Horror icon Jessica Harper talks about her role in the new Suspiria — and the lie she told to get it
Jessica Harper earned her place in the Horror Hall of Fame by starring as Suzy Bannion in director Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo classic, Suspiria. Now, Harper has returned to the world of witches with a role in Luca Guadagnino’s just-released remake of Argento’s film, alongside Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton.
But the actress had to tell a lie to secure the part.
“Well, I’ve been hearing for years that there was going to be a remake, and it was going to be directed by so-and-so, and it was going to star so-and-so,” says Harper. “Mostly, I disregarded these rumors, because one came, and then the next one came, and nothing ever happened.
“But then I heard a few years ago that Luca was involved, and I thought (a) it sounds right and (b) it sounds real. And so I kept my eye on it. David Kajganich, the writer of the script, tells this story that they thought it would be cool to have me do a cameo in this movie, since I’d been in the original. They were looking through the script for something for me to do, and they didn’t want me to be just be one of the witches, they wanted something a little more special. So it occurred to them to ask me to do the part of Anke. But David said to Luca, ‘Well, the only thing is, she does have to be able to speak German.’ So Luca said, ‘Hang on, let me find out if Jessica can speak German.’
“So, Luca called me, kind of out of the blue, and said, ‘Hi, would you like to do a cameo in my new movie?’ Of course, he had me at ‘Hello.’ And then he said, ‘Now, do you think you could do the part in German? And I said, ‘Oh, absolutely.’ So, he hung up, and went to David and said, ‘Good news, she speaks German!’ And I got on the phone and called the Berlitz school and said, ‘I need to learn German. Can I come over this afternoon, please?'”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Who is Anke?
JESSICA HARPER: So, I play the love interest of this character Dr. Klemperer, who is played by this actor called Lutz Ebersdorf, who I just read in The New York Times, was actually played by Tilda Swinton. I think she’s outed herself finally, although that was kept secret for a very long time. So, this character Dr. Klemperer, lost his wife many many years before, and spends much of his time longing for her, and hoping somehow their paths will cross again. He doesn’t know what became of her, all those years before. So, I magically reappear, and then some other magic happens, which I don’t want to spoil. But Lutz Ebersdorf and I get to play this sort of romantic story at the center of this movie, which is really fun. It’s this lovely emotional thread that cuts through the center of the movie.
What was it like acting opposite Tilda Swinton, given that she was playing an elderly German man?
Of course it was weird, because it was Tilda Swinton playing an elderly German man! But at the same time it was fantastic because her makeup was so incredible, I didn’t really feel like I was acting with Tilda Swinton. And also, the way she adjusted her voice, it was very easy to pretend that I was having this love story with an 82-year-old guy.
What was the shoot like?
The shoot for me was pretty brief. I was only involved for a few days, because my part was a small part. The shoot for others was long and difficult because they were in an abandoned hotel on a hilltop in Italy. And I was there too and I know it was difficult. It was cold and dark and scary. It was like a haunted house, which was kind of appropriate, but not ideal shooting circumstances. But I had a wonderful time. Because I was the star of the original movie, when I walked on the set you would have thought I was David Bowie. [Laughs] I sort of had a celebrity moment, which was so sweet.
How did you get involved in the original Suspiria?
Dario saw Phantom of the Paradise, the De Palma film. He saw that, and he thought, for whatever reason, that I had the right quality to play Susie in his film. We met in Los Angeles. I didn’t audition for him, I think, we just met. and just had a sense of who each other was, and he took it from there and offered me the role.
What do you remember about that shoot?
Oh, that was fantastic. That was four months in Rome, basically, which was a great experience in and of itself. But also Dario was a very inspiring director, because he was so focused, and had such strong aesthetic ideas, and was very gentle as a director in terms of how he treated actors. It was kind of a life-changing experience, actually.
The original Suspiria is regarded as one of the classics of the horror genre. What is that like for you?
Well, again, it feels like I’m on some miraculous ride. I mean, who ever knew that you’d shoot a horror movie in Italy and years later it would be much more popular that it was when it came out? As you know, it has such a huge following, and I get lots of mail from Suspiria fans, on social media and so forth. People love this movie. I’m very proud to be a part of it.
Am I right in thinking that you had basically retired prior to appearing in the new Suspiria?
I’d not exactly retired. I just was doing a lot of other things. So, during the time I was raising my girls, who are now in their twenties, I was more at home, but I wrote a dozen children’s books, and I wrote a memoir cookbook, and in the past couple of years I’ve been working on this podcast-memoir, which is about to be launched.
What is the podcast about?
It’s called Winnetka, which is the name of my hometown. It’s a memoir of my childhood. I’ve been working on it for about three years. I grew up in the ’50s, and Eisenhower’s post-war America, and our childhood was, as many were, greatly informed by our father’s PTSD. He came out of the war, never had a chance to process it, was kind of thrust into suburbia, and expected to ride the economic boom, and march off in his fedora every morning. He was a very angry person, so that impacted our childhood — there were six of us kids, two sets of twins, and two others.
And then we go into the ’60s, and of course rebellion is trending, and we all went with that trend. By the end of the decade, three of us dropped out of college, two were expelled from school, and my father had sort of a breakdown. Our family kind of unwound at the end of the decade. But it was only thirty years later, after our father’s funeral, that our story was kind of complete, because we discovered a secret in our family history, something we’d never known, that was very startling, about our roots. So, that’s a thumbnail of what it is, and I’m really excited about it. November 5, we’re going to start the trailer, and seeding some bonus material, until its official launch on Feb. 4.
How is your German now?
I can say, “Gesundheit,” and I can recite the dialog from Suspiria, and that’s all you’re gonna get!
Watch the trailer for the new Suspiria, above.