14 months after it was made. And Amityville 3-D happened 12 months after Tender Mercies was made.
AVC: Is it safe to say that it might not have been your most fondly remembered experience?
TH: Actually, I do have fond memories of Tony Roberts and Mexico City. But, I mean, a thing can only be what it is, and Amityville 3-D absolutely is no more than that. But every now and then… Because of cable, it never dies. You can’t get rid of it. So, yes, I did it! I needed the rent money! [Laughs.]
Silkwood (1983)—“Linda Dawson”
TH: It was one scene in the actual film, but… I was in L.A., nobody knew who I was, but I’d gotten an agent. Mary Goldberg, who was helping Mike Nichols cast Silkwood, said, “I met this girl that…not a lot of people know her yet, but if you need someone to read Meryl’s role for all of the men who are coming in to read for that part, we can hire her.” So I spent two days with the great Mike Nichols, reading the role, reading with all the men with the right stuff, all the hottest actors of the time, to play the Kurt Russell role. The things I learned in those two days were invaluable.
Criminal Law (1988)—“Detective Stillwell”
TH: I shot Kevin Bacon. [Holds up a finger.] One degree.
AVC: Do you have anything to say about Ishtar?
TH: Uh… [Very long pause.] No.
AVC: What, nothing?
TH: [Another very long pause.] Nope. [Laughs.] But, you know, I only worked on it briefly. I mean, it was nice to meet everyone. Dustin Hoffman still says, “Hi, Tess!” But then, he was also one of Robert Duvall’s roommates back in the old days. I wasn’t connected to it, you know? All I could do was watch and wonder. My wig cost more than they paid me for my salary. It was just, like, “Please, watch and think how many movies you could do with what you’re spending!” But who knew it was going to be that when I did it? The thing about acting is you never know what it’s gonna be. When I did Tender Mercies, we would go to lunch and sit in the tent at lunchtime—the crew, everybody—and we’d go, “This is good, isn’t it?” And everybody would say, “Yes, we allow it’s good.” “Do you think anybody will ever see it?” “No, I don’t believe anybody ever will.” [Shrugs shoulders.] Who knew?