Great Character Actor: Harriet Sansom Harris

Harriet Sansom Harris in Law & Order
I'm a little surprised it has taken me so long to get to Harriet Sansom Harris. When I started "Great Character Actor" posts, she was one of the first to come to mind.

I first encountered Harriet Sansom Harris (as Harriet Harris) in X-Files' "Eve." There's a bit of old-fashioned nostalgia bound up in "Eve" for me; it is one of the first X-Files' episodes I ever saw. When I came back to the show a few years ago and started collecting seasons, "Eve" was the episode I remembered (and went looking for).

Harriet Sansom Harris plays multiple parts as multiple Eves: deranged Eve, cunning Eve, and self-less Eve (who is murdered in the course of the episode). She puts on a flawless dramatic performance.

She appears in another dramatic, non-comedy role in Law & Order's "Corporate Veil" playing an expert witness. In a very short scene, she manages to convey a fully-fledged character--defensive, intelligent, and coy--something that every three-sentences/episode actor wants to accomplish (but seldom does).

Bebe: Until today, I had no idea what a brilliant therapist your brother is.
He has tunneled his way into the very depths of my psyche.
Niles: Well, let's hope he sent a canary down first.
Harris's most memorable role, however, is comedic. As Frasier's ruthless, soulless agent, she hilariously dominates just about any episode she appears in. She has excellent comedic timing and the Gollum-like ability to be charming, vulnerable, and amoral.

Harris is not one of those actors who disappears into a role. She has a distinctive face but a still more distinctive voice--a sort of husky meow.  Nevertheless, like many great character actors, she does wholly inhabit her current role. Her obvious strengths as a comedienne (possibly one of the best) don't bleed into other roles (unless necessary). At some point in the future, I'm going to write about how it helps for a dramatic actor to have comedic experience, but there's a difference between knowing when to give a line a beat and constantly winking at the camera.

Harris only winks at the camera when she has to--when she has to, she does it with style.


Anonymous said...

This is somewhat off-topic; but I recently watched a national competition for best high school musical performer and was struck by some of the comments made by the coaches and judges. A choreographer working with the kids remarked that they were great singers and good actors, but they didn't know how to MOVE. This was not just a lack of dance training ( which surprised me for the girls, in particular) but poor to no "body awareness," never having been taught how to stand, walk, etc. as part of being in a show, or how posture affects one's portrayal. The other comment related to a particular boy and how although his singing voice wasn't the best, he had a superior overall package as far as emotions, staging, and getting into character, which overrode his A- singing. (This was a PBS documentary, "Broadway or Bust."

Kate Woodbury said...

I find your comment totally fascinating. There are definitely actors who are great physical actors even if they aren't great emotive or speaking actors (and vice versa). Keanu Reeves is a fairly magnificent physical actor, even if he can't emote his way out of a paper bag. Viggo Mortensen is a good actor overall, including physically, which isn't always obvious because he comes across as a thinking-(wo)man's actor (Alan Rickman is like this). Martin Freeman, who seems to go through life just wonderfully acting himself, does an amazing job capturing Watson or Hobbit-like characteristics in terms of how he stands or uses his hands. He also has great physical comedic timing, as when he agrees to Gollum's terms during the Riddle Game. "Fair enough," he says after a blank pause when Gollum informs him that he, Gollum, will eat him if he, Bilbo, loses. Freeman then kind of shrugs and stands. It's hilarious--as much for the physical momentum as for the verbal beat.

(As may be obvious, I'm an hour away from seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug!)

Anonymous said...

Harriet Harris has been playing Cinderella's evil stepmother on Broadway!

Kate Woodbury said...

I bet she's amazing!

That's another thing I like about working actors: they move freely between Broadway and television and Hollywood; of course, British actors do this by necessity. And American actors did it when television first got going (Dick Van Dyke; Andy Griffith). But there were a few decades there when American actors were kind of stuck in one medium; once one left a particular medium, one didn't look back. It's nice to see that change.

Joe said...

Two of the most revealing things you can do with movies is to a) turn the sound off and b) focus on one person at a time in a scene for the whole scene. (Two other things you can do is to watch a scene in slow motion or backwards. Sounds weird, but it's very revealing!) The problem of doing all of these things is how quickly you realize actors you thought were good, aren't. Many are so terrible, you can't shake your negative image of them. On the flip side, it can greatly increase your respect of good or even mediocre actors. (Do this with Cary Grant and it will set an almost impossible standard.)

Also watch actors' hands. Most don't know what to do with them! This is especially true of stage actors and it used to drive me crazy as a director. One solution is to give them a book, drink or, gasp, cigarette. On the other hand, there are actors who are obsessed with this and are constantly fiddling with something to the point of distraction. Sometimes the job of an actor is to do NOTHING and make it look natural. That is harder to do than it seems. (One problem with actors getting famous early is that they never learned to be in the background as bit players; all to often they stand around in scenes looking dopey, waiting for their line.)