Actress Jessica Harper is well-known to LGBT movie fans for her appearances in classic Hollywood movies and in some classic camp movies as well.
She’s in the new version of the classic horror movie “Suspiria” directed by openly gay director Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”), but she is perhaps best known for starring in the original version of the movie, directed by Italian director Dario Argento in 1977.
In the Argento version, young American dancer Suzy Bannion (Harper) travels to Freiburg, Germany to study at the Tanz Dance Academy. Following a series of gruesome murders, Suzy discovers that the Academy is run by a coven of witches. She manages to kill their leader and flee.
In their 2018 “homage” to the Argento movie, Guadagnino and American screenwriter David Kajganich (who also wrote the script for Guadagnino’s queer 2015 drama “A Bigger Splash”) move the action to the Markos Dance Academy in West Berlin in 1977. They also rewrote the ending and added the character of Dr. Jozef Klemperer, a psychiatrist who is suspicious of the women who run the academy.
That’s where Jessica Harper comes back into the story.
“Luca and David wanted me to be in their movie because they thought it would be really fun to have a reference to the original film,” Harper says. “They initially thought of casting me as one of the witches, but they wanted me to play something separate and special. There was the role of Anke, Dr. Klemperer’s wife, but David reminded Luca that the role was in German.”
Harper continues, “When Luca called to pitch me the role, he asked if I could do it in German. I said absolutely. They cast me and I went running off to Berlitz to learn German. I didn’t speak any German, but I wasn’t going to tell them that.”
Harper enjoyed working with Guadagnino. “Luca had a very specific and powerful vision,” she says. “He was very generous about allowing me the time I needed to get to where I was going emotionally. There was a lot to accomplish in that short scene.”
Besides creating the characters of Suzy and Anke, Harper has created a number of iconic roles on television and in the movies.
Her first film role was in the camp classic “Phantom of the Paradise” (1974) directed by Brian De Palma and co-starring Paul Williams. Harper is still grateful to De Palma for casting her in that movie. “It was my first movie ever and I was nervous and unskilled. I just didn’t know how to behave in front of the camera. He was very helpful and gentle and generous with me. That was an ideal way to start a film career.”
Harper also made her cinematic mark in two cult classic movie musicals. Following in the wake of Susan Sarandon, Harper played Janet Majors in “Shock Treatment” (1981), the sequel to the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Later that year, she starred in “Pennies from Heaven” with Bernadette Peters and Steve Martin. Other movie appearances include two Woody Allen movies, “Love and Death” (1975) and “Stardust Memories” (1980); My Favorite Year (1982) and “Minority Report” (2002).
Harper also won a Cable Ace Award in 1991 for her role as Garry’s wife on season four of “It’s Garry Shandling Show.”
In addition to press junkets and festival appearance for “Suspiria,” Harper is working on a new venture: a podcast called “Winnetka,” named after her hometown in Illinois. She describes the show as a “family saga in 10 episodes with stories of me and my five siblings growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and dealing with our difficult father, the cultural turbulence of the era and a surprising revelation about our family history.” “Winnetka” will launch in February.
Looking back on her history with “Suspiria,” Harper says, “It’s a great gift to be able to come back to similar subject matter treated very differently by two masterful directors. I just feel extremely lucky to have to have made that circle.”