Julie Harris Takes on Isak Dinesen

JULIE HARRIS sits backlit on a yellow and blue flowered couch in her hotel suite here facing the Potomac River. There is little trace of the new role she's playing, in "Lucifer's Child" at Kennedy Center, that of Isak Dinesen, the eccentric woman and fascinating storyteller who wrote "Out of Africa." Nor is there a trace of any of the roles which have made her a long-shining star in the theater: as an incandescent Joan of Arc, "soaring over the heads of her countrymen" in "The Lark" by Jean Anouilh, or the passionate recluse of poet Emily Dickinson, in "The Belle of Amherst," or James Dean's poignant first love, Abra, in the movie of John Steinbeck's novel "East of Eden."

But there is a trace of Frankie Addams, the 12-year-old girl who yearned for "the we of me" in Carson McCuller's play "The Member of the Wedding" which launched Ms. Harris's career. Harris today, under the auburn bangs, has that same dauntless yet vulnerable look, the same direct blue gaze, the same pixie chin.

Playwright William Luce wrote "Lucifer's Child" for Harris as a solo role, just as he earlier wrote the Broadway hit "Belle of Amherst" for her (he and she won Tony awards for their hit). In Jordan R. Young's book "Acting Solo," there is a story about her approach to a role. Harris and Mr. Luce met for lunch at a Hollywood studio commissary to talk about Emily Dickinson in preparation for the play. Luce arrived carrying two shopping bags of books on Emily Dickinson. "I spread them all out," said Luce. " Julie had read them all."

The story suggests that as an actress she prepares for her role as a writer prepares for an assignment. True? Did she approach the Isak Dinesen, the Baroness von Blixen, the same way? "Yes, it is, I mean I have to read everything about her, [except] the sort of critical views of her writing."

Harris asks if I saw the movie "Dead Poet's Society" in which Robin Williams played an inspired but unorthodox prep school teacher of English. "Remember when Robin Williams was introducing his students to the work of [a writer] and he said, " 'Do you see this introduction? Just tear that out [he does] and start with the book.' I feel that way, tear the introduction out, and go to her [Dinesen], go to her stories, her books, her letters and you will learn about her and you will learn what she wanted to s ay...."

She speaks in that husky, honeyed voice that's been a trademark through the years, the unforgettable voice with its softly clipped words and perfect diction. And she is the exception to the rule that interviews are focused entirely on the star or the politician or whomever is the subject of the story. Harris disarms you with her friendliness, her questions about the questioner, the velvety yeses that encourage conversation. She has already brewed lemon herb tea, serves it, and sits back to just chat. At the end of the interview she will hand me my shoe from under the table.

She confides she has been prepping for the Dinesen role without knowing it since she was a child. Her family spent summers in a house on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and always put "Out of Africa" and Dinesen's "Seven Gothic Tales" on the table for guests to read. The titles intrigued her, and Dinesen's books were always a part of her life. Her father, a mammologist, loved Africa and brought home tribal masks and spears.

I ask her whether she's one of the actors who takes off a role like a wig each night and leaves it, or whether the character stays with her. She answers with a story about musician Louis Armstrong. "I once read a wonderful interview on Satchmo. I think he'd been married a number of times, and he said that some of his wives didn't understand that he spent most of the day thinking about the sounds he would make that night. I thought, well, you do. I think about the part during the day. I never quite get o ut of it. It's always somewhere hovering in my consciousness."

Her first clue to the character was not a certain walk or series of mannerisms, it was the voice. "I'm lucky that in this play I can hear her voice. I have several tapes where she's talking and telling stories.... And it's a very compelling voice."

Harris as the baroness who once shot 44 lions in one day in Africa has quite a stretch in this role: She is called on to be compelling, wickedly funny, piquant, plaintive as a little girl, a spellbinding storyteller, a divorc 142>e recovering from the syphilis her ex-husband gave her, a merry gossip, and a woman who still mourns years later for the great love of her life, Denys Finch Hatton. Harris carries it all off splendidly, thank you.

As the play opens, the elderly baroness is at her family home in Denmark packing for a big trip to New York where she will charm audiences with her stories. The stage is strewn with the exotic costumes she's famous for. Like a true writer, she has a name for everything, including her outfits. One maroon velvet swashbuckling cape she has dubbed "The Cape of Good Hope.... Her gloves are dubbed Tristram and Isolde.

For this interview, Harris is wearing a camel's hair jacket, a flowing black skirt, black top, matching tights and black dancing pumps. What has she named her outfit? "Wellesley College" she says, without missing a beat. Actually she went to Yale before it went coed, leaving finishing school behind for the Yale School of Drama.

She had a privileged childhood, with a father who was an investment banker. Her mother had been a nurse before marriage and had two other children, Julie's brothers.

Harris says that when she's playing Isak Dinesen talking of her Danish mother, she sometimes sees her own mother's face. "She had a lot of colors. We were taught how to make hospital corners, she was always insisting on cleanliness and order, but she had a lot of extraordinary qualities too, she was a party girl."

ONSTAGE, in one of the most moving moments in the show, Harris as Isak Dinesen says of her mother, "I had a dream about her last night. And it's always the same dream. I'm running on the path through the glade, and when I emerge from the trees I see her. And now I cannot speak about it. To return to your mother and feel her arms around you is a dream that haunts you till you die."

Harris puts so much love and tenderness into those lines that there is a stunned silence afterward, as the audience struggles with its own emotions and memories.

She has played a wardrobe of famous women, and a few infamous ones: Queen Victoria in "Victoria Regina," Charlotte Bront 145>, James Joyce's wife Nora, and Countess Sophia Tolstoy, wife of Leo Tolstoy. She's also garnered a record five Tonys for her luminous performance in "The Lark," for her demi-monde Sally Bowles in "I Am a Camera," the not-so-gay divorc 142>e in "Forty Carats," Mary Lincoln in "The Last of Mrs. Lincoln," and "Belle."

She's also won three Emmys, one for "Little Moon of Alban," and nine Emmy nominations. She did time, too for seven seasons as Lilimae Clements on "Knots Landing." Hollywood has rarely tapped her talent successfully, but she did win an Oscar nomination as Frankie in the movie version of "Member of the Wedding."

Harris has had many roles and three marriages: to lawyer Jay Julien, stage manager Manning Gurian, and writer William Erwin Carroll. All ended in divorce. Is it difficult to keep the acting from upstaging a marriage? "It just takes working at, like everything else," she answered.

She lives close to the sea, in Chatham, Mass. on the edge of a salt marsh. "I love it there, very peaceful." At home, she settles in and enjoys some of her favorite things: vegetable soup and roast lamb, Tintoretto, writer Reynolds Price, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, maybe even rereading "Out of Africa" or Dickinson's poems.

I had noticed when preparing for this interview that Harris began two or three years ago leaving Isak Dinesen footprints in the sand of each interview she gave. Suddenly she's doing this play about her. "Yes," she said, "I burrow in and I keep burrowing, like a mole working his way through the garden."

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