Entertainment

J. Cameron Smith Answers Every Harriet the Spy Question

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On impressing Rosie O’Donnell along with her theater credit, hanging with Courtney B. Vance in Canada, and the enduring brilliance of the Harriet costumes.
Photograph-Illustration: Vulture; Photograph by Paramount Footage

Within the small however mighty subgroup of “movies that includes misfit preteen women whose precociousness regularly results in hassle,” there’s Little Ladies, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Matilda, and, for the Nickelodeon era particularly, Harriet the Spy, a genre-defying film (is it comedy? a drama? a spy caper?) that put then-10-year-old Michelle Trachtenberg on the map, showcased ’90s New York in all its rose-colored glory, and launched a world of viewers to the fun of tomato-and-mayo sandwiches. When Harriet, primarily based on a 1964 Louise Fitzhugh novel of the identical identify, was launched in 1996, it was a average success on the field workplace, incomes a complete of $26 million on a $12 million finances. VHS customers will keep in mind the orange-clamshell launch that includes two Rugrats episodes (the pilot of Hey Arnold! was proven forward of the film in theaters), a relic of its house viewing reputation. Critics, although, have been much less effusive, with most praising Trachtenberg and co-star Rosie O’Donnell’s performances however criticizing its slow pacing and lack of a real plot (harsh, however honest).

Twenty-five years after the film hit theaters, we referred to as up J. Smith-Cameron, the veteran actress (and current Succession star) who performed Violetta Welsch, Harriet’s mom, to parse by the story they ended up filming and every thing that occurred behind the scenes, too. Cameron spoke to Vulture — a day earlier than leaving for Italy to movie scenes for the HBO hit later documented on her Instagram (and within the pages of New York Magazine) — about impressing O’Donnell along with her Broadway bona fides, hanging out with Courtney B. Vance in Toronto, and the enduring brilliance of the Harriet costume design.

What do you keep in mind out of your audition?
So the primary screenplay was written by Theresa Rebek, who I actually admired rather a lot, and I believe she then was changed and it was rewritten between the time I auditioned and obtained there. So after I first learn my audition scenes, Mrs. Welch was form of caught up, and he or she talked to Harriet like an grownup. She was sort of arch. And I believed I gave a really humorous audition doing that, not pulling the punches of that.

Then after I obtained the script, it was all totally different and he or she was way more heat and fuzzy. And Harriet was spunky however not — you know the way within the guide, Harriet is an oddball? She’s like Lynda Barry or Fran Lebowitz in youngster kind. And Rosie O’Donnell’s Golly can also be a really, very particular character within the guide. They’re all oddballs within the guide. And this was form of like a brighter, sunnier [version]. So it was a bit schizophrenic for me in my thoughts as a result of I had gotten the half studying some model in between the guide and what it ended up as.

However after I noticed the film, I used to be very happy with it. I believed it was actually nice and actually charming and had a extremely contemporary look … but it was barely complicated as a result of it didn’t fairly really feel just like the guide. It had its personal little universe that was very true to itself, and really contemporary and humorous and candy, however only a totally different tone. I’ve an actual fondness for it, and it was a extremely magical time.

It sounds such as you have been a giant fan of the guide initially.
Sure, I used to be. There’s rather a lot in regards to the guide that simply instantly will get your consideration whenever you learn it. It virtually doesn’t learn like a youngsters’s guide. You already know what I imply? It’s not a toddler’s world, precisely. It’s sort of droll … Harriet’s very snarky, but it surely got here out of her being precocious and an solely youngster. In New York, youngsters are form of refined in a means, and but there’s one thing provincial about them as a result of they will’t go wherever and be wowed by anyplace they go to as a result of they’ve already been in New York. And as somebody who didn’t develop up in New York, I keep in mind marveling at it, {that a} child might be that blunt or that frank on her personal.

How did the variation’s change in tone really feel to you, when you noticed the film?
I virtually consider it as two separate issues. There’s the novel I cherished, and the characters I cherished from the novel, after which our film, which I additionally cherished, however was not Harriet the Spy, precisely. So I really feel prefer it was an enthralling film, however in my thoughts, it’s very totally different from the guide. However each issues can exist. And in a means, you’d virtually slightly that. In case you actually cherished the guide, it’s virtually like, don’t attempt to be the guide. Do your individual factor. And that’s form of what they did.

I learn that the film was filmed in Toronto, regardless of being a basic New York story. 
It’s such a New York story! I nonetheless really feel that there could also be one other model of Harriet the Spy that’s actually shot in New York. As a result of it’s such a basic, it might be achieved many times.

I keep in mind that we stayed on this cool lodge in Toronto. There have been folks I knew from one other solid, perhaps two different casts, within the lodge, too. I keep in mind Courtney Vance was there — I had gone means again with Courtney, I had identified him in my early 20s — and I keep in mind hanging out with him a bit of bit within the lodge. It was only a very festive, jolly time. And I keep in mind being very impressed by all of the native Canadian actors. They’d all these actually crème de la crème character actors who have been Canadian in Harriet, all of whom have been, I believed, great.

Most of your scenes within the movie have been with Michelle Trachtenberg, who was solely 10 when she began filming however was already a toddler star due to The Adventures of Pete & Pete. What was it like working along with her? 
She was this very interesting, bubbly, very stunning youngster star from Nickelodeon. And she or he was feeling her oats, however not in an obnoxious means. It was like every thing was taking off for her. However she was candy about it. And I simply keep in mind her taking it very significantly. A real skilled. She and I sort of rediscovered one another on Twitter a number of years in the past. She was so candy and bubbly within the messages, once more.

