Prevue March / April 1983 Volume 2 Number 11, p. 22-27
INTERVIEW BY STERANKO
As the worldīs most photographed rock star, the strikingly seductive features of Deborah Harry are probably more famous [than] the platinum pile of singles and albums which vaulted her to international fame.
The sound and the style created by the 38-year-old singer and the quintet of musicians who perform under the name of Blondie are synonymous with such pop music trends as the new ī60īs beat, reggae and rap. Since their 1976 debut album, Blondie, such collections as Plastic Letters, Parallel Lines, Eat to the Beat (which was also released as a full-length video album), Autoamerican and The Hunter, have kept Harry in the media spotlight. Her solo effort Kookoo, film performances in Roadie and Union City, appearances on numerous TV shows and in commercials have further underscored her memorable position in the publicīs psyche.
Last year, the 5' 5" beauty travelled to Canada to star in the cinema shocker, Videodrome (Prevue 47). Written and directed by David (Rabid, Scanners) Cronenberg, the film details the nightmare world of video entrepreneur Max Renn and his obsession with a brutally erotic, sadomasochistic TV show which he suspects might be real. Harry plays the sultry pop psychologist, Nicki Brand, who tempts Renn deeper into the bio-electronic horror.
Deaborah Harry talked about the controversial film from her Manhattan apartment where she lives with Blondie composer/guitarist Chris Stein. She is thoughtful, dedicated and sincere, occasionally allowing her understated sense of humur to surface in the conversation ("I think Iīve stayed young-looking because Iīm basically lazy; my secret is I get up late and stayuplate!"). Nicknamed "The Punk Harlow," she is every bit as cooly appealing in person as she is on stage.
PREVUE: Your new film is somewhat difficult to categorize. Itīs a fantasy, a thriller, a black comedy, a surreal allegory and, possibly more to the point, a horror movie. Do you watch those kinds of films?
DEBBIE HARRY: Yeah, I do, and science fiction, too. Thatīs how I knew about David. Heīs a very ethical filmmaker who has a unique philosophy which runs through all his pictures. I like that.
PREVUE: Do you like to be frightened, too?
DEBBIE HARRY: Oh, sure! Horror films scare me a lot, so I hide behind my hands, close my eyes, then peek trough my fingers.
PREVUE: What favourites have you peeked at?
HARRY: Psycho really scared me the first time I saw it. The Omen was good, the third one was nothing. I liked Halloween, but the sequel wasnīt as intense as the original. The Exorcist was frightening. I havenīt seen American Werewolf, Halloween III, Poltergeist and some of the more recent ones yet.
I really am a movie fan. I guess that comes from thinking visually. For example, when I get ideas, I see them as images, almost like a film. I develop them in my mind by picturing them, rather than creating them with words or feelings.
I donīt watch old, old movies, though, the acting techniques are sort of funny, dated. Not that modern films canīt be disappoiting, too. The studios have learned that lesson. I hope the powers in the movie industry will begin to support the independents who are making many of the better movies today.
PREVUE: Do you think new blood will emerge through video technology with its much less expensive production costs than regular film?
HARRY: Sure, but frankly I donīt like the way video looks compared to film. In fact, I object very highly to the way most video artists light their scenes. Theyīre too blaah!
PREVUE: Too natural?
HARRY: Flat, very flat!
PREVUE: When youīre filming, do you involve yourself in the lighting, suggesting keys and spots and back lights to createan ambiance that suits you?
HARRY: I donīt know enough about it. I was very lucky because Videodromeīs cinematographer did a beautiful job. But, in photo sessions or television or videotaping, I will make suggestions, or object to certain things I donīt like.
PREVUE: How did you make the connection with Videodrome?
HARRY: Cronenberg contacted me through my agent. I got together with the producers in New York, and later I went to Canada.
PREVUE: How did he describe the role of Nicki Brand?
HARRY: He wanted her to be like my rockīnīroll image: a public personality, independent, and sort of tough. It was kind of strange because he didnīt think I was right for the role. He wanted somebody like me, but he didnīt believe Iīd be able to do it. Then, after I read for the part, he felt I could handle it.
PREVUE: What were your feelings?
HARRY: I wouldnīt have gone there if I didnīt think I could do it - or wanted to do it.
PREVUE: Did Cronenberg write the role with you in mind?
HARRY: I donīt think so.
PREVUE: Do you ever take a chance on something on something youīre not sure of?
HARRY: Oh, yes. In that way, Iīm very much like Nicki Brand.
PREVUE: Were you apprehensive about the part in any way?
HARRY: Yes, I had the idea that I wanted to play someone more likeable, more heroic, than Nicki. You know what I mean? I didnīt want to start my film career with an anti-heroine. When I read the part, I thought "Sheīs sort of not nice."
PREVUE: Nicki is a vivacious woman with a questionable character.
HARRY: Sheīs a seductress who works for the bad guys, though in the end, she redeems herself. I wasnīt sure if I wanted to get into that in my first major role. I would have preferred something lighter and more positive.
PREVUE: Then, what attracted you to Nicki Brand?
HARRY: Sheīs playful and adventurous. I liked that, so I accepted.
PREVUE: Another correlation with Debbie Harry?
HARRY: I think so. But there were differences, too. I like to try new things; I`m not afraid of what I donīt know about or have never done before.
PREVUE: So how did you prepare for Videodrome?
HARRY: Mostly, I talked with the director to learn how he wanted the character to be. Most of my concentration was on technique, working as an actress in film, rather than on stage.
PREVUE: Minimizing gestures and expressions for the big screen?
HARRY: Yes, Iīm very interested in learning all this, and to continue, progressively, with diferent kinds of acting.
PREVUE: Are you nervous before you perform on stage?
HARRY: Sure, of course.
PREVUE: How about when youīre making a film, which is generally more demanding than stage work?
HARRY: Itīs totally different, but I still get nervous.
PREVUE: How do you handle it?
HARRY: I shake a lot, sweat and go to the bathroom (Laughs). Seriously, the difference between performing live and working in front of a camera is that you can perfect what you do in film. You have the security of knowing that if you blow it, you can do it over again. Live, you canīt! But then, live you can work yourself up to an explosive pitch, then go out and give it everything you have - once! Itīs a grand and luxurious way of performing.
PREVUE: How do you work up emotion or energy for a filmwithout an audience cheering you on?
HARRY: Itīs a different form of concentration thatīs sort of magical. I donīt know. You have a couple of run-throughs; you get the lighting right, the movement, then special things start to happen.
PREVUE: What happens when they donīt?
HARRY: You concentrate harder.
PREVUE: Are you good at that?
HARRY: Sometimes. Sometimes not. On Videodrome, there were surprises I wasnīt prepared for. I didnīt realize I was working with my emotions so heavily. Off-camera situations that ordinarily wouldnīt be serious were affecting me - stupid, little things! I didnīt think I was that sensitized. I was so turned on working in front of the camera that when filming stopped, everything had a much stronger effect on me than it normally would. I`m a pretty easy-going person. You have to be if youīre in the music business, rockīnīroll, anyway.
PREVUE: How did you make Debbie Harry mesh with Nicki Brand?
HARRY: Once I realized what was happening, I handled it. There were no wild, emotional outbursts on the set; instead, more like blind spots when youīre driving in traffic.
PREVUE: I suppose thatīs what getting into character is all about. When did you really "find" Nicki Brand?
HARRY: Actually, toward the end of production.
PREVUE: Did the character stay with you off the set?
HARRY: I guess; Chris complained that I was being Nicki when I shouldnīt be.
PREVUE: Did Chris stay with you in Toronto?
HARRY: No, uh-uh! (Laughs) Iīm very nervy.
PREVUE: James Woods was your co-star in Videodrome. Had you seen his films?
HARRY: Yes, I was excited about working with him. Heīs a very energetic, thoughful actor who would make suggestions, and talk scenes over with me. When there were games played or tempers on the set, he was really helpful. I couldnīt have been luckier.
PREVUE: Did you have any rehearsal time with Woods?
HARRY: No, they were shooting before I got there, and Jimmyīs schedule was a lot heavier than mine.
PREVUE: What was it like working with Woods?
HARRY: Well, at the end of every take, he would make a really funny remark, usually something very dirty, like how irresistible his huge - I forget what he called it - was!
PREVUE: Was your first day on the set traumatic?
HARRY: Yeah, I was just, like uhhh! I didnīt use my energy well - you know what I mean. Show my wad.
PREVUE: Blow lines, retake scenes?
HARRY: Yes, but I didnīt have as much trouble performing in front of the camera as I did getting into off-camera stuff. Getting used to all those people - someone coming up to you suddenly and fixing your eyes, touching you, arranging your clothes and hair - is something Iīm not used to. Iīve always done those things myself; during the film, they were doing everything. Thatīs quite different for me.
PREVUE: Isnīt it fun to be pampered?
HARRY: Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes not. There are times when you just donīt want to be disturbed. Many actresses - like Laura Hutton - have their own personal make-up people. You must have complete trust in those people, and a lot of understanding. It didnīt come overnight.
PREVUE: What was your most difficult dramatic scene?
HARRY: It took place in Max Rennīs living room. There was a lot of business, choreography, movement. Being a klutz, not being able to talk and move at the same time, I had difficulty doing it. I was a bit off that day in concentration. Itīs hard to break the stage training of doing something once and thatīs it! I really had to work to get it all down. I donīt remember the number of takes, but it was up in the twenties.
PREVUE: During the making of Blade Runner, Sean Young said that director Ridley Scott could manipulate her emotions with his conversations. Did Cronenberg work that way with you?
HARRY: No, altough I think he did that to Jimmy, who had to play a wider range of emotions.
PREVUE: How did you manage not to be uncomfortable during your nude scenes?
HARRY: They were done very tastefully, not quite as blatant as they seem in the script. Iīm not that shy either. I donīt have that much to show, and Iīm not a prude. I guess Iīm just your basic nudist.
PREVUE: Isnīt there a difference between taking off your clothes in the woods and working naked in front of a camera?
HARRY: I donīt know, I guess it depends on the person. I was naked in a love scene, so it seemed very natural. It wasnīt a big turn-off; it was very relaxed. Jimmy was delicate and considerate. He wasnīt upsetting in any way, but as polite and professional as possible.
PREVUE: Are you an exhibitionist?
HARRY: Probably, but Iīm not a flasher. (Laughs)
PREVUE: As an ex-Playboy bunny and public performer, youīre used to exploiting your physicality.
HARRY: Sure, that made the nude scenes easier for me than it would have been for a lot of other actresses.
PREVUE: Is it difficult to feel beautiful or sexy under hot lights and a camera crew?
HARRY: Sometimes, but thereīs not that much explicit sex in the film. Even after the shower scene - which I believe has been cut - I had a towel on. I was told there would be no frontal nudity in the movie. Nothing like what Elizabeth McGovern did in Ragtime. I didnīt want to do that. Remember, I didnīt say I wouldnīt, I just didnīt. (Laughs)
PREVUE: What would it take?
HARRY: The right script, of course. I just wanted to start out a bit slow. You know what I mean? I didnīt want to show everything in the first film.
PREVUE: First dates can be like that. Did you ever get the giggles during a nude scene, and not be able to say your lines?
HARRY: Yeah, some of that. But we had a good time even when it got a little hectic towards the end. Finally, everyone said I should do a comedy with David.
PREVUE: If you could reshoot the film, what would you do differently?
HARRY: I did the best I could at the time. But, if I went into knowing what I do now, Iīd probably do it better.
PREVUE: Videodrome is about fantasies. Tell me one of yours.
HARRY: Iīm involved in using my fantasies, so Iīd rather not talk about them. But, coming up with Blondie was a big fantasy once, being that girl, being in a rock group and singing on stage.
PREVUE: Do you think your fans will accept you more in Videodrome than they did in Union City?
HARRY: I donīt know. Union City wasnīt really a kidīs film. Itīs a strange little sleeper art film, not a picture that would get broad-rangig praise. The original story was written by Cornell Woolrich 40 years ago, a downbeat mystery, a psychodrama. I think a lot of people were surprised that I made such a low-key film. I was criticized for not doing some big, splashy production, but, personally, I got very good reviews! I was shocked!
PREVUE: Your fans were shocked, too. It was anything but commercial.
HARRY: Thatīs why I did it. I wanted a part that wouldnīt put me under the microscope.
PREVUE: Still, Union City did not get good reviews. Does criticism hurt you?
HARRY: Depends on who the critic is. For instance, there are music criticsI respect, who are more sane, not just bitchy or out for revenge. I take a rap better if itīs sincere.
PREVUE: Videodrome will gets its share of criticism. Itīs very controversial.
HARRY: Oh yeah, some people will be turned off by the violence, the sci-fi plot, and the bio-mechanical aspects of it.
PREVUE: Did those elements appeal to you when you took the job?
HARRY: Yes. The story is perfect for the times. I think that everybody who likes this kind of film will flip out for it.
PREVUE: Do you have any advice for TV addicts?
HARRY: TV addicts? (Laughs) Keep watching!
PREVUE: What was the most surprising aspect about making Videodrome?
HARRY: My ass hurt! Sitting around waiting to shoot a scene can be tougher than you think!
PREVUE: Iīll buy that. From another viewpoint, were there any lines you couldnīt say or scenes that wouldnīt play that you asked to have changed?
HARRY: Sometimes. Not very often.
PREVUE: Was that because of your inexperience in film?
HARRY: No, I think itīs because the script was well written. David must have it re-written ten times, because it was really honed down, right to the point.
PREVUE: Did you agree with Cronenbergīs dialogue and behaviour for a woman?
HARRY: That is difficult to say. Nicki doesnīt carry the story; she doesnīt have enough screen time to make a difference.
PREVUE: Did Cronenberg exploit your sex symbol image to create especially erotic scenes?
HARRY: Yeah. Nicki has to be attractive enough to seduce her victim. Letīs say she can make things happen. I canīt wait to hear what people say about the character.
PREVUE: Is it gratifying or embarrassing or funny to be considered a sex symbol?
HARRY: Mostly flattering; sometimes, itīs very silly. It just means that youīre attractive to people.
PREVUE: Can you make it happen?
HARRY: Yeah, itīs something you can turn on and off, but not totally. You can make it low key or high key, as long as it works for you.
PREVUE: Isnīt that acting?
HARRY: Of course. Everybody does it, like acting nice or polite.
PREVUE: Who do you think is a sex symbol?
HARRY: Faye Dunaway and Raquel Welch are both sex symbols, each in different way. Matt Dillonīs real cute. Franics Coppola is sexy, too. Heīs got that intensity. The people I really like are fun to be with; they have a good sense of humour.
PREVUE: What do you think is your sexiest feature?
HARRY: People have said my mouth, my eyes. I think itīs my eyes.
PREVUE: Do you ever feel exposed or even violated by a camera lense that reveals everything, every hair, every pore, and shows it 50 feet high on a movie screen?
HARRY: That doesnīt really bother me. But, bringing my emotions so close to the surface took some getting used to. Not that I object to being so opened up, it was just such a surprise that I was - without even knowing it.
PREVUE: Videodrome sounds like a real learning experience. Whatīs the next step in your acting career?
HARRY: It depends on this effort. I feel filmmakers are waiting to see how I do with this movie before they approach me with something else.
PREVUE: Your movie career goals?
HARRY: To get more experience and use it. Iīm a performer and this is a challenge for me.
PREVUE: How do you improve your acting ability?
HARRY: Working, observing, reading.
PREVUE: Are you in an acting class at the moment?
HARRY: No. I had some independent coaching, but I donīt know if Iīd like to go to a class. It would be strange because other students would be put off being in a class with me. Iīm really established, and that might intimidate some people.
PREVUE: Will you continue with your singing career and Blondie?
HARRY: We just finished touring with a new album. Chris and I also put together a big photo book on our travels that really gets behind the scenes with the band.
PREVUE: When are you going back into the studio?
HARRY: I donīt know. Probably in the next few months.
PREVUE: Will you do another solo album?
HARRY: Things are up in the air on that project.
PREVUE: How about another video album?
HARRY: Iīm really interested in that. Iīve been studying whatīs happening on video, and I think itīs very important to the music business, especially since touring is getting a bit too expensive. Iīm planning to be very definitely involved with video in whatever I do next. Did you see the videos that went with the Kookoo album?
PREVUE: The Giger collaborations? They were terrific!
HARRY: Yeah, itīs an obvious way to go. Seems to be the direction the industryīs moving toward, anyway.
PREVUE: Your responsible for popularizing musical trends. What do you predict for the future?
HARRY: Chant-rock is very interesting. Michael Jacksonīs is sort of like that. I think much of todayīs music is based on Talking Headsī and Devoīs treatments.
PREVUE: Will music continue along New Wave lines?
HARRY: Either that or back to a heavy metal-psychedelic thing.
PREVUE: Do you have a plan for yourself and Blondie?
HARRY: Iī m thinking about it now. A lot of what people believe is happening in music depends on whatīs being heard on radio, and that certainly doesnīt reflect what musicians are playing. Blondie was lucky enough to play pop music when DJīs were willing to take a little chance in their programming. Still, thereīs a lot of music around that doesnīt get heard, like abstract rock-jazz, James Brown material, funk thatīs really nice that you donīt hear much. You know my rap song? Rapture? That stuff has been around for a long time. I guess itīs the same way with underground filmmakers, too.
PREVUE: If someone gave you $30 million to make a film, underground or otherwise, what would it be?
HARRY: Iīve always wanted to do a mad scientist movie like Frankenstein, or possibly a remake of Alphaville. Maybe a comedy, too.
PREVUE: Have you had many film offers?
HARRY: No, I havenīt. I wish I had more. I keep getting scripts to rockīnīroll films. But I really donīt want them. I never really saw a rockīnīroll film I liked.
PREVUE: How about The Idolmaker?
HARRY: No. I liked Bette Midler in The Rose, but I didnīt enjoy the script - it was horrible.
PREVUE: Then why donīt you create a property for yourself?
HARRY: Because I donīt want to make a film based on music. I want a script that will establish me as an actress. Being a singer in a movie wonīt do it.
PREVUE: Thatīs why you accepted Union City and Videodrome. Will the role youīre looking for resemble Debbie Harry in any way?
HARRY: It doesnīt have to be part of me, but it must be a role Iīd understand, perhaps a character like some person Iīve known.
PREVUE: What about the definitve Marilyn Monroe biofilm?
HARRY: God, I wouldnīt want to go near it. Itīs been done too much, and never right.
PREVUE: How about playing yourself in The Debbie Harry Story?
HARRY: (Laughs) Not enough plot.
PREVUE: Maybe a futuristic adventure like Star Wars?
HARRY: Hey, thatīs something - Iīd do the sequel to Barbarella. That would be the ultimate Debbie Harry epic.