Harriet the Spy got here out in 1996, the identical yr as The Rosie O’Donnell Show debuted. How was having Rosie as a co-star?
Golly [in the movie] was utterly totally different from the character within the guide, however Rosie was so sport and really pure and ebullient within the half. Despite the fact that it was very totally different, I believed it labored. It was the primary time I obtained to know Rosie, and I keep in mind that she had seen me in performs, and he or she was very smitten by working with me. After which at one level within the make-up trailer, I keep in mind her telling me that she thought I regarded like Patti LuPone, which I’d by no means heard earlier than, so I used to be sort of thrilled by it. She was simply very heat and pleasant.

After which the subsequent yr after it got here out, I believe in ’97 or ’98, I used to be on this play referred to as As Bees in Honey Drown, and it was sort of a giant hit Off Broadway, and I had this actual tour-de-force half. And I keep in mind on [O’Donnell’s] discuss present, her speaking about it and saying, “Oh my good friend J. Smith-Cameron is improbable in that play, what did you consider it?” And she or he’s speaking to Russell Crowe, and it wasn’t his sort of play. However he did say he thought I used to be well worth the value of admission.

You will have an excellent scene with Rosie early on, when Mrs. Welsch tells her she’s been fired after taking Harriet out into town with out her dad and mom’ information.
Oh, gosh. I want I remembered it higher. I do keep in mind it was very chilly and I used to be in a night robe. That was nice.

Do you continue to be in contact with Rosie in any respect? 
I do, as a result of Rosie’s so political, too, and so outspoken. I had contacted her to be a part of some marches and stuff like that. So we sort of stayed in contact on social media, principally. As a result of nobody was actually in contact in actual life for some time.

You additionally had an excellent dynamic with Robert Pleasure, who performed Harriet’s dad, Ben Welsch.
I’d identified however by no means labored with him, and he’s form of a legend within the New York theater world and the movie world. I sort of regarded as much as him … he’s like a star in my thoughts, this actually distinctive, cool actor.

I keep in mind a scene with Bob and Michelle the place we’re sort of coping with her, and we had this repartee, and I had such pleasure working with Bob and this charming child. I believe Bob and I each felt a bit of bit like we have been straddling the guide characters and the way in which the entire film was sort of conceived. I felt like we have been each making an attempt to be a bit of bit buttoned-up and starchy, and I believed that labored out okay.

One in every of my favourite issues about Harriet is that she’s the uncommon younger feminine character who’s not good — in truth, she’s sort of an asshole, typically. She alienates her associates and writes such imply issues about them.
Completely. She’s a beyotch. She actually is. She’s form of a bit of monster. She’s form of grouchy, and you’ll infer that she’s obtained an entire “it is a refined child that’s youthful than her internal life” factor. She’s nonetheless gotta work out issues. She’s assumed a sophistication and maturity that she doesn’t have but. And that’s such a New York-y factor, you already know?

The film had a feminine director, Bronwen Hughes, which was a reasonably large deal for the time, and nonetheless is. 
It was actually thrilling to have a feminine director, so I actually appreciated that. Bronwen was like Puck or one thing. She was identical to the Pied Piper, energetic. She was the proper individual to direct that film. Very a lot her personal individual and really inventive and genuine and lively.

I learn an interview with Vanessa Lee Chester, who performed Harriet’s good friend Janie, the place she stated she remembered the director at all times dancing and enjoying music on set to maintain the youngsters energized. What was it like working with so many youngster actors?
I like working with children, and I’ve performed a mother a lot in my profession that that occurs rather a lot. And showbiz children are often a bit of totally different than different children, however these children have been the nicest model of that, should you can learn between the traces there. I believed all the child performers have been improbable.

On a unique be aware, after I rewatched the film, I spotted that the garments, by costume designer Donna Zakowska, are improbable. Those ’90s sweaters!
I keep in mind being so impressed along with her, and I believed that she dressed us so significantly. I had satin fits that felt like they have been virtually a callback to the unique period the guide is written in, and different issues that have been very of the second, so she was sort of bridging the guide and the flavour of the film, which had a unique world to it.

After which I used to be on the premiere for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, again every time that was — the previous few years, I don’t find out about you, however I couldn’t inform you the time when it was — I keep in mind seeing [Zakowska] and being so knocked out watching the garments in Maisel. And after I noticed it was the girl from Harriet the Spy who’d achieved the garments, I used to be like, that is smart.

Okay, we have to discuss these tomato sandwiches.
The tomato sandwiches! Pay attention, I’ll have you already know that I purchased a tomato from a farm stand driving into the Hamptons yesterday, and I went, “I’m gonna have a Harriet the Spy tomato sandwich.”

With mayo?
Yeah! I imply, it’s hilarious. However I used to be the odd child who preferred tomato sandwiches after I was little, too.


See All



Douglas Petrie co-wrote the script.

Vance appeared in The Preacher’s Spouse the identical yr that Harriet was in theaters.

The grownup Canadian actors included Sally Cahill as a maid, Jackie Richardson as Janie’s mom, and Robert Pleasure as Harriet’s father.

Smith-Cameron made her Broadway debut in 1982 in Crimes of the Coronary heart. She has appeared in lots of Broadway and Off Broadway performs since then.

Smith-Cameron performed Alexa, a con artist, in a job that earned her an Obie Award, a Drama Desk nomination, and an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination.

Harriett was Hughe’s directorial debut, which she adopted up with Forces of Nature.

https://www.vulture.com/2021/09/j-cameron-smith-answers-every-harriet-the-spy-question.html | J. Cameron Smith Solutions Each Harriet the Spy Query

